When Fernweh Food Co. founder Ashley Lance got laid off from her job at a Portland brewery, it was actually a pretty good thing. With a dehydrated food side-hustle still in its infancy, she thought, ‘This is my opportunity. I’m going to go for it and come out of the ashes.’
She briefly mourned the sudden career shift, and then she went right to work.
“Getting laid off was perfect timing,” she said. “That night I was on the computer, signed up for a class, came up with a name, and registered my business.”
Fernweh Food Co., which makes gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan dehydrated meals for outdoor adventurers, launched in early 2019. Its flagship offerings include Mushroom Pot Pie, Southwest Stew and Sweet Potato Breakfast Bowl — each made with a variety of locally sourced ingredients.
Ashley’s passion for nutritious food both in and out of the backcountry was a recipe years in the making. She studied culinary arts in college in Michigan, while simultaneously falling in love with the outdoors, especially bikepacking.
Moving out west to Oregon only fueled her interest in local, healthy, and delicious food. Ashley remembers the first time she dabbled with dehydrating food for her own adventures.
“At the time, the market for (backpacking) food was so different. There wasn’t much variety, and it was filled with chemicals,” she said. “Food should not last 20 years!”
“It was so fun to shrink-ray food,” she laughed of using her then roommate’s home dehydrator. “I’d take old carrots that were looking sad, and was just having fun with it. Leftovers? Let’s dehydrate it and see how it turns out!”
It was a great way to make food for backpacking and bikepacking, but the experiments came with ample flops.
Brussel sprouts, eggplant ...“it was mostly flops for the first few months,” she laughed. “But a handful of things turned out really well.”
At first, Fernweh Food Co. meals were only available locally, in bulk, using reusable containers provided by customers. “But, you can’t really sell large-scale that way,” Ashley laughed.
Eventually, the brand perfected and dialed in its 100% compostable, cook-in-the-bag packaging.
“From the bag to the label, everything has been researched,” Ashley said of the low-impact packaging. “If it ends up in the river, the garbage, no matter what, it will break down completely. It was important to me to be as truly compostable and sustainable as possible. I’m committed to that part of our mission.”
And as an alternative to single-use bags, Fernweh also offers a reusable, food-safe cotton-muslin bag option. Once the food has been cooked and enjoyed in a separate vessel, the bag can be used for future bulk grocery or farmer’s market shopping trips.
“People who follow us are all about sustainability and the zero-waste movement. We want to offer that to folks. We want a reusable option.”
Ashley is especially grateful for the Portland community’s support. “There’s a commitment to ‘local’ in Portland, more than any place I’ve experienced. They’ll support a small business even if it means paying more.”
And, Fernweh Food Co. reciprocates that local patronage just the same.
The brand sources a huge variety of fresh produce from small farms in the Portland area. Watermelon, apples, pears, persimmons, tomatoes, peppers, herbs — the local selection is plentiful. In fact, nearly 100% of their dehydrated snack options are made entirely from this bounty.
“I love working with the farms, going out and spending the day on the farm, eating produce with them,” Ashley said. “It’s so fulfilling.”
The ups and downs of starting her own brand are somewhat identical for Ashley.
“Learning to fail was very hard in the beginning. Hitting failure after failure with the recipes…” she recalled. “But as an overachiever my whole life, learning how to fail was actually really rewarding. It’s hard when you have these goals and not be able to get there. But then realizing with every failure there is some lesson to be learned and opportunity to be gained.”
Watching the brand grow is obviously fulfilling, too. In addition to hiring a small team, Fernweh Food Co. will be moving into a larger commercial kitchen later this year. Ashley is smitten over the new facility’s loading dock, roll up door, and a real dishwasher. “I’ve been handwashing for the last year and half, I’m really stoked!” she said.
“I’m excited for the growth and changes. I’ve shipped orders to almost every state in the US and it feels really good to have that recognition. We’re young and have more to do, but it’s a means to get to the next step. It’s a wonderful place to be.”