Before becoming the founder of Greenbelly Meals, Chris Cage spent his days holed up in a Birmingham, Alabama office as an accountant.
Chris knew pretty quickly that being an accountant wasn’t a good long-term fit for him. “I should just quit and do the Appalachian Trail and then figure out what to do after that,” he thought to himself. After saving money for two years, that’s exactly what he did.
In addition to completing an AT thru-hike, his time off also included cycling the length of New Zealand, volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, and teaching English in Thailand.
“I was burning a ton of calories from that type of travel,” Chris said. “I’m already lean framed to begin with and I was losing just a ton of weight, especially on the AT.”
While drinking olive oil and pounding peanut butter helped to mitigate the situation, it also got Chris thinking about a potential real solution that would “cram in a ton of nutrition, be lightweight and ready to eat, feature clean ingredients, taste good, and have the right kind of macronutrients.”
So, in 2014, Chris moved back in with his parents in Georgia and started nerding out on the idea of non-cook, stoveless backpacking food. It