Home / Backpacking Food / Packit Gourmet: Interview with Co-Founder Sara Welton

Packit Gourmet: Interview with Co-Founder Sara Welton

Debbie and Sarah Welton, Packit Gourmet

What is the significance of your company name, Packit Gourmet?  

Our philosophy is that home cooking is the new gourmet – so basically our aim was to bring good homemade tasting food to the outdoors. We wanted a name that would connect that philosophy with idea that it would be doable for a variety of outdoor enthusiasts (hikers, paddlers, climbers, boaters, etc.). Everyone has to pack in their food plus we were making packet based meal kits, so… Packit Gourmet.   

You are a mother and daughter partnership. Why did you decide to start a business together? What have you learned about each other so far that you never knew before? 

The idea for the business happened organically. Our family has camped together my entire life and my mom, Debbie, has always prepared individual meal packs using homemade ingredients to keep camp cooking tasty and convenient. She was preparing for a ten-day adventure a few years ago – and having trouble finding all of the ingredients she needed for her trip –  when she mentioned that she thought an online grocery store tailored to the camping community would be a good idea and I agreed.  I was working on a MBA at the time, so I took a few classes in entrepreneurship with that idea in mind and used the opportunity to do some market research.   

It just worked out that we were both very enthusiastic about the idea for Packit Gourmet and we both had the skill sets that were needed to develop such a business. She’s great at inventing camp-friendly recipes and recognizing products that work well in the camp kitchen; and I’m good on the business end. Plus we have a lot of cross over in our personalities that lends itself well to the business. Other family members have also been instrumental in filling in the gaps by contributing their own particular skill sets.   

We’ve always been close and share a lifetime of camping experience, so this is just a further extension of hanging out and having fun together.    

Can you describe the people who buy your products? What are they looking for? 

While all of the people who shop with Packit Gourmet enjoy flavorful food there seems to be two distinctive types. Interestingly, my mom and I are good examples of each type and that had an influence on how the business developed.  

The first type is people who enjoy putting together ingredients and creating their own meals for the trail. This is my mom. She’s a great cook and she loves thinking of new recipes that work well within the limited conditions of the camp kitchen. The main problem for her in pre-Packit Gourmet days, was finding the ingredients she needed to take on the trail.  She did a lot of dehydrating in those days; but remained frustrated by the difficulty of finding good shelf stable meat and cheese; or small packages of freeze-dried meats and veggies to complement the meals she was putting together. She once had a party before setting out on a trip and offered a prize for the guest who brought the most interesting condiment packages they’d picked up in fast-food places.  It was very competitive and great fun; she ended up with a huge variety of single-serve condiments to take along on her trip.  

I grew up eating my mom’s meals on the trail, but I definitely did not inherit her talent for cooking. So when I started camping on my own I experimented with the various freeze-dried meal options that were available; but they just couldn’t compare with the homemade creations I grew up on. I found myself wishing for a way to enjoy her level of food, without having to put the meals together myself. I was living in Colorado when we realized the “meal kits” would be a great complement to the “camp grocery”. She would put together care packages of camping meals for me to take along on trips and we thought that there we probably more campers out there like me – people who loved to eat good food but couldn’t or didn’t want to design the meals themselves.   

So basically we are a reflection of our customers: people who enjoy cooking and need ingredients; and people who love to eat good food, but don’t have the time or inclination to make it themselves. There is definitely some crossover between the two; both groups are ‘foodies’ on one level or another.   

Packit Gourmet Dehydrated Backpacking Food

How would you compare your products against the other major brands of backpacking food sold at REI? 

Our meals offer another choice for people looking to purchase easy to prepare meals for the trail. I think you’ll find that each brand offered has its own loyal fans, but we created the line of meals for Packit Gourmet based upon our own experience with readymade meals and what we thought was most lacking: flavor, texture and portion size.    

We wanted to offer meals that taste just as good as the meals that you may prepare at home;  so we focused on good seasonings and familiar flavors;  a variety of textures and ample portion size.  Our feeling is that there is nothing worse than closing out brutal wet day with mediocre food, so our goal has always been to try to make meals that will satisfy a hungry belly of any size.   

