From a young age Hayley Mason Staley struggled with her health and weight. But after discovering the Paleolithic diet (paleo for short) in her early twenties, she knew she was on a path that would change her life. Shortly after starting to follow the paleo diet, she and her now husband Bill decided to start a food blog, The Food Lovers’ Primal Palate. It focused on creating tasty, imaginative dishes and led to a book deal. After tirelessly creating 215 recipes, photographing the dishes, and designing 448 pages, Hayley finally completed her first cookbook in 2011.
But Hayley didn’t stop there. She wrote three more cookbooks: Gather, The 30 Day Guide to Paleo Cooking, and Make it Paleo II. Hayley and Bill co-founded their company Primal Palate, which provides menu planning and recipes as well as e-books and discussion boards. Read on to learn about Hayley’s transition from a freelance makeup artist to a food blogger, author, and business owner, how she stays innovative, and why her life motto is “Dream big, work hard, and be humble.”
Name: Hayley Mason Staley
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Current title/company: Co-Founder of Primal Palate
Education: Makeup for TV and Print, MKC Academy of Fashion, Beauty & Print, Hollywood, California. Esthetics and Skin Care, South Hills Beauty Academy, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
I started working as an esthetician and makeup artist for a new wellness center in downtown Pittsburgh. The esthetician they hired upon opening was a friend of mine and she was pregnant at the time. She knew I had recently finished school and was about to be licensed in skin care; she asked me to fill in for her while she was on leave. She didn’t end up coming back and I stayed on as the esthetician at the spa.
After working at the spa and wellness center, you decided to go back to your passion as a makeup artist. How did you prepare for freelance?
I just sort of threw myself into it. I had more people to network with at that point so I had built some connections. I worked with hair stylists, so they would recommend me to brides for engagement sessions and weddings. There was a freelance hair stylist that brought me on for a ton of weddings she had booked one year. I started meeting photographers, and they would hire me for shoots as well. I also picked up work through Craigslist working on low budget productions. That sort of stuff wasn’t paid, it was just something I did to learn and grow as a makeup artist.
Tell us how and why you became paleo.
From the time I was about 12 to 25 years old I struggled with my weight. It was something really hard for me to talk about when I was in the thick of it. I did the classic yo-yo dieting throughout high school, which never works long term. I spent years really resenting my body and confused about why it seemed so hard for me. The first time I changed my diet as a lifestyle (and not just a fad diet) I was about 22 years old. I was going to hot yoga every day and decided to try a vegetarian diet. I was mostly gluten-free/diary-free, but I replaced all dairy and animal protein with soy protein; my thyroid slowed down and I put on a bunch of weight. I didn’t know where to turn at this point. I couldn’t handle battling with my body anymore, so as a last resort I tried the HCG diet.
I’m only 5’1” and was always curvy, so I had no clue how petite I really was. The three-week follow up diet for HCG was a paleo diet, although it wasn’t called that in the program. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to work hard to keep weight off. I did reintroduce gluten a few times and immediately reacted to it, something that had happened to me in high school but I didn’t make the connection until later in life. Unfortunately I had to work pretty hard to recover from the emotional damage a restrictive diet like HCG did, but I completely credit the paleo diet for not only helping me heal my body, but also my mind and my relationship with food. Now it’s hard for me to remember the person I was all those years ago. It doesn’t even seem like me anymore, and back then I couldn’t imagine ever having freedom with my body and weight.
You started your blog, The Food Lovers’ Primal Palate, in 2009 as a way to share your love of food and art through recipes, food styling, and photography. Was it a passion project or a fledgling business idea?
Kind of both. From day one Bill and I really wanted to write a cookbook together. We’ve always had a vision board and “book deal” was pinned up to our very first one. We’d look at it every day and visualize all the things we wanted to create together, and then work as hard as we knew how. We were completely unsure of how it would happen, but trusted that it would. Eventually we had to keep removing things we had pinned to that vision board, because they kept becoming real. The best part was that none of it felt like work. It felt exciting and fun, and like we were really creating something special together.
A few months after launching the blog your husband was laid off. You were struggling to find consistent work as a makeup artist. How did you use the setbacks in your professional life to grow your blog?
