Since she was a kid, Alison Vercruysse loved being creative, whether she was experimenting with making food in the kitchen or designing fashion on a sketchpad.
“I remember when I was 15, and I was literally taking my jeans apart and sewing them into a skirt,” says Vercruysse, who grew up in Dallas, Texas. “My dad picked it up and threw it against the wall and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You can’t make any money doing this.’”
This memory still stings: “That’s so sad,” she says of her dad’s reaction. “It’s so creative, and that’s not a direction that he believed would be successful.”
So she ultimately took the business route in college, graduating from Southern Methodist University with a double major in accounting and finance—“which is completely personality-wise what you would think that I wouldn’t have studied.”
Itching to explore the world after graduation, Vercruysse spent some time in St. Louis and then Chicago, where she met her future husband. They took off for California, where she knew she’d always end up. This was during the dot-com era, when Vercruysse “consulted for several dot-coms while I was finding myself,” enjoying yoga on the beach, painting, and assisting with cooking classes at Sur La Table. Her travel bug then took her abroad to Paris, where she spent a month taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu.
“Laguna Beach is beautiful, but it was culturally dead. That’s when we moved to San Francisco,” says Vercruysse, who is based out of WeWork Mid-Market. In northern California, Vercruysse’s creative inclinations came back in full force: she got an art history degree, took a food writing course, and “just could not shut up about food.” She even landed an apprenticeship with renowned chef Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake.
“I literally begged on the doorstep of the restaurant and said, ‘Please let me,’ and was really persistent about it,” Vercruysse recalls. “I learned everything about small pastry production and moved to a taste catering and learned mass production—that’s where you’d learn to make 400 cakes in two hours. Then I said, ‘Okay, now it’s time to start my own business.’”
In February 2008, she launched 18 Rabbits, a line of organic and gluten-free granola and granola bars, all with recipes created by Vercruysse. 18 Rabbits is a business built on family. When Vercruysse was young, her mother had one of the worst cases of asthma is the U.S. Her doctor stressed the importance of eating organically and avoiding preservatives, dyes, and other additives.
To cheer up Vercruysse and her siblings during this distressing time, her dad brought home a rabbit, which mated with a wild rabbit and had 16 bunnies. Vercruysse doesn’t own any rabbits now—“ I have enough spiritual rabbits that I have to keep track of,” she laughs.
Vercruysse’s mother and siblings approve of the granola that reminds them of decades past, as does her 4-year-old son Asher.
“This is what got me into Target: him eating my granola,” Vercruysse says. “There’s actually a picture with him and a spoon dipping it into the yogurt and granola, so when the buyer saw that, she said yes. It’s pretty wild. He wasn’t even two when he started eating my granola. That’s still what his comfort food is. You know when he’s feeling bad if he eats granola, fruit, and yogurt three times a day.”
Today, the 18 Rabbits team is eight people strong, with employees scattered between San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Portland. And it’s a far cry from the company’s early days when Vercruysse had trouble “ being confident that my creativity could actually sell a lot or be something that was big,” she says. “In a large way, it was a huge personal development as well, evolving to give credence to my own gifts.”
Photos: Tom Bender