We’ve also tried to offer a variety of cooking styles that will meet the needs of any style of camp cook:  so easy-cleanup cooking in the cook-in-bag, simple just-add-boiling-water, and more challenging meals that require more effort,  more than one step or pan, and baking.  

Sustainability is a key issue for many sectionhiker.com readers. What steps have you taken as a company to minimize the impact of your products on the environment, such as reduced packaging, reduced power consumption, etc.   

We are very proud partners of Leave No Trace and are passionate about doing our part to preserve the Earth’s resources both from our business perspective and through our own attention to our behavior when we are spending time in the outdoors. My upbringing had its roots in back-to-the-land generation, so “scratch cooking,” organic gardening and a gentle tread upon the earth has been our family’s philosophy and lifestyle – and we do our best to incorporate those ideals into our daily business and will continue to do so as we grow. Our facility is 100% wind powered through the City of Austin’s Green Choice Program; materials and packaging are recyclable or made from recycled products. We seek out organic products, buy locally whenever possible, and choose products that have a “natural” ingredient list over products that do not – like the natural clay desiccants we use to deter the influence of moisture in our meals.  

Can you describe your new product development process? (take as much space as you want). How do you come up with new meal ideas and decide whether they will made good products?  

We are a family that enjoys good food; so basically we start with what we think would be a satisfying meal to us when we’re in the backcountry.  We might be enjoying something at home and someone will say, “hey do you think you could make a version of this for the trail?” and Debbie will try to develop a version that retains the flavors but uses only dehydrated and/or freeze-dried ingredients. Then we taste, review and continue tweaking until everyone agrees that the flavors are right.   

What is your product testing process like? What makes a good prepared meal and why do you reject some recipes? (maybe a failed experiment, horribly gone wrong, would be illustrative here) 

We tend to make meals that are favorites with our family and friends – so the process really begins in the family kitchen the moves to the camp kitchen. We feel that if we can get a camping version of the meal up to “kitchen table” standards then it will be a satisfying camp meal. We cook and taste the meals in a variety of settings to make sure the cooking process and the flavors hold.  We also offer the meals to volunteer “product testers” with varying cooking abilities to see how they turn out, and to identify any problems with instructions or methods. If the meal continues to gets the thumbs-up, then it wins a spot on the Packit Gourmet menu.  

The biggest challenge to our development process is not failure in the kitchen; but the limitations of our small staff to prepare the number of meals that we offer. Aside from that, I would say the greatest challenge to meal production is the continuing availability of ingredients.  We may have the perfect ingredient to achieve the flavors we seek when we develop the recipe only to find it discontinued after we move into production. We have been forced to pull meals off the line-up while we experiment with substitute ingredients, or we find a new source.  This happens on the grocery side as well when small companies expand and then begin to require larger orders than our small company is equipped to handle.  Justin’s Nut Butters is a good example. I’ve been buying Justin’s since Justin and his Dad were selling their nut butters in the Boulder Farmer’s Market – – but they’ve recently expanded and now sell through a distributor that requires larger minimum orders. As we grow and expand this will become less of a problem for us; but for now it does impact the ebb and flow of our inventory.  

Packit Gourmet Gumbo

PG's no cook meals are brilliant. How did you come up with that idea? 

I think everyone who camps has experienced a situation where cooking just isn’t possible and it was an experience like this that inspired our high-protein no-cook alternatives. We were on a 10-day trip and depending entirely on the campfire for our cooking needs.  Unfortunately, we were caught in a sudden massive rainstorm and by the time we were able to set up tarp and tent it was beginning to get dark.  We grabbed the fastest meal we could find in our packs (leftovers from lunch) just to get something into our stomachs and bed down, but it was a mediocre meal at best . . . and did nothing to lift our spirits as we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. So we wanted to offer a few meals that would work in situations like this – – or when you’ve run out of fuel or you just don’t have time to break out the stove – – but would still be satisfying. We began experimenting with ideas and ingredients that might work with just cool water and fortunately, we’ve been able to develop several with ingredients that do come back nicely without heat, and voila! No-cook meals.  

