Before Heather Kelly was whipping up nutritious and delicious dehydrated backcountry meals and snacks for her brand Heather’s Choice, she was a collegiate rower and avid Crossfitter studying evolutionary sports nutrition at Western Washington University.
However, she soon noticed dorm food was causing her health and performance deteriorate. “This introduced me to the power of food,” Heather said. “And I realized that my diet was impacting my overall health.”
Once she earned her degree in Evolutionary Nutrition and a certification in the Psychology of Eating, Heather found herself back in her home state of Alaska, where, largely thanks to her mom, her introduction to and passion for nutrition really began.
“Being born and raised in Alaska is a huge part of my story. We always had access to things like wild salmon and wild berries,” she said.
Back in Alaska, Heather quickly fell in love with packrafting. “I loved being outside again, but had a hard time applying sports nutrition to these backcountry pursuits.”
“I was packing out whole bananas, whole apples,” she laughed. “It just didn’t work!”
At first out of necessity, and later as a creative endeavor, she started dehydrating food for adventurous escapades. Naturally, she’d share her culinary creations with friends, and eventually they were putting in requests of their own.
Then, in response to a friend’s triple-dog-dare to start a business, Heather’s Choice became LLC-official in the summer of 2014 — and she was soon blending up buckwheat breakfasts, savory chowders, and wildly popular cookies called Packaroons.
“I really developed these recipes with packrafting in mind; emphasizing lightweight, minimal packaging, really packing a caloric punch for people covering long distances … often in less than desirable Alaskan weather.”
With her background in sports nutrition, Heather knew she wasn’t the only one sensitive to common food allergens. As such, the brand offers a variety of gluten, soy, egg, peanut, and dairy-free selections.
“All of the recipes were inspired by people who were looking for high-quality food that was also free of those allergens,” she said.
Taste is fundamental, too. As a brand, Heather’s Choice frequently has to clarify that their products are dehydrated, not freeze dried. “The reason we like dehydrated food is the difference in flavor and texture,” she explained.
Heather’s mom inspired the brand’s name. As a baby, “being the ultimate mom that she was” Heather’s mother fed her wild and organic purees and often joked that she’d start an organic baby food line using the same name.
“She never did, so I yanked the name from her!” Heather said.
The initial response Heather’s Choice received after launching was a bit overwhelming. Once the website went live and they received some local press, the incoming orders quickly surpassed Heather’s production capacity. She remembered thinking “Woah! There’s orders coming in! This is crazy!”
“It got away from me pretty freakin’ fast!” she said.
As a result, she forced herself to take a step back to figure out how to meet the burning demands in a sustainable way. “You just have to have a reservoir of faith in yourself that you’re going to be okay, and keep that faith through the inevitable challenging times you will encounter as you build your business,” she said.
In time, Heather’s Choice got a grip on production, and set up shop in a “definitely too small” 1,600-square-foot former coffee shop in Anchorage.
“It was a highly unpopular decision to make,” she said of establishing production in Alaska, “but it’s critical that we can make it all ourselves in this one space. It’s become super valuable to run a small, tight ship with everything under one roof.”
New Heather’s Choice meals come from what Heather is cooking up in her own home — one she shares with her boyfriend, Brad. Paying attention to what she’s cooking on repeat, she’ll ask herself, “I wonder if I could dehydrate this?” Take it from Heather, avocado and scrambled eggs are instant flops.
From there, field testing takes place through their pack of ambassadors.
“Scaling the recipe up is where we get the most headache,” she laughed. “I mean, how are we going to cook and dehydrate 40 pounds of gluten-free noodles?”
She’s quick to acknowledge Brad’s invaluable involvement with Heather’s Choice. Serendipitously, the couple met just three days after Heather launched the brand.
“He’s been by my side for every step of this journey. He is definitely the yin to my yang,” Heather laughed. “I’m all vision, excitement, wave your hands. He’s all details.”
In addition to Heather and Brad, Heather’s Choice has a handful of cherished players rocking the production line, all in-house at their Anchorage facility.
While this is Heather’s “full-time-and-a-half” job, she still gets out on the water, and will never be seen without some smoked salmon chowder and a squirreled away blueberry almond Packaroon.