On Starting A Backpacking Meals Brand That's Grown 50% Every Year

Published: November 23rd, 2020
Christopher Cage
Founder, Greenbelly Meals
Greenbelly Meals
from Atlanta
started March 2015
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
180 days
average product price
growth channels
business model
best tools
Instagram, Ecommerce Fuel, Upwork
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
24 Pros & Cons
1 Tips
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What is up? Chris Cage here, founder of Greenbelly Meals. Greenbelly makes ready-to-eat backpacking meals. Each meal pouch comes with two fluffy meal bars inside that together provide over 650 calories and high levels of protein, fats, fiber, carbohydrates, and sodium. We use natural ingredients to provide a fast and convenient, real MEAL on the trail (not a 200 calorie snack bar). Some have called them ‘cereal bars on steroids’.

We have grown over 50% every year since I started the business over 5 years ago.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I grew up hiking and backpacking as a Boy Scout in Georgia. We spent a lot of time on trails in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, specifically along the Appalachian Trail. I learned about this 2,200-mile long trail that takes 6 months to complete at an early age and knew I wanted to do it.

Along your entrepreneurial journey, you will inevitably hit some walls. A lot of them. Frequently. By being involved in something that you enjoy, it will help you persevere through those challenges.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve graduated from college and am working as an accountant. I realized the window of opportunity for travel and adventure was closing. I decided to quit my job and actually hike the Appalachian Trail. It took months to plan gear and logistics as well as save up enough money.

While hiking up and down mountains all day every day for months, I was burning a lot of calories (up to 5,000 a day). Also, I was carrying everything I needed to live on my back… including about 5 days worth of food until I arrived in another town to resupply more food. The weight of my food became a big problem. Dense nutrition was the goal. However, most high-calorie backpacking foods were heavily processed or required a lot of time to prepare. I started planning my own meal - something that would provide a ton of nutrition, be easy to prepare, and be healthy.

I finished the Appalachian Trail in December of 2013 and spent 2014 living at my parent’s house planning this new business idea and working on a meal prototype. I pulled out all of my savings and hired a food scientist to help develop the product. After handing out free samples at a hiking festival and receiving feedback on taste, I iterated until I felt I had the meal ready to sell.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

After creating a product I felt good about, I started sending samples out to any and every outdoor blogger I could think of. A lot of them responded and several of them even posted reviews of the bars on their site with links back to mine. Sales began to slowly trickle in.

At this point, I felt like the product had been validated. However, I was still living at home with my parents making the product by hand, fulfilling all orders, handling customer service, everything. I was the definition of a one-man-band. I knew I needed more funding and more help to grow. Kickstarter seemed like a great solution.

After spending a few months preparing, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in the Spring of 2015. Looking back, the $19,000 raised was a modest amount. However, at the time, it was exactly what I needed. The money allowed me to approach a "copacker" (a 3rd party food manufacturer) that would help make my meals and fulfill future orders. We were properly set up with the copacker and began fulfilling live orders on our site in the Fall of 2015.

Getting the production and fulfillment off of my daily to-do list was HUGE. This freed me up to work almost entirely on marketing. I spent the next year or two throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. Eventually, some of the blog posts I had written about backpacking started to generate organic traffic to our website. Some of these visitors started to buy Greenbelly. Bingo. From there, I started to learn more and more about content marketing and SEO. Written content marketing has been and continues to be one of our biggest contributors to customer acquisition and growth.

A few more things. PR has been great - things like reviews from big media outlets and podcast interviews like the one with Joe Rogan. Also, many other tactics like giveaways, partnerships, paid advertising, Youtube, email marketing, word of mouth, you name it, have helped push us forward along the way.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Honestly, I love it. The business keeps growing. I work with great people and great customers in a great industry. We were profitable after the first few months of launching many years ago. This was mainly due to such low startup costs. We still work with the same copacker that we did from the start, but have moved to larger spaces a couple of times since then ;)

Aside from our production and fulfillment, our team is spread all over the world and mostly works from their laptops at coffee shops. We now offer 5 flavors of the meals and have launched a high calorie powdered meal option called Mud Meal. I wrote a book called How to Hike the Appalachian Trail as well as launched software for backpackers to build out their packs called Packfire.

I want to continue to focus on growth, constantly explore new marketing channels, and make great meals for hikers crushing beautiful trails all across the world.

A few more nerdy numbers:

  • 50% gross margin
  • 500,000 monthly website visitors
  • 40,000 email subscribers

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Absolutely. Persistence and patience have been crucial. I did not ever experience explosive growth like you always see in the business headlines. Instead, we have had strong and steady positive growth. Without being patient and constantly maintaining focus on growth, we would not be where we are today. And luck, that definitely could have had something to do with it!

A process that has been really helpful for me is to do a quarterly review. Credit to Taylor Pearson for some of this framework. Step 1: I reviewed the past few months - list what went well and what did not. Step 2: I then list out a lot of ideas that I think might help move the needle for the business. Step 3: From there, I rate each of the ideas based on a handful of different criteria - the likelihood of success, level of opportunity, the cost to pursue, and time to pursue. Step 4: I pick the top few with the highest score to pursue and plan the execution accordingly. It’s not perfect. But it has been a great way to routinely recalibrate what we are focusing on and assess where we should allocate our resources.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify. For the most part, they have been superb as an eCommerce platform. Great functionality, huge app store, great customer service, unlimited hosting, etc.

99Designs. For large graphic design projects. Packaging, web design, things like that. Awesome.

Shippo. Shopify app for order labels and order fulfillment. Easy and affordable.

Fiverr and Upwork. Great for finding freelancers.

Constantly changing up email marketing software and popups.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Hmm. A lot.

Books. Traction was a great book that helped me think strategically about what marketing channels to consider and pursue. Also, 7 Day Startup helped me think about how to move fast and stay lean. More recently, I’m interested in a growth mindset though.

Podcasts. Tropical MBA is great for ‘business philosophy and frameworks’ and eCommerceFuel is great for ‘nuts and bolts how-to advice’.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

I hesitate to give general advice to anyone/business I do not know. That being said, I can speak about some things I think have helped me along the way and some mistakes I feel a lot of entrepreneurs make.

I am a big believer in finding something you will enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. Not necessarily the cliché ‘follow your passion’ advice. More about really thinking through - what do you see yourself doing in a few years? Will you be writing blog posts, talking with clients on the phone, or on the factory floor managing production? Of course, a lot of this can change and evolve in time. However, you should like the industry you're working in and/ or enjoy the daily tasks you will be involved in.

Along your entrepreneurial journey, you will inevitably hit some walls. A lot of them. Frequently. By being involved in something that you enjoy, it will help you persevere through those challenges. A lot of entrepreneurs seem to get fired up about a new business idea for a few months only to stop when they hit their first wall because they realize they just don’t enjoy it very much nor do they see the potential of enjoying it.

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start a backpacking meals business? Learn more ➜