- Chris Cage
- Founder of Greenbelly Meals
Chris is the founder of Greenbelly Meals, a company he founded in his mom’s kitchen after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Greenbelly makes a ready-to-eat meal loaded with dense nutrition for hikers and adventurers. Chris also wrote a book called “How to Hike the Appalachian Trail” and has appeared on podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience. When he’s not hiking, he can be found rock climbing, playing board games or nerding out on punk rock.
- Cottage Food Laws
- Kickstarter raised 19k
- April Dunford – Obviously Awesome
- Chad from Boardgame Tables
- 4 Hour Workweek
In this episode of The Business of eCommerce. I talk with Chris Cage about founding an eCommerce foods business. This is a business of eCommerce episode 120. Welcome to the business of eCommerce. The show that helps eCommerce retailers start, launch and grow their eCommerce business. I am Charles Palleschi and I’m here today with Chris Cage. Chris is the founder of green belly meals, a company that he founded in his mom’s kitchen after hiking the Appalachian trail, green belly makes a ready to eat mills bar loaded with dense nutrients for hikers and adventurers. I as Chris on the show today to chat about his experience launching an eCommerce foods brand. So, Hey Chris, how are you doing today?
Charles, what’s up man? Thanks for having me.
Yeah, awesome to have you on the show. It we’re just chatting before the show. Currently your abroad, right? So you’re originally from the U S but currently you are?
Yeah, I’m in Chiang Mai, Thailand right now. If you can tell the it’s dark. Yeah. But yeah, we are worlds away right now. Yeah, I’m in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Yeah. So, and that’s, I know we had to do some time-sucking here. It’s early for me, late for you. But so thank you for taking the time.
Yeah, man. Thanks for having me do. Yeah. But yeah, we are a little bit off on time, so that’s for sure.
Yeah, exactly the opposite of most. I think actually it might be the opposite. It’s super interesting. You’re kind of the background. So ready to eat backpacking mail. Right? So this is a bar. So you guys sell it’s a bar specifically if you’re a backpacker like a protein bar sort of thing or what exactly is it?
Yeah, it’s two large fluffy meal bars inside a single package that provides 650 calories. So we use all natural ingredients and really just try to focus on a high macro nutrient label. So high calorie protein, fat, fiber, all that good stuff. So for hikers, which is, my background is I was a hiker and hiking the Appalachian trail and hiking 20 miles a day for six months. That, you know, I said, Hey, you know, I was losing a lot of weight and weight, is it weight on your pack as a huge priority because you generally have maybe a hundred miles or five days in between resupply points that you need to make sure that the food you are carrying in between those resupply points is as nutritionally dense as possible. So that was kind of where the idea came from is get creating a product that’s going to be nutritionally dense. So if you’re burning 5,000 calories a day and you could have to and you have to carry all the food, you know, in your pack for the next five days, it really needs to be dense. So I started thinking about creating a really dense lightweight ready to eat meal that, you know, was all natural.
So, okay. Yeah. I don’t talk to too many people that are in that kind of actual food space. I feel like that in itself, it’s like its own thing, right? How to actually package it. Like you just can’t, you know, you can’t do the bare minimum. You actually need to like really make sure it stays fresh. There’s a lot of things that go into that. How did you know all that? How did you figure out?
Yeah, you’re, you’re, you’re 100% right. I think I think it’s a higher barrier to entry, which is good and that it’s bad for the person starting off. It’s great. I feel like once you kind of get going a little bit but you know, when I start, I started off and I hiked the Appalachian trail in 2013, which that when I completed the Appalachian trail, I, prior to leaving, excuse me, I don’t know if you know what that goes chose? It’s, it’s a hiking trail that goes from Georgia to Maine and it takes six months to hike. So I had quit my accounting job to hike that and I, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished it. So I knew that I didn’t want to go back to be an accountant. I, and I was kinda thinking about starting a business and based on my hiking experience of the past six months, I was pretty familiar with the backpacking food market.