In addition to prepackaged backpacking meals, Packit Gourmet sells other grocery items, dehydrated and freeze dried food for DIY chefs, and cooking gear and supplies. What are the most popular items that people buy from you in these categories, and what factors determine the third party products that your offer. 

If it works well for us on the trail, we’ll carry it. A number of the items in our gear and grocery sections were not designed for campers but when we stumbled across them we felt that they were a good fit nonetheless. We’re always on the lookout for new gear and grocery items that work well in the camp kitchen and if we spot one, we’ll test it out and, if we like it, we’ll add it to the lineup.  

Some of the most popular items are (in no particular order):  

I believe you've been in business for a little over a year. What did you learn in year one and what are your goals for next year? 

You’re right!  We opened our website doors in July of last year; so we are still a very new and small company!  When our Tortilla Soup was awarded the Editors’ Choice Award from Backpacker Magazine (and Peanut Porridge and Moonshine Margarita were mentioned as A-Z Essentials) it sparked quite a bit of interest in Packit Gourmet, both in traffic to our site and in calls from outfitters.  We were really excited to be approached by some very large companies who were interested in carrying our meals, but after a lot of discussion we reluctantly declined the dreamy offers – which is something that we never expected to do. We felt that if we put ourselves in a position to grow too quickly, we may not have been able to ensure the quality of our meals as we scrambled to fill large orders.  We decided that we wanted to give ourselves more time to learn as much as possible about the products we were developing, the processes we were using and the customers we were serving so that we would be able to get it right. So, that is what we’ll continue to do in the coming year – focus on smaller accounts and make sure that we grow slowly in order to maintain the style and quality that is so important to us.   

Can you explain what a shelf stable cheese or food item is and what makes it different from normal food.  

Shelf-stable means that the item can be stored at room temperature without refrigeration for extended periods of times. So dehydrated and freeze-dried products would fall into this category – as well as some smoked or processed foods and condiments.    Some shelf-stable foods that you may be used to seeing in the refrigerated section of the grocery store – like precooked bacon or salami – require refrigeration only after the package is opened. The variety of shelf stable meats and cheeses have increased recently and this really has expanded options for backcountry cooks. Pouch tuna and meats opened the door to packing protein for the trail; but the variety of smoked dry sausages and jerky has provided another avenue for bringing a range of flavors to camp cuisine.   

We’ve posted an article discussing the main differences between freeze-dried and dehydrated foods at: http://www.packitgourmet.com/FreezeDried+%26amp%3B+Dehydrated+Explained-sp67.html   

What is the shelf life of your prepackaged trail meals? 

For best results, we recommend that the meals be used within one year of the pack date on the label. The expiration date of meals that include packages of smoked dry sausage (Bangers & Mash, Nawlins YaYa Gumbo and Zydeco Red Beans & Rice) will be dictated by the expiration date stamped on the sausage package by the sausage manufacturer – so usually about six months on those. We use ingredients with a minimum amount of preservatives so this of course shortens the shelf life our meals when compared to other commercially available meals. Certainly this can be a factor when customers purchase our meals if they are looking for longer-term storage, but we prefer not to compromise on eating and serving preservative-free food in order to gain longer shelf life.  We do use natural clay desiccants to minimize the impact of moisture and those do help in extending shelf life.  

Have you ever supported any long distance hikers with your meals? Where were they hiking and what did you learn from their experience with your products? 

Not yet, but we’d love to one day!   

Packit Gourmet: Bangers and Mash

Where are your favorite outdoor activities and places you like to go best to enjoy the outdoors? 

