From the region that gave a start to Hydro Flask and Humm Kombucha, Central Oregon has become a mecca for entrepreneurs seeking to carve out a niche for themselves in the outdoor food products industry.
Henry and Julie Mosier, who forged Food for the Sole, say inspiration struck when eating the dehydrated food on the market. Julie Mosier, while backpacking South Sister seven years ago, pulled out her dehydrated food and found it gloppy and bland.
While in the forest she thought she could do better.
Like many entrepreneurs, necessity was the mother for invention for small businesses, which are the backbone of Oregon’s economy, according to the Economic Development for Central Oregon, a nonprofit that encourages business development.
By 2018, the mother-son team was creating its own dehydrated food in the Bend Prep Kitchen. Today the pair has eight employees and about 35 accounts that sell their products in 10 states. They declined to discuss specific sales data.
“We focus on veggies,” said Julie Mosier. “When we’re done making a meal, before it goes to dehydrator, it’s ready to eat. It’s real food. When you look at our ingredient list you can understand every word.
There’s texture. We cook with layers to create the complexity and nuances of flavor.”
Popular products spur mergers
Nearly 95% of all businesses in Oregon qualify as a small business, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 2019, the year with the most current data, 377,860 small businesses in Oregon were registered and employed 852,983 people, or more than half the employed statewide. Small business is defined as having fewer than 200 employees.
The outdoor food industry is such a vital component of the economy that in 2020, the Oregon State University-Cascades launched a bachelor of science program. In 2020 the program had 18 students.
The program, funded by Hydro Flask, is designed to inspire future workers in the field of developing a systems approach to product commercialization, said Christine Coffin, OSU-Cascade spokeswoman. The interdisciplinary program focuses on engineering, natural resources, outdoor recreation, sustainability and business.
“The number of mergers and acquisitions in the past two years speaks to both the quality and quantity and established businesses in the tri-county region to the appetite of larger companies to acquire competitors,” said Roger Lee, Economic Development for Central Oregon CEO.
One such acquisition occurred earlier this spring when Laird Superfood, a publicly traded company, acquired Picky Bars, a Bend-based snack company founded by triathletes. Other notable companies in the region are cookie maker Red Plate Foods and granola-maker Bird Seed Food Co.
Getting to this level requires efficiencies that save money and time. Food for the Sole was able to make sizeable savings with the help of the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Program, a statewide nonprofit that works with businesses to eek out savings. With the program’s help the Mosiers were able to cut 10 hours a week of inventory control that saved them $25,000 a year which increased productivity and sales by $200,000, said Kleve Kee, Oregon Manufacturing Extension Program managing consultant.
All this occurred during the pandemic, Kee said.
The savings were gleaned by using the Lean manufacturing principles that eliminates waste in a production system. The principles were made famous by Toyota in the 1930s. Most of the savings came from installing sensors in the dehydrator equipment that sent a message to the owners when they went off line, Kee said. That saved the company money from having food spoil in the dehydrator.
“We work at making companies more efficient by working with the people and improving the processes without expanding the work force,” Kee said. “The solutions we worked on with Food for the Sole included technology.”
The technology allowed the company to not only eliminate waste, but monitor dehydrators without having to employ staff, which makes the company more efficient.
Tasty hiking foods a must
Efficiency is an important component to making it in the outdoor food products, as is sourcing the raw materials and marketing, said Shanna Koenig Camuso, owner of Gather Nuts, another Bend outdoor food business.
After about two years in business, Koenig Camuso said the support in the community propelled her business forward. Perhaps it was because more people ventured outside during the pandemic, but business actually grew, she said.
“Our e-commerce sales did well during the pandemic,” Koenig Camuso said. “That bolstered us.”
Koenig Camuso moved to Bend in 2014 armed with a nutrition degree that told her nuts were a great source of calories and energy for outdoors people. She first started roasting them for friends, who encouraged her to expand and create a business.
Her products are in 18 stores, coffee shops and in a bakery in Colorado, where she used to live.
“We soak our nuts over night and slow roast them,” Koenig Camuso said. “That makes the nutrients available. The slow roasting protects the healthy fats.”
At Food for the Sole, which just moved to a 1,300 -square -foot facility in Bend, they’re having to juggle the equipment to maximize the space, Henry Mosier said. Everything is on wheels to move around and reconfigure the space during the processing, packaging and shipping.
“We never shut down during the pandemic,” Henry Mosier said. “The outdoors is my realm. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors being physical. Food should be good and tasty.”