And I said, you know what, I’m going to take a stab at this high calorie ready to eat, you know, meal concept. And I really didn’t have that nailed down too, too much. I started tinkering in my mom’s kitchen. So after the Appalachian trail I was, I didn’t have, I only had a little bit of savings left from being an accountant. So I was living at home with my parents and trying to come up with, you know, this, this business idea for this meal. And at that time it was actually just mixing like nut butters and peanut butters together, trying to get a high calorie ready to eat thing together. And I quickly realized that this is not going to work. I’m just mixing up stuff in my mom’s kitchen. So yeah, I started to think about working with somebody else. I knew this was going to be way over my head and into be shelf stable and it has to taste good.
There are all these things that this food product had to be. And I, yeah, I realized very early on that this is, it’s over my head and I needed to kind of hire somebody that knew on that front. So that was, I really spent the last of my savings hiring that food scientist. And that was, that’s what they were called, the food scientists. Somebody that can help you formulate a food product. So I’d be, yeah, that was, that was it, you know, I really didn’t know what I was doing and I just thought, you know, hopefully I, I had an idea of a concept that I wanted to work with and I would just worked hand in hand with that food scientist developing the product. And then I went to hiking festivals and handed out the samples and kinda got some feedback, making sure that what we had created was tasted good and the concept seemed sound and you know, all that, all that stuff. So I really just kind of went, went for it, you know, those first six months, you know, and honestly I really didn’t know what I was doing.
So how old were you then?
So I’m 31 now. I guess I was about 26 when I was 26 when I was first starting doing all that. Maybe, you know, in 27, I think when I first really launched the business. Yep. That’d be curious. Yeah.
Where people were, you know, so you spent all your savings living, living in a parent’s house and then just kind of said, all right, like, let’s make a go of this. So then you’re 26, 27. And were you, did you ramp up processing yet at that point when you started selling them at festivals or were you just still like, did you figure out the recipe but you were making very small batches yourself?
Exactly. So there are cottage food laws which allow you to sell within your state. If you’re selling under $50,000, which is perfect, right? It’s just like a a testing ground, right. To make sure that this, this idea was was going to, going to float
As long as you don’t need to like like a special kitchen or,
Exactly. And that’s what they’re designed to do. So it’s like if you go to your locals local farmer’s market and you see maybe some guy, I don’t know, selling a pie, right? Like he’s not in a commercial kitchen, probably he’s going to be under cottage food less depending on what your state you’re in. Right. but in general, so anyway, I was in making these, in my mom’s kitchen by hand. My mom was helping me and I was packing, packaging them all boxing up orders, shipping them out. And once I kind of like got a few orders coming in, I started thinking about launching a Kickstarter. I didn’t have any money and I, that was in late 2014 I started thinking about, okay, we have some sales here. I don’t know if this product’s really going to go bang, but I, there’s enough here to take a step back and try to get some more money to take it to the next step.
And that’s, so I started planning a Kickstarter for March, 2015 so I did a Kickstarter in March, 2015 which raised $19,000. And you know, at the time I thought it was, might as well been 1 million bucks. I thought it was, how much was it? I thought it was 19,000. So, and you know at the time it was exactly what I needed. You know, it was enough to do what needed to be done, which was get into a certified facility. So now we had this order from the Kickstarter that, that allowed us to go to approach a facility and say, will you make these, you know, for us. And that’s when things got set up. But, you know, yeah. Now it’s, it’s entertaining looking back. So they were paying
Two for the first run of this and how many people actually kind of bought into that?
I don’t, I mean I actually don’t even know the, the, how many people I know the dollar amount is 19,000, but that was the focus a hundred, a few hundred customers, right? Yup. Something along those lines. And that was just a large enough order for me to go approach the facility and say, Hey, are y’all interested in making these as well as having a potential partnership going forward to make future runs. And it was a small kitchen in Kentucky. And they said sure. And that was, that was the beginning of kind of getting, turning Greenville into a real business is starting that after that Kickstarter. And cause after that I didn’t have to be making them anymore. I was not packaging them. I was not shipping all the orders. That’s really all I was doing before, you know, I didn’t have much time to do other stuff. So yeah, that was, that was a huge turning point is getting that off my plate, which, so we had the Kickstarter on March, 2015 and the next few months after that we started making the the order. And getting everything out. And then, you know, the business was really started to, I was able to focus on growing the business in late 2015, so,
Okay. Yeah, I had we were talking before chat from board game tables on hair. And they actually had a similar story where they wanted to do it, raise the Kickstarter and use that to fund the first run of development basically.
