Right away, Susan O’Brien admits she isn’t perfect.
“I’m definitely guilty of eating all kinds of yummy, awesome cheese fries and things like that,” she says. “But I’ve always been interested in how foods can make you feel better or improve your health.”
In 2006, O’Brien trekked to Santa Monica, where she studied for two weeks under Juliano Brotman, an acclaimed raw food chef. It was life changing. She decided to quit her job as a designer of clinical laboratories for area hospitals and start a health food line called Hail Merry.
“I took everything I learned from [Brotman] and then I read every other book I could get my hands on and I just started experimenting with different recipes,” she remembers.
Most of those experiments took place in the cabana behind her Preston Hollow home. There were, of course, a couple mishaps along the way — a tiny little fire, interruptions from her three young children, etc. — but after a few months, O’Brien had a handful of marketable products. She packed up her good-for-you chocolate tarts and began looking for a retailer. Roy’s Natural Market, the now defunct vitamin store that once stood in our neighborhood, was the first to bite.
“He was a grumpy old guy — nice but grumpy,” O’Brien says of the shop’s proprietor. “He said, ‘Okay, people have been asking for the raw food, you can come in here.’”
Hail Merry was an instant hit. Armed with impressive sales figures, O’Brien went to Central Market and the Texas grocer agreed to carry her goods. She set up a booth and started handing out samples right away.
“The visual of being at Central Market in the dairy section is I think what launched the brand,” O’Brien muses. “I’d show up every Monday and the shelves would just be decimated — everything would be gone.”
Around that time, Sarah Chapin, another Preston Hollow resident with decades of high-profile food industry experience, came on board as chief executive officer.
“I didn’t know much about raw food, except that I loved ‘Sex in the City’ back in those days,” Chapin says, laughing. “There was Smith Jared, who was this really great looking guy, and he was a raw food waiter in an episode.”
She got up to speed pretty quickly and even became a health food convert — she’s lost nearly 40 pounds since working at Hail Merry. Chapin hired chef Alison Brushaber to help perfect the treats and, with the two of them in the mix, O’Brien’s brand grew exponentially. More than 1,900 retailers nationwide now sell her products. The line includes various flavors of tarts, macaroons, nuts and seeds. Everything is vegan, gluten free, non-GMO and dehydrated at a low temperature, rather than baked, to preserve nutrients.
Several celebrities have hopped on the Hail Merry bandwagon, including Jessica Alba, Zooey Deschanel, Tory Johnson, a few famous athletes and, maybe, Will Smith.
“We understand that Will Smith is a big fan, but we don’t know that for sure,” O’Brien explains. “We were doing a show and the buyer of the Erewhon market in L.A. said, ‘Will Smith is your biggest fan. He comes in and buys this stuff by the case.’”
Despite its enormous success, the company culture at Hail Merry remains laid back and intimate. The team eats lunch together every day and all of the products are still made on site. O’Brien takes pride in both points, especially the latter.
“It’s part of the great American resurgence — to be makers and to be manufacturers again and to be close to what is being made,” she says.
Chapin agrees. “We’re working with purpose and we say that not casually — how great it is to wake up and not only create jobs but put food on the table.”
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