Heather Kelly’s journey to found her own food company started at an early age. Growing up in Alaska with her mother’s cooking, she developed an appreciation for delicious food. As a member of the rowing team at Western Washington State University, she realized the impact nutrition had on performance. It comes as no surprise, then, that her business helps give outdoor adventurers food that is convenient, nutritious, and tasty at the same time.
“Our team was highly competitive, having already won two national championships. Deep down I understood that if I wanted to work my way into the varsity boat, I needed the best food I could get my hands on,” Kelly says of her rowing days.
Not only did Kelly help the rowing team win its sixth and seventh straight NCAA championships, but she also graduated with a degree in Evolutionary Nutrition. After developing her own recipes and dehydrating her own foods to explore the Alaska wilderness, she conceived of Heather’s Choice, which she started in 2014.
“My mission is to provide healthy, delicious, packable food for adventurers worldwide. Whether at home, on the road, or in the backcountry, you deserve to eat well. I hope to encourage more people to improve the quality of the food they eat, whether that is at home or in the backcountry,” she says.
Headquarted in Anchorage, the company’s popular just-add-water meals have historically featured exotic game meats such as venison, quail, antelope, and grass-fed bison. Earlier this year, the company earned its USDA grant of inspection, which will allow the company to process and sell meals from USDA-approved proteins like beef, chicken and pork.
When the company began operation, Kelly says that dehydrated foods companies were few and far between.
“Our largest competitors are producers of freeze-dried foods,” she explains. “The difference is that freeze-dried foods require preservatives to maintain their shelf life, whereas dehydrated foods do not require any additional preservatives. This makes dehydrated food a healthier option!”
As the demand for health y products increased and other dehydrated food companies have entered the market, Heather’s Choice has maintained a competitive advantage by focusing on gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free products with an emphasis on sustainable, locally sourced proteins. As the proteins that the company included in its meals were classified as non-amenable, Heather’s Choice did not need a USDA Grant of Inspection to process. That option, however, did limit its product choices.
“Now that we have officially received our USDA Grant of Inspection we can start developing dehydrated meals with Alaskan-sourced beef, chicken, and pork. This will allow us to create a more affordable product for our consumers and continue to provide protein-packed backcountry meal options,” she says.
The process of gaining the certificate took about six months, including working with a food consultant to draft a HACCP plan and waiting for an inspector to review the facility in Anchorage.
Some of the company’s current products include a dark chocolate chili with bison meat and a smoked sockeye salmon chowder. With federal inspection in place, the company hopes to quickly add entrees like Chicken Mole and a Hunter’s Pie to its options. It also offers many breakfast cereals and “Packaroons,” which are flavorful cookies designed to stand up to the tough conditions of outdoor adventurers.
Heather’s Choice operates out of a 1,600-square-foot facility, with five production employees. Kelly said at the onset that she worked with co-packers but decided to take the processing in-house.
“By producing all of our meals and snacks in house, we can make sure that every single product is manufactured to the highest standard and taste tested for quality approval,” she said.
Heather’s Choice also plans to obtain a gluten-free inspection, making it the first commercial kitchen in Anchorage to be both USDA and gluten-free inspected.