Yeah, it’s, it’s super cool. I was saying like, I think $19,000 is, it seems very humble in the hell looking back on that and what I was able to do from it, but it was, it really was critical, you know, and and that first phase when I didn’t have any money, that $19,000 gave us exactly what we needed to get to get off the ground, you know?
Well, and it probably gave you the kind of, I don’t know if confidence is the right word, but confidence in the product that this is something people want. Like, you know, it’s not because one thing going to a festival, right. When you look at someone in the eye and you’re like, Hey, this is great and you can really sell it and talk like maybe just a good sales person, but the fact you can go and sell 19,000 online, you’re like, Oh this is diff. Like I don’t need to be face to face. Like maybe I can sell, if I can sell 19 I can sell a hundred and a million or whatever that number is.
It definitely did. It definitely, it definitely gives them confidence. I think that’s a good word for it. And I, you know, I think back to your point about, you know, people telling me to my face, I was handing out the bars for free. So I mean there was, what was it going to take it, right? Yeah. So I mean that was the real financial exchange of them, you know, being thankful from the Kickstarter. So
Yeah. So I feel like that’s, so that’s at moment, it wasn’t just cause it’s like, right, yo, maybe parents, rich uncle or something could have given the 19,000 right. But like, you know, once, you know, people that don’t know me never met me, I’m not giving them anymore. They gave me those. Now
That’s the, that’s the coolest thing when you start seeing people come in and you’ve never heard of buying your stuff. Yeah,
I remember about actually I first went to e-commerce, I had a computer hair just sat in the culinary and all it did, it was set up to every time someone added to cart, they made a ding like a little purchase. It just like the dopamine rush of when that happened. It was like once it was a dig, when it wouldn’t add to cart and a Ching, when it went checkout as the title of his dog just it was, yeah. And then at some point it got too much. But like at the beginning it was just sitting there like, and you’d hit the ding and you’re like, it’s the best thing I’ve yeah, that, that first little hit is, it’s, it’s addictive. Cause then you know, people actually want what I’m selling. Totally. So then where did you, so then this was, what year are we talking now? That kinda
2002 was it March, 2015 was when the Kickstarter started launched and kind of had the order orders shipping by I believe August and August. Yeah. And then from there I was marketing, right. How do I get to, how do I get this thing going? Cause the operations was off my, off my plate. Right.
Well so, and this is, so we’re talking kind of before about, you know, folks that make a lot of the Amazon, it’s like their focus or they’re trying to sell on third party marketplaces. This is a little different, right? Because you’re not saying, Hey, this is like a bar for everyone. Like you know, if you’re just a 18 to 35 male, like you should eat this. This is a very specific niche. Like, you know, backpackers like I’m guessing this backpacking groups or forums or backpacking, something where you know, these people are their hair and let’s go find them.
Totally. Yeah. The, I mean the next phase was grow. How do we grow this and get sales? Right. And that was also, I think a big point around then was trying to define what are we, I had started off no doubt as a, as a hiker, hiker, a product for hikers. That was my background. That was the intended use. But it was also like in, in our infancy was, you know, we were getting all sorts of ideas and when you’re small, it’s easy to be nimble and lots of people were, you know, talking about how maybe there’s a better application for this for cyclists or, you know, maybe it was a better application for this for ultra marathon runners. They’re going running, you know, hundreds of miles. So that was kind of like, really, I was trying to just figure out where do we fit.
Right. It was, it was so early enough that the marketing and branding really wasn’t spot on. It didn’t really need to be spot on. I was just kind of, you know, feeling things out. And eventually I did really come in and kind of kind of come full circle back to the backpacking market and the initial wave was sending out lots of samples to PR outlets and saying, you know, we kind of have the best backpacking meal out there, right? We’re ready to eat, we’re all natural, we’re a lot more efficient than these other products where a lot lighter way to we have more kinda, you know, all these things. And that got us a lot of good write-ups, you know, early on from small, medium and large blogs, websites and outlets. So that was a great first wave. And after that I started working on a lot of content, a lot of blog content and that was, that was and is one of our main pillars for sales.
