Broomfield, Colorado

Founded: 2017

Privately owned

Employees: 4

Industry: Food & Beverage

Products: Backpacking and packaged foods

Co-founder and CEO Lillian Hoodes is guiding her outdoor-oriented food manufacturer to healthy growth with tasty, better-for-you recipes.

The prepackaged, dehydrated meal has long been a staple for campers and backpackers, but the category hasn’t changed much since it emerged in the 1960s.

But Hoodes is upending tradition with TrailFork. Two years after launch, the company’s products are in 60 outdoor stores across the nation, showing there’s room for growth and innovation in the industry. The vegetarian, dehydrated backpacking meals also boast the industry’s only compostable bags.

TrailFork is now in an accelerator program after raising $500,000 through a seed round at SeedInvest as it seeks to grow into more outlets, including grocery stores, with plans to expand into a manufacturing facility. In other words, Hoodes has a lot on her plate.

“I saw the need as a consumer myself for a better-for-you option,” she says. “I am sort of a foodie myself and there wasn’t anything on the market that I felt good about eating, and there was also not anything on the market that satisfied my demand to minimize my own environmental impact. So what we’re trying to offer to consumers is a better-for-the-consumer option in terms of health and nutritional profile and a way for these folks who are moving out to places like Salt Lake City or people who are vacationing in wilderness spaces to just become more cognizant of the impact they’re having.”

Hoodes says that many legacy players in the space have traditionally offered meals that weren’t the best for hikers and backpackers. The nutritional profiles of many foods were high in sodium and low in protein and healthy fats. “It was basically trail junk food, dehydrated junk food,” she asserts, noting that she’s starting to see some changes with companies using better ingredients. “But I didn’t find that anything was specifically designed for somebody who’s spending a lot of time in the backcountry.”

While a typical meal at home might be 400 calories, that’s not enough for someone who’s been out all day hiking. “If you’re out on the trail, you’re probably at altitude, you might have been hiking for 10 miles, you’re carrying a pack. Your nutritional requirements are just a lot more significant and in our meals the portions are quite large . . . between 500 and 700 calories,” Hoodes says. “The protein content is really high. Some of the meals are close to 30 grams of protein per serving and they’re just much more designed for somebody who’s actually spending time outside and needs a lot of fuel.”

Of TrailFork’s products, Hoodes says her favorite is the Cinnamon Roll Oats. The catalog also includes Unwrapped Burrito, Limey Beans and Rice, and Loaded Veggie Hummus.

The company sources ingredients from U.S.-based companies, including one in Arvada. Its plant-based proteins include oats, soy, and chia, but the company is experimenting with other sources as well. “We know a lot of people have trouble with soy, so we’re experimenting with sunflower seed protein and a couple of other things,” Hoodes says.

TrailFork currently rents space in a commissary to produce its meals. It previously used a contract co-packer to mix and package its meals, but brought manufacturing back in-house for a variety of reasons. The company will use some of the money from its seed round to build a kitchen in its warehouse space. “We’d like to be able to manufacture onsite,” Hoodes says. “Largely because renting space in a commissary is more expensive in the long run than us just installing some equipment and doing it ourselves.”

However, the bulk of the funding will support marketing and advertising, she adds. “We’re also embarking on a packaging redesign and we’re planning on launching into grocery soon. And so we’ll be doing the redesign with that in mind.”

The foray into grocery will start with breakfasts at natural foods retailers and grow into other categories at the mass-market level. “Although I do think that we have appeal in wider grocery, we just want to start with a really small targeted market, make sure that our velocity is what we wanted it to be, and then expand from there,” says Hoodes.

TrailFork has also supported thru-hikers on their trips after some hikers reached out to the company to see if it could ship food and other supplies to them on the trail; some of these customers placed orders on the site, while others shipped boxes to the company’s headquarters that TrailFork then sent with food to certain addresses.

“What we’re going to try to do is actually facilitate that and we’ll be doing that as a pilot program in 2020,” Hoodes says. “We’re seeking five participants and then with that data and experience will sort of formalize the program with a planned launch in 2021.” The shipments could include replacement clothing and footwear as well as food, she explains. “We will be the only food company offering that sort of thing.”

Challenges: “Figuring out the sweet spot between growing quickly and in a way that’s exciting and kind of keeps the fire burning, but then also managing that growth so that we don’t get overextended,” Hoodes says.

Opportunities: Hoodes points to broad food trends that dovetail into TrailFork’s business model: “I think the opportunity is that the American consumer is simultaneously eating more quickly and tastily, and they’re also more savvy in terms of the food that they’re consuming, and there’s a bit of white space in the market in terms of a product that will fit both.”

Needs: “We are growing quickly and we need capital to support that growth,” Hoodes says. “That and sales support — not just getting into a store and establishing an account, but making sure the product moves.”