It was really hard, but it ended up being a good thing for us. We had so much trouble getting work for the things we went to school for so we had to get creative. Going to college is supposed to create job security, right? Well, we had to create that ourselves when the secure jobs weren’t secure anymore. Thankfully we had some very supportive family members who really believed in us, even though it looked like we weren’t doing anything with our lives except taking pictures of food and putting them on the Internet.
We seem to find a way to challenge ourselves with each book that we write, but that one will always be really special to us. It was the beginning of everything.
Only nine months after starting The Food Lovers’ Primal Palate you were approached to write a cookbook! Take us through the process of writing your first book.
That was a really interesting time. A cookbook was always our goal, and we didn’t really know how it would happen. I still remember when we got that email from our publisher. It was around 9 p.m. at night and Bill had spent a week looking for a job in landscape architecture because a family member had sat him down and told him to get his life together and find a real job. But another family member had been coaching us about business at that poin, and told us we were, in fact, on the right track and to not give up.
Then we got that email and it was just two lines. “I published the New York Times bestseller, The Paleo Solution. I was wondering if you were interested in writing a cookbook.” Bill cried, and I freaked out. If we had ever manifested reality from our dreams, that was absolutely it. At the time paleo was so new that we didn’t know how long it would stay popular. We dropped everything, and threw ourselves into writing that book. We woke up every day and went to our local Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s for whatever ingredients we needed and spent the rest of the day cooking and photographing food.
Since Bill is a landscape architect he knew how to use all of the design programs our publisher uses, so we designed the book as well. In just a few months we handed our publisher a completely finished cookbook with 215 recipes, sprawling across 448 pages that we designed ourselves. We seem to find a way to challenge ourselves with each book that we write, but that one will always be really special to us. It was the beginning of everything.
What advice do you have for anyone who has hopes of writing a cookbook?
Dream big, work hard, and be humble. Don’t compare yourself to those around you, because all that will do is steal your joy. You don’t have to have a publisher knocking on your door to know that you will write a cookbook one day. Just start working toward that goal and believe in yourself. For us it was starting a blog, because we knew that we needed some sort of a following if we wanted a book to sell; we also knew we needed to develop our skills as cooks, food stylists, and photographers.
Take your work seriously and don’t undermine it, or allow anyone else to. Set goals for yourself and hold yourself accountable. When we first started blogging we set a goal to publish a new recipe twice a week, and we had a little icon on our blog that said “next on the menu” with a photo. This held us accountable for making sure we were working toward putting new recipes on our website regularly. Providing fresh recipes is how you grow a food blog. It doesn’t matter how many cookbooks we sell, we always approach the next project like it’s the first. We are grateful for each opportunity to be published again, and know that each project is an opportunity to develop our skills even more.
Take your work seriously and don’t undermine it, or allow anyone else to. Set goals for yourself and hold yourself accountable.
Tell us about Primal Palate!
Forming Primal Palate as a company was a scary and exciting venture. No longer was it just Bill and I working on blog posts. We realized early on that it was going to take some investment to get a true company off the ground and a shoestring budget wasn’t really going to cut it. After a year and a half of working on our own, we partnered with a close family member who has acted as an investor and also as a business mentor. More than the financial capital to work with, the mentorship was invaluable to taking our business practices to the next level. Having someone to push us and challenge us to think about things differently was instrumental in our growth.
Primal Palate started off as a food blog, and all we really had to think about was which dish we were going to create and photograph next. By forming a company, it brought in some added elements (financials, business planning, etc.); it’s stuff I don’t necessarily enjoy as much, being a creative type, but it comes with the territory and luckily Bill seems to have a knack for those things.
What are some of the major goals of your company and how has your blog influenced the site?
Our biggest goal right now is to keep growing the website as a community hub for paleo, primal, and gluten-free recipes. It’s a keen observation to note that the blog is really just a subset of the larger website. We’ve spent the last few years developing tools and resources on the site that make it totally unique. We offer the only free meal planner, which users can upload their recipes to and then access on our free app. We are always trying to think of new ways to help others find great healthy recipes easily, so developing an app was helpful in reaching more people.