It generates a lot of traffic to our website. [inaudible] That’s, that’s, that’s one of our main, our main jam is doing content marketing and doing SEO optimized blog posts for anything and everything backpacking related. So then somewhere along the line, Amazon is such a Titan. Obviously we went ahead and just listed on Amazon. So, because we are listed on Amazon and we do get sales by default, just cause we’re there, I think a certain percentage of our customers just say, you know, Hey, what do you know? I’m an Amazon prime member, so I’m gonna and I’m looking for these, these green belly meals. I’m just going to go buy them on Amazon. I don’t have, it’s hard to know the data really like what, what the intent and where a lot of that traffic is coming from on Amazon. But since day one we’ve been a Shopify brand on Amazon, roughly roughly.
It’s a, it’s a hair more expensive on Amazon. But it’s, it’s roughly the same. Okay. So yeah. Yeah, we’re still mostly Shopify and I want it to stay mostly on Shopify. Okay. Yeah. And I think a lot of, a lot of brands and products start off very you know, data-driven, right? Like what’s the keyword volume? And they try to find their, their, you know, hole in the market to, you know, fill, and that was not my intent starting off at all. I’m not saying that that’s, I mean I now knowing what I know now about a lot of the data driven stuff, I think it’s a very interesting way to launch a business, but that’s not how we started off. And frankly it’s a unique product. So there are not too many keywords we really nail. Which has been I think a blessing and a curse. We’ve kind of had to define what we are. But it’s also been very beneficial in the fact that there’s not much competition. And it’s enabled us to maintain, I think a good brand presence off of such a keyword dominated platform like Amazon.
Well, I think you said an interesting thing. I’m going to go where you this. So this buyer, right? It’s a high calorie, good for people that going along distance need a lot of energy and it’s good for hikers, but it also could have been useful for several other markets. I know someone did a century like cycling for and a hundred miles. I’ve known folks that have done like Backwoods skiing. I don’t even know if I’m saying it right where they spend like the whole day, you know, climb to the top and they do one rundown. And those all kind of remind me of things where this could be applicable, right? Like they all need to basically carry the food in their back, go for a long distance of day or days. Right. But you kind of, and you saw that, but said, let’s double down on, let’s just focus on this one niche, this like very specific niche. So you’re not trying to just be an energy buyer for outdoors folks. You’re trying to be, this is a buyer for this very specific. We always talk about having a certain, you know, the exactly someone that you go and that’s one of those things. You were very focused on that and that, so that wasn’t data-driven, that was just kind of use knew this felt right. Let’s kind of go for it.
Combination of feeling right and a little bit experimentation with different markets and just seeing, throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. But yeah, totally. It just came back full circle that the backpackers, backpackers made sense, you know, and by focusing on that niche, really it gave us kind of a sharper spearhead. Right. You know which I think before in a classic thing is like you market to everybody you market to no one, which that was us to a T army to a T, you know, it was like, Oh, maybe we’re this like ready to eat meal for people on the go. Right. Maybe we are there, all these things and all these ideas. You know, people were trying to bounce off of me and you know, I think fair enough, right? Maybe there could have been another market that would’ve worked better than backpackers, but ultimately it really helped to hone in on a specific market and just speak to that audience, you know, and go full throttle with them.
Do you ever read the book? I’m April Dunford, obviously. Awesome. It’s on Brandon. No. Yeah, good book. I’ll look to us. It’s fantastic. And it kind of reminds me of this on knowing who we are and kind of focusing like right on that, cause it sounds like, and this is one of those things where this business could have gotten 50 different ways to 50 different markets, but you just kind of chose a path and when heads down and that all sounds like it allows you to build that content and you know, so when you’re writing an article it’s just not, I’d have more energy in the morning, you know, drinking your coffee. It’s, you can pitch it. The guy is a guy or a woman on the Appalachian trail pack, you know, pack behind them, climbing 20 miles a day, hiking 20 miles a day. So you know, and you know how to talk to that exact person because you’ve lived
100%, 100%. I think what’s also even more interesting beyond that is you start to see other markets gravitating towards that market, right? So if we’re targeting through hikers and long distance backpackers, you start seeing, well the everyday backpacker looks to those people for their gear source. And then now we’ve seen, I know when interesting things you started to see hunters I didn’t even know hunters did this sort of thing, but hunters look towards long distance backpackers a lot of times for their gear, you know, and so they’re starting to, we have, we have a chunk of our, I think it’s 15% of our customers are hunters now, which I had no idea. So it’s interesting, by sticking with a sticking with something, you start seeing these kind of ripple effect of other markets gravitating towards that one. So, Hmm.
