Photo by Allison V. Smith.

Business

Checking in with Hail Merry’s Raw-Food Maven, Susan O’Brien

A perspective on the decadent, Dallas-based food line that's celebrating 10 years.

I remember the first Hail Merry treat I ate. This was not long after the raw-food company launched in 2008, and the object of my devouring was a Persian lime tart whose crust was made of almond and coconut flour, and whose filling was silky with cashews and virgin coconut oil. I marveled at the indulgence, how lush and luxuriously rich and decadent it was.

I was following blogs like Emily Von Euw’s blog, This Rawsome Vegan Life, and trying my hand at raw vegan bites involving cacao and peppermint oil. They were good. But this was bliss.

Susan O’Brien, the Dallas-based raw-food maven behind the now wildly successful line of Hail Merry treats began with her own first bite of sorts—a trip to Hawaii that prompted a deeper appreciation for what she began to see as the raw-food link to well-being and nourishment.

Her hippie, dyed-in-the-wool raw-food inspiration was Renee Loux, a raw-food chef whose restaurant on Maui was a place where you could catch visits by Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, and other health-conscious celebrities who owned homes on the island. Loux’s version of raw food involved salads and ingredients like goji berries, maca, spirulina, and soaked raw buckwheat groats.

“This notion of a superfood. I’d never heard about it,” says O’Brien. As a birthday gift to herself, at the age of 40, she went raw.

She studied with Santa Monica-based raw chef Juliano Brotman, a master of recreating American classics in a raw-food register, who “massively shifted my whole notion of how you enjoy food to enhance your well-being,” says O’Brien.

She devoured the cookbooks written by plant-based guru Matthew Kinney, whose schools, in Venice, California and elsewhere, are a Mecca for raw-food chefs. “All the original Hail Merry recipes were inspired by Matthew Kinney,” says O’Brien. “And he knows that.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien had attended Parsons School of Design for interior design. A career in interior design for over 15 years, with a focus on lab design (O’Brien has designed labs for the majority of hospitals in the Dallas area), meant that building a 30,000-square-foot kitchen and office space to house her new business was not as daunting as it might have been.

Her mission involved simplifying the crafting of raw foods—the complex, sometimes esoteric, often laborious processes of dehydration, fermentation, and others.

O’Brien’s initial line included raw granola in several flavors, seed crackers (“The almond crackers with rosemary; I’m crazy about those!” she says), kale chips, nut dips, and raw hummus. “All of those showed up on the early days on the shelves.”

But the desserts did best. The tarts that made dark chocolate and Meyer lemon and nuts into versions of lemon bars or key lime pie with a sleek, raw twist; and the little raw-coconut macaroons scooped into tiny, decadent mouth-sized mounds.

She’d use Meyer lemon and Persian lime—but no maca, spirulina, or tocos. She might dig it elsewhere, but, for her own company, she says, “I never wanted to get any more exotic than that.”

The arc of Hail Merry’s life as a company goes from $1 million in sales in the first 18 months to a now projected $16 million in 2018. It offers insight into how health-conscious food trends have evolved over ten years–and the wisdom of cross-over appeal.

“We started raw,” says O’Brien. And from there, she’s watched the trends proliferate, all of them applying: the gluten-free craze, and then the paleo wave. (Hail Merry has consistently won awards from Paleo Magazine, including a nomination this year for Best Paleo Company.) O’Brien’s nut-rich treats works for high-fat, low-carb keto diets. And now, the word of the day is plant-based.

“It’s all laddering up,” says O’Brien. “All these tribes are now laddering up to plant-based.”

Meanwhile, O’Brien sees a new generation, reflected in the habits and beliefs of people like her sons in college: “They just eat to save the planet,” she says. “They see the polar ice caps melting and they eat to save the planet. They also want to indulge.” (And have the metabolisms so they can.) Hail Merry’s recent re-branding  tapped into this evolution, moving from a female yogi aesthetic to something that would appeal more broadly and capture the market they’ve amassed. “It’s got a younger, millenial personality,” says O’Brien of the new packaging, that features a Hail Merry tattoo.

The future for Hail Merry, then, lies in  younger consumers, in smaller packages, and in tapping into the desire for on-the-go indulgence. A new line of protein bars will debut soon, too. It’s the latest in from a company that has known how to stay ahead of the curve.

O’Brien ends with a laugh. “You can only do good things when your name is Hail Merry… We like to say, ‘Hail, yes!’ a lot around here.”

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