Boulder, Colorado

President Soraya Smith makes freeze-dried foods for folks to prepare by the campfire or as a side dish at home — or even enjoy an ice cream sandwich suitable for outer space.

Photos Jonathan Castner

“We make gourmet, freeze-dried backpacking food,” says Smith of her Backpacker’s Pantry line of meals. “We are in every REI and most [retail, sporting goods] mom-and-pops nationwide.”

By adding boiling water to the company’s lightweight, easy-to-tote food packages, outdoor enthusiasts can dine on a meal — such as pad thai, lasagna, chicken risotto, or beef stroganoff with noodles and mushrooms — in as little as 15 minutes. Then they can follow that up with crème brulee for dessert, and start the next day with an egg scramble.

But Backpacker’s Pantry isn’t the only food brand manufactured by American Outdoor Products (AOP).

About five years ago, the company introduced “plant-based macro meals” under the Chef Soraya brand. The spicy bowls contain rice, quinoa, hemp hearts, and a legume. Flavors include creole-style red beans and rice, chana masala with chickpeas, and a Cuban-style black beans and coconut rice combo with, according to the company’s website, “a subtle hint of banana.” Like Backpacker’s Pantry, the Chef Soraya bowls can also be found at several hundred retail outlets — but, rather, at stores like Walmart, Safeway, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Natural Grocers instead of at REIs.

Given that AOP sources large quantities of spices for its Backpacker’s Pantry and Chef Soraya meals, the company also offers its own spice blends under its Colorado Spice Company banner. And it prepares spice blends for close to a hundred outside businesses — whether they be makers of potato chips, crackers, or hommos. (The company is also available to serve as a co-packing resource for companies desiring products with similar ingredients to what AOP uses, Smith says.)

At its 40,000-square-foot facility in Boulder, workers use tumble blenders to mix ingredients like spices and powdered sauces, before moving ingredients to one of the company’s production rooms. Then, the various meal components — for instance, sauce, meat, rice or pasta — are deposited by weight into the packaging. Finally, employees insert oxygen absorbers into the packets before they’re sealed. The facility also has quality assurance and quality control offices, as well as a test kitchen where around five to seven band-new Backpacker’s Pantry meals are developed each year to be tested in the market.

AOP purchases its ingredients already freeze-dried, which it then incorporates into the meals it manufactures. An advocate for the technology, Smith says freeze-drying can “lock in the flavor, the nutrients, the color, the shape, the texture of that particular ingredient — so, when you add the water back into it it really does come back to life.” It’s a technology that saw use early on within the space program, and the company’s website notes how freeze-drying preserves around “97 percent of [the foods’] nutrients.”

Speaking of outer space, perhaps AOP’s most iconic product is its Astronaut Foods brand, which includes crispy, crunchy, room-temperature ice cream sandwiches sold at museums, planetariums, and science centers. “Almost every adult that comes through here and sees our Astronaut Ice Cream display gets giddy [because] they had that Astronaut Ice Cream when they went to Space Camp,” says Smith. “Or when they went to the Smithsonian for their school trip, back in high school or middle school.”

The freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches — which are also sold by NASA, and bear the Certified Space Technology seal — are contract-made and then packaged in Boulder. Several celebrities, including Stephen Colbert, have made videos poking fun at the beloved novelty food.

But overall sales figures for the company are no joke. In 2019, AOP earned $9.9 million. “We pride ourselves on being this small — but mighty — nimble company,” says Smith. The company earned a 2020 Colorado Manufacturing Award for “Outstanding Food Brand/Co-Packer” due in part to its sustainable approach, adaptability, and resilence.

The company’s origins go back to a previous owner, who started the business in California in 1951, making lightweight foods for girl scout troops; there would be no more miserable treks for the girls, carrying cans and heavy meal preparations. In 1971, the company was purchased by Soraya’s father-in-law Ronald Smith. Subsequently, his son Rodney took the reins. It’s about to celebrate its 50th anniversary of Smith family ownership.

After meeting and dating in Colorado, Rodney and Soraya married in 1992, the same year Rodney moved the company to Boulder. He convinced Soraya, who worked as an attorney prior to motherhood, to take on the role of recipe development chef in 2010 (hence the “Chef Soraya” moniker). Rodney tragically died as the result of a skiing accident in early 2020.

Just like her husband had faith in her ability to take on the role of chief chef, her father-in-law asked her to now assume the role of company president. In the midst of an additional hardship — a global pandemic — she’s seen the company’s e-commerce sales increase from under 10 percent for Backpacker’s Pantry to now over 30 percent.

For Smith, it’s taking business — and life — day by day, just like backpacking up a difficult hill. She says, “I would not have chosen this, but it’s been an amazing experience. And it’s been amazing to have the confidence of my father-in-law to even step into my husband’s shoes in this way. It’s been a confidence building exercise for me, and I’ve stumbled many times.” She confidently adds, “But I’ll get there!”

And for Smith, that destination includes heightened public awareness about what the company does. She says it’s time to “be loud and proud about who we are, what we do, the ingredients we use, and the food that we make.”

Challenges: Smith says the COVID-19 pandemic has forced AOP to take a closer look at its supply chain: “What if there are ingredient shortages? Do we have a secondary supplier? Do we have a third supplier, if necessary?”

Opportunities: Messaging the importance of what the company is doing with food, says Smith. “Freeze-drying really could be an answer to food insecurity, because it makes perishable ingredients shelf-stable. And when you hear about farmers plowing under crops, because they don’t have a good price line for their crop — that breaks your heart, when you also know that there are people that need to eat really good food.”

Needs: “I would like to see our direct-to-consumer business grow,” says Smith. “It gives us more control. It gives us more connection with our end-user. There’s not a middleman — meaning a retailer — in between us and them.”