Yeah. Do you call them and tell them that’s not what that’s used for? You?
Stop please. This is not for hunters. So,
So then at the, at the side of the show, we’re talking your current, so you’re baking the product of packaging it in Kentucky, but you’re currently in Asia. How did that happen?
Yeah. You know, going back to completing that place in trail in 2013 I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had a little more backstory prior to hiking the Appalachian trail. I was an accountant up until I guess 2011 and after 2011 I went and traveled, they did a bicycle tour in New Zealand. I’ve cycled bicycle, the length of the country to hike the Appalachian trail. I volunteered in Asia, I taught English in Thailand, volunteered in orphanage in Cambodia. So I was traveling a lot. Right. And I just loved it all right. I was like really into it and I had gotten, I’d been exposed a little bit to the kind of the four hour work week stuff. Right. And the, that whole stuff is, is everybody’s aware of, of how you know that, that book now and you know, the concepts around the digital nomad thing now. But at the time it was just fascinating to me, the fact that you could kind of work, you know, and continued to do all these fun travel things that I’d been exposed to. So I really
Generation that book like, yeah, that’s like, I don’t want to have an interview
Bring him for work because it’s so cliche. But
Yeah, that’s, it’s one of those books. Yeah. I feel like a lot of people. Yeah. And it like changed the opened ever opened a lot of people’s eyes. So just like, Oh wow, this is like a different life possible. And probably when you were coming out like, you know, teens, twenties where like you’re picturing I’m going to go get a job being an accountant, but then all of a sudden you kind of saw this like other world. Yeah. Like I don’t need to like I don’t need to sit at that desk. I don’t have to live like that. Yeah. 100% gave us, he allowed us all to, you know, give up. He gave us permission not to live like dash, which is fantastic. Totally. Yeah.
Thank you. That 100% 100% yeah, 100% so I, yeah, I think so early on in the days of starting the business, I thought that was ultimately the goal was not necessarily to make a ton of money or anything like that. It was how do I fund a lifestyle where I can live wherever I want. Yup. So that was really, you know, I was trying to be an architect and, and make this kind of business work for me to live this lifestyle. So it took a long time for me to be able to really do that. But yeah, I’m an Asian now and outsourcing production was crucial early on. You know, that first year I lived in a really cheap apartment in Thailand, you know, and but you know, since then it’s been, it’s been a lot of fun. You know, it’s been, yeah, interestingly enough, I think I’m like five years or four years into it, I’m thinking about being in the States more now, you know, being there full time. But it’s been a fun run.
Oh, just because you want to be in the States,
Both the businesses. I definitely, there’s definitely friction being 12 hours time zone off for sure. So I think in the past I’ve got a plane coming over if you hear chain was over the flight path. But yeah, the business calls, I mean, that, that’s increased more every year. The amount of time I need to spend on the phone with business calls and that just forces me to be up late and Asia. So that’s, that’s definitely a reason. But also I’m getting older, you know, I’m considering moving back to the States and getting married and doing all that stuff. And and I think also a little bit like there’s a little bit of diminishing returns with traveling and seeing new country after new country. It’s kinda like, Hmm, I love traveling, but I think every new country I see it gets a little less exciting, you know? And I love the States, you know, that’s where my family and friends are and I’d say that that’s where I see myself longterm. So I think just slowly kind of
Sounds like the business is already kind of set up to run it, you know, like it ha you can’t run with you 100%, like watching it every single second just because you’re sleeping half the time. So you’ve already kind of set up things to be a little independent from your hands in everything it sounds like.
Absolutely. Yeah. That was pretty early on getting a setup like that.
Well, early on it probably by necessity, but now it’s almost kind of playing to your benefit. Right? So you don’t have to come back now at least you’re a little more independent. But how, how big is the team right now?
Yeah. Well, so we have, we work with a co-packer, but we’re their largest clients. They’re more like a partner. Co-Packer is somebody that you outsource your production to, to make your food. But we’re the largest client, so they’re kind of like a partner. So they’re still contract labor though, but that’s for three to four ish people there. We’ve got two full time remote people online and we’ve got two riders got a few other contractors that do graphic design and web development, that sort of thing. So roughly maybe seven, eight, you know, ish in that range, in that ballpark.