Our next steps for the site will probably involve some additional development for our platform that allows users to upload recipes more easily, share their meal plans and menus, and just make the whole experience more social. People love sharing what they are eating with one another! Instagram is a true testament to that aspect of our nature, so we are working on ways to help our users share what they are making. It’s really fun to think about what would be helpful and then develop the tools for people!
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew before writing your first book? Or when starting Primal Palate?
I think what I know now are things I did know back then as well, but they need to be daily reminders. You can create anything you put your mind to. As long as you have passion and drive anything can happen. I’ve faced many challenges in my life from weight, to work, to health. Each time I’m faced with a challenge it seems hopeless, but then I remember it’s not. What you think about most, you create into your own reality. Think good things and work hard; they will happen.
You published Make it Paleo in 2011 and since then you have published three more cookbooks: Gather, The 30 Day Guide to Paleo Cooking, and Make it Paleo II. How do you generate new recipes and concepts for both Primal Palate and your cookbooks?
Cooking inspiration comes from all around you and it’s something we’ve really tuned ourselves into (and I’m not talking about just going to Pinterest and seeing what others are making.) We’ve always been foodies and enthusiastic eaters, so there was absolutely no shortage of dishes from pre-paleo days that we were eager to recreate (and how we came to title our first book). We took old favorites and made them paleo.
I think we’d both agree that the last two years have definitely been our most creative in terms of recipes and some of that creativity could be attributed to travel. We had wonderful opportunities to visit Latin America, France, and the Mediterranean in the last couple years. It was a culinary breath of fresh air to try cuisines in different parts of the world, and we came back each time ready to try new dishes.
Take us through some of the new features of your site that you introduced in the past year. We love it!
We kicked off 2014 with a major website overhaul, the biggest to date, which implemented a totally new design. It’s kind of like Houzz meets Pinterest, but for recipes. Everything on the site is custom coded, and works based off of a robust ingredient database. Building our own ingredient database took us several years and we are constantly improving it; but the framework allows us to run meal planning, nutritional information, serving size recalculations, and a whole host of other fantastic functionality.
The new design just brought all of that hard work to life in a format that people really love. We’ve had the meal planner for a few years now, which is also integrated with our app. If you pick out your favorite recipes on the site they also sync to your smart phone, which is really cool! And we offer all of it for free.
How do you balance running the company and website with having a life outside work?
It can be really challenging. This is our lifestyle so our work really is our life, and our life is our work. People always say that you meet your friends for life in college, well I’ve met my best friends for life from this community so even work is tied to some of my closest relationships. Unplugging a bit more is something that I’m always working on, especially because we really want to start a family someday soon and that will really be a balancing act; I want to create good, solid routines before kids come into the mix.
Since we work from home, usually we will work for a few hours and then step away and do other things like garden or take our dog for a walk, then go back to working for a bit. I’ve really taken on doing things to take care of my mind and emotions this year, so I incorporate meditation and yoga practice into my daily routine. I think this is really important because my head is always swimming with things that I need to do for work. Bill is really passionate about doing Autocross (time trial car racing), so from the spring to the fall he races his car—something completely outside of our work.
What is it like working with your husband?
Working with my husband is something I am grateful for every single day. I feel very lucky. We have always been inseparable since we first started dating and I know that we have accomplished as much as we have because we work together as a team. We have a similar skill set (both being artists and creatives) but we also have very different interests in the work that we do that compliment each other well. When we were planning our wedding there were a handful of people who tried to tell us how life would change after getting married. I just kind of laughed to myself because Bill and I had been working together and building a company for a few years before we even got engaged!
But there are some downsides to the way we work. Since we work from home, there is really no end to the workday. So even though we are together every day, we have to make an effort to really unplug and spend time together, just being together. The benefits definitely outweigh the downsides and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Bill has always been very supportive of your desire to stick with this diet. What advice do you have for those that do not have that same type of support system in place?
