Veggie burger manufacturer plans to expand in Lawrence, seeks financial incentive from local taxpayers

It is the $30,000 veggie burger question. No, that’s not how much ketchup I would need in order to enjoy a veggie burger meal. Veggie burgers are quite popular, as evidenced by an expansion plan that has been filed by a Lawrence-based veggie burger manufacturer. Instead, the $30,000 is how large of a grant the company is seeking from local taxpayers to complete the expansion.

Hilary’s Eat Well has plans for about a $1.5 million expansion near 23rd Street and Haskell Avenue. The company plans to outfit its current space at 2205 Haskell Avenue with new production equipment, and lease new space next door at 2151 Haskell to accommodate its growing warehouse operations. The company hopes to add about five employees in the first year of the expansion. In subsequent years, the company hopes to add another five to eight employees as it beefs up its production capabilities. (Actually, that’s not the right way to say that for a veggie burger company.)

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The company needs about a $30,000 grant to help with some of the workforce training costs, moving expenses and other soft costs that are expected to occur with the project. The company is proposing the grant be funded equally by the city, the county and a consortium of local economic development organizations.

I had noticed the company recently received a $500,000 building permit for warehouse space work at 2151 Haskell. I had tried for a few weeks to get an update on that project. Lydia Butler, president and chief financial officer for Hilary’s, got back to me this morning.

She confirmed the company already has received the building permit for its warehouse project, but said construction work isn’t really underway yet. However, she also was upfront by saying that the expansion project isn’t dependent on the $30,000 grant. Instead, the grant will give the company more room to navigate in the future.

“We feel like we are going to continue to grow,” Butler said. “We think probably 10 to 15 jobs in the next few years, if our growth continues like it has been.”

Butler said city and economic development officials in the past have told the company how interested they are in keeping Hillary’s headquarters and production facilities in Lawrence.

The company does have a compelling story. Hilary Brown, the founder of the once popular Lawrence restaurant Local Burger, created the company and its veggie burger recipe. Brown, however, isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the business anymore. Several investment groups, including one led by successful Wichita businessman David Murfin, own the company.

The new ownership group has delivered on a growth plan. Back in 2015, we reported the company had about 10 employees. The company now lists 40 employees.

Part of the growth has come from new product offerings. The original veggie burger continues to be a big part of the company’s sales, but Butler said new offerings also are becoming important. The latest offering, released less than a year ago, is something called Millet Medley. It is a grain-and-vegetable-based side dish that now comes in four different flavors, according to the company’s website. With those additions, the company now has almost 30 different products, including veggie burgers, veggie bites, vegetarian breakfast sausage, and a full line of salad dressings.

The product offerings have helped the company get into grocery store chains across the country. The company is in Whole Foods, Sprouts, Kroger (Dillons), Safeway, Hy-Vee and many other chains, Butler said. Canada also has become a major growth market for the company, she said.

Butler said the company has benefited from a number of emerging trends in the food industry. She said for health reasons more people are getting more plant-based foods into their diet. She said, though, people becoming more aware of food allergies also has been a big boost to the company’s business. Hilary’s markets its products as being free from common allergens. Butler said there are about 15 million people with food allergies in the U.S., but those 15 million people probably impact the diets of about 45 million people. Think about it: If someone in your house is allergic to something, you are less likely to include that in your diet as well. That is sizable market that needs served.

“We have a specific sweet spot with people with food allergies,” Butler said. “There are a lot of gluten-free bread and crackers, but in terms of entrees, that is a real need. We are filling it through our products.”

In terms of the company’s $30,000 grant request, that process is just getting started. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday are expected to formally receive the application request and refer it for review to the Public Incentives Review Committee. Following a recommendation from that group, city commissioners would be able to approve the city’s portion of the grant.