It’s funny now with the combination of remote and part time and contractors, it’s kind of like, like, I feel like 20 years ago used to be like a number, like a six. Now it’s like, it’s like a little more fuzzy number,
Right. If we were like a US-based, like come into the office, it’d be much easier to define. But in like the remote day and age where we’ve got, like you said, it’s, you got all these plus half plus half plus half, you know, I don’t really know how that adds up to full time. Yup.
Where do you see things going from hair? Is the goal to build, you know, kind of, is there more buyers you could tell them more backpackers that just haven’t heard of you? Or are there more products you go horizontal? Like what do you kind of foresee things happening?
That’s a, that’s a great question. I’ve been toiling with for probably the past year really is we’ve done so much SEO focused blog content. I mean, we’re continuing to crank out that stuff. There’s a lot, I mean, we’re still relatively small and we’ve grown a lot over the past four years. I think we’ve, on average, nearly doubled growth every year. So I’m, I’m not going to say by any means, I’m not happy with the growth we’ve had, but I think there’s a lot, like there’s still like a ton of backpackers that don’t know about us. So like even sticking with just our core, like I think that there’s a huge opportunity just sticking with our core and growing with backpackers. So I still wanna I still wanna do that. We don’t, we haven’t attacked retail basically at all. So we are all online. Retail has been something that I’ve been debating whether or not to go for for a couple of years now. I think the lifestyle would be different. Me approaching retail, but that’s something that I’ve been considering. There’s a lot of stuff. I mean, really, we’ve talked about launching different products. There’s stuff I’m working on right now that’s going to be totally a different product and I know we’re going to be doing some more YouTube next year. So yeah, really just full front on, on marketing in any way that we can.
What’s an old marketing adage? Wait, you’re supposed to sell the same product to a different market or a different product to the same market, but you’re not allowed to do both. [inaudible] From bud. I always took out that one.
No, I haven’t heard that. I haven’t heard that. I was actually reading a Harvard business review is having, they had a great way of like the four, there are only four ways to grow a business and it was, you know, like find new customers, sell more to the same customers. I don’t remember what they all were, but it was just like when I looked at it like that, it’s just like, Oh that’s, that’s so interesting because I felt like we had been selling the same product to the same customers and just trying to get more customers. Right. That was just like one of the four ways is the only way we had been approaching it.
Well, and that’s one of the things you, you, you do that until that kind of stops the plateau, right? Like you can, like that’s why I asked like, are there backpackers that haven’t heard of you? Because maybe you’re only selling to 2% of them and there’s the other 98% that you could just keep doing and you literally do more of the exact same thing. And that’s almost always like the first and best thing to do. Like if, if you look and you’re like, where are 1% of the market we can keep going, then great, do VASH. But once you kind of know, yeah, you can see the, once you kind of see that coming, then I always picture kind of like like basketball where you can stop and you can pivot on one foot or the other, but you can’t do both. Right? Like you kind of have to say, now that you know what, I’m going to do this, what am I doing? And you can pick your direction and go, yes. Yeah. So is that, is that kind of how you’re seeing it all?
I don’t have a sense of what are share is if the backpacking food world, I don’t, but it’s a massive market, right? Like if, you know, familiar with mountain house I mean anything like that. Any outdoor food is really the real market, right. At any adventure food. Right. So that’s a massive so I know that we have a small piece of that pie, so I would just say like, I want to, I want a larger chunk of that pie.
Yup. Yeah. And that’s usually, and that’s usually the easiest, right? Because you know how to reach them, you know what to do. You just do more of the same thing verus different product. That is whole learning, going to retail. That’s who, you know, that’s a whole different beast on, it’s all right. But you’re just saying if you know what to do, it’s still working. It’s more market just double down. Triple down now. Totally. Awesome. All right. I think that’s super helpful. If folks want to kind of find you, learn more about, you kind of see the latest foods, are you working on? What can they do that, yeah, we are agreeing belly dot C O and yeah, if you want to shoot me a note, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Okay. How will we, Tasha know it’s thanks a lot for coming on, Chris. All right, thanks for having me.