I grew up camping, canoeing and hiking through the wilds of Canada where our family spent many wonderful summers. My sister and I were taken out on wilderness canoe trips as soon as we were out of diapers – so we all love being in the natural setting of the outdoors and get out there as much as we can. My parents just returned from a two-week canoe trip into the Quetico wilderness area in Ontario – – where they tested new meals and gear. My sister and her boyfriend traveled the US National Parks last summer in their VW PackBus – camping, hiking and testing meal packs. (Sadly the PackBus caught fire this summer in New York City and is no longer with us – RIP PackBus.)  The whole family skis together in Colorado every year – – one of our favorite spots is the Wolf Creek Ski Area. My husband and I have backpacked through South America and Asia – favorite areas include the Amazon Basin, Torres del Paine, The Mekong Delta and some of the areas in Northern Thailand. The Packit Gourmet official “test facility” is the Texas Hill Country where we grab every opportunity we can to pitch our tents under the starry Texas skies.  

The holiday season is coming up. Can you suggest any products that would make good presents or stocking stuffers for people with backpackers in their families? 

The Gift Card is really the best bet in allowing the “giftee” to pick out what they want to carry with them on their next trip. Fun stuff includes the Baking Set . . . everyone needs a baking set; the Trash Sack is fabulous for packing out waste without a tale-tale odor  following you every step of the way; and the Clean it Up Set is a really good way to get folks out of the habit of washing up in lakes and streams. As far as Stocking Stuffers go . . . the Asian Coffees offer a surprisingly good taste for an instant trail coffee without the mess of coffee grinds;  the Coffee Steeper is fabulous if you want to bring your own grind;  the mini Spatula is incredibly useful and durable and a set of Cook-in-Bags would be a welcome find for folks who want to package their own meals in bags that are certified as safe for use with boiling water.

8 comments

  1. Great interview! I have to laugh about the Packit bus catching on fire…Dicentra of One Pan Wonder's lost her bus the same way years ago ;-)

  2. Great interview. I just finished packing my meals with lots of dried and freeze-dried veggies from Packitgourmet, and I'm very much looking forward to my meals in the coming month (I'll be on the New England Trail for the entire month of October… see blog posts in my link).

    Packit's veggies so far as I've used them are really a wonderful addition or alternative to the usual junk that you find in long-distance backpackers' packs. Ramen, Lipton Sides, etc… they're okay once in a while, but for weeks on end I feel gross putting that stuff in my belly. Having real veggies makes me much happier.

  3. I really like their chicken salad. I've taken it on several backpacking trips. I hope they're a company that's here to stay. I hate it when I find something I really like and then it's not there anymore.

  4. Their chicken salad is really awesome and it's a perfect meal if it's raining and you can't cook. I wrote a review of it a few weeks ago: http://sectionhiker.com/2009/08/20/packit-gourmet
    You can't make it this good at home.

  5. I'd agree on the chicken salads – you can't beat them for ease and taste.

    I have reviewed them as well, but this was my favorite where I compared one to a version by Alpine Aire. I think we knew who would win from the start, eh? ;-)
    http://blog.trailcooking.com/2009/01/07/commercia

  6. Sarah – you are the person who first turned me onto Packit, and I am glad you did. Especially, after all that dehydrating I did over the summer. Now, I've found a good way to "outsource" some of that work.

  7. I bought a 1 pound bag of freeze dried chicken and lots of veggies from Packit this summer and made a series of wonderful soups and stews for my backpacking trip. I added my own spices and whole wheat couscous. I brought along a couple of ready prepared commercial pouches and they didn't touch the freshness or flavor of my own mixes with Packit components.

    Each meal I prepared was stored in a vacuum sealed bag with extra space for water addition. I slitted the top and placed the bag in a homemade envelope cozy and added boiling water heated on my penny stove. I felt happy knowing I had a hand in meal prep.

    I found the link for Packit from Sarah's blog (thanks!). After I ordered, I had it confirmed here with Philip. It is so good to find DIY resources on the internet. Makes the prep process lots of fun.

    I may try some of the mixes at Packit…they definitely do the components well.

  8. Great interview–good to learn a little more about PG behind the scenes. I have really enjoyed the few PG meals that I’ve had in the past–they remain the most delicious freeze-dried meals I’ve tasted, and I’ve certainly made some trail mates jealous when I’m eating the cheeseburger meal or similar on day one or two instead of waiting for that burger when you’re off the trail!

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