Bill was the first guy in my life to support me from the moment I said that I ate a special diet. He never challenged me and really listened to why I chose to eat that way, and he never tried to make me feel badly about it. It really meant a lot to me and made a huge difference. Even a little support from friends and family really makes a huge difference when you are trying to make healthy changes in your life. Bill and I don’t force friends and family to eat the way that we do, but in the beginning it was a little easier to be kind of bossy about it. Don’t try to convince other people that they should be doing what you are doing, because usually that just pushes people away.
We’ve found that most people close to us will make some changes with their diets because they love us and want to support our work, or because they see how it has changed our lives and want the same type of things for themselves. If your partner is not interested in eating the way that you want to, try to be okay with that. When Bill and I first started dating our meals would be “paleo plus”—a paleo meal, plus some extra starch for Bill that wasn’t part of my diet at the time and that was OK with me. It was our way of supporting each other.
The most challenging can be family functions or dinner parties because you don’t have control over what is served. Offer to bring a side dish or dessert if you are attending a holiday meal. Then you contribute to the event and taking some stress off of the host, as well as bringing something you can enjoy. Our biggest challenge was that friends and family didn’t take us seriously when we first started because we didn’t have a clinical diagnosis like celiac disease, so it was viewed as a choice to eat this way.
Although it started out as a choice, we have both learned that our bodies cannot tolerate some foods and we both react differently. Usually if people aren’t supportive, it’s because they just don’t understand. You can educate them by telling them why you choose to eat a certain way and how it’s made your life better. Even if they don’t want to change their own eating, they will usually respect your decision to eat that way and offer support in ways they know how.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Being able to contribute to the health of others. We started our blog to show people that if we could do it, so can you. Our goal has always been to help others stay on track, and work toward accomplishing their own health goals. Also, being able to connect with our readers through our blog and Instagram is really special. I am so grateful for each and every person who supports the work that we do, and getting to meet some of those people at book signings or conferences is just amazing. I can’t quite describe the feeling when someone tells you that your book helped them heal their body, but it’s really surreal, and not something I ever could have predicted would happen to me.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
23 was an interesting year for me. That was right before I met Bill, so I was really at a tipping point with my health, my career, everything. A lot in my life seemed hopeless, and I was tired of the same struggles with work and my health. I had no clue what the future held. I think my advice would be: never give up. You can create magical things in your life when you love yourself and really believe that you deserve it. This is still advice that I try to give my 29-year-old self. There will always be challenges, but you can create anything you dream.
Hayley is The Everygirl…
Sweet or savory?
Savory to eat, sweet to look at. I’ve realized most people really like to window shop with treats and I’m definitely the same way. Looking at them is almost more satisfying than actually eating them. Although eating them can be pretty great sometimes, too. Cupcakes are just so pretty.
I wish I knew how to…
Drive a stick shift. Bill has had a hot little convertible since before we met and it’s a manual. I’d love to be able to drive it. He tried to teach me once, which resulted in our first argument. I know I have it in me somewhere. I just have to learn.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Lisa Eldridge. She is my favorite makeup artist to watch online. She has the most well produced makeup tutorials I’ve ever seen. They are just so clean and professional with the white backdrop and studio lighting. I love that you just see her gorgeous face and her hands. It’s like watching makeup for a photo shoot come to life—absolutely brilliant. Plus I love listening to her voice and, of course, she is a great educator. I think I would order something fresh and colorful, maybe a Salad Niçoise.
TV show you wish was still on the air?
Nigella Bites. That was always my favorite cooking show, way before I was into cooking. Nigella is so poetic with how she talks about food; she can be kind of messy when she cooks, but still manages to make it look glamorous. My favorite part of the show is always the end when she comes back into the kitchen in her robe late at night and eats leftovers. I just love her. I’ve spent hours watching five minute clips of her older shows over and over on YouTube and I wish I had all of the full episodes.
Favorite recipe from your latest cookbook?
I think the Pork Dumplings. This recipe was created by Caitlin, my sister who co-authored the book with us. When she told me she wanted to make steamed dumplings I told her it couldn’t be done grain-free. She wouldn’t listen to me, thankfully. I came up with the dough, but she did the rest. We had Chinese food a lot growing u and we both always loved the steamed dumplings. That recipe took us both back to our childhood, and it was really fun that we created it together.