Take one brother working in business and another other in culinary arts. Add a heaping scoop of stoke for the mountains. Mix well. The result? The Montana-born, gourmet, freeze-dried adventure meal company, Pinnacle Foods.
For brothers John and Ben Ritner, the idea of going into business together has long been stewing.
“We have a lot of opposite strengths,” John said.
Ben studied photojournalism at the University of Montana and excelled in business and web design. John attended culinary school in North Carolina and has extensive experience working in fine dining restaurants.
The middle child of seven, John, was introduced to the kitchen at an early age, and immediately fell in love.
“When I was 12, my mom made a dessert pizza and let me arrange all the fruit. It just clicked. There’s even a picture of it, I was so excited,” John laughed. “It looks pretty and it tastes amazing. That was one of the amazing moments that triggered me to want to work with food.”
And for his entire adult life, he’s done just that, always working with food in some capacity. “But fine dining is where I credit all my culinary skills. Running the kitchen, working 50-hour weeks, I learned a ton.”
Fast forward to 2019 on a backpacking trip in Montana’s Madison Mountain Range. As the group sat eating their freeze-dried meals, Ben and John’s sister, Hannah, declared: “John can make this. Y’all can do this!”
“And that’s where it started,” John laughed. “It sounded perfect. It was all my culinary strengths mixed with Ben’s strengths in business and web design, combined with our passion of backpacking.”
John began cooking up some meals in the basement apartment he rented from Ben in Missoula, Montana. He’d make the same meal five different ways, and then put his culinary creations in the freeze dryer ... which was aptly set up in the garage.
“We were truly grown in our garage,” laughed John.
For six months, the brothers and both their wives tasted and critiqued John’s recipes.
“At first it was just getting used to the freeze-drying process, and learning what you can and can’t control,” John explained. “You can’t control multi-component dishes and have a side of this and a side of that,” he laughed. “It’s all gonna get stirred up anyway.”
One lesson John took from fine dining: you can’t make a really amazing meal with mediocre components. “If you want to make something really good, you’ve got to start with high-quality ingredients.”
Turns out, creating gourmet freeze-dried meals works much the same way. “What you put in is what you get out,” John said. “Freeze-drying technology is so cool and these machines are so smart.”
All of Pinnacle Foods’ meals include fresh herbs, which John says really deliver.
“With freeze drying, you’re just removing the moisture, and those flavors of fresh ingredients and fresh herbs really come through, rather than drying out.”
“I want to create meals that are complex in flavor and simple in ingredients; no additives, no preservatives, clean labels and, when possible, some local ingredients.”
In early 2020, Pinnacle Foods was officially in business, with an eclectic and mouth-watering mix of offerings, like Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuits with Herbed Sausage Gravy; Creamy Tuscan Chicken with Penne Pasta; and Herbed Roasted Chicken with White Cheddar Dumplings.
With six meals on the market to date, there are two more original recipes in Pinnacle’s pipeline.
The challenges were aplenty as John and Ben got the small brand off and running. Being in the food industry, licensing became the biggest hurdle. “It was a long process; it took months of back and forth. From the USDA to the Health Department to the FDA, there were so many unknowns that created a lot of stress.”
But, John is quick to mention the support and generosity they received in the brand’s infancy. “A majority of people really want to help small businesses get started, and are very kind if you just ask them for help and tell them what you’re doing.”
“It’s good to have a partner, too,” John said of Ben. “It’s easy to get discouraged starting a business, you often run into a lot of road blocks. You need somebody to say ‘keep going’ and ‘we got this, we’re good’.”
Once John’s second son was born, it became difficult to be so far away from family in North Carolina. In late 2020, the brothers made the decision to move the culinary side of Pinnacle Foods to High Point, NC.
“We’re in an awesome 3,200-square-foot kitchen in High Point. It’s perfect, with tons of room to grow. I’m excited for what’s coming up next.”
“One of the reasons we started this is so I can work in food and still prioritize family. That’s been a main goal from the start. And I love backpacking and being outdoors. I hope that this business gives us more opportunities to be outdoors and be in the community. This really checks all those boxes.”
“The feedback, of course, is something that drives me, too. The thought that people are eating meals I cooked, all over the country, in some of the coolest places in the country — that’s so cool! It’s a wild ride and I’m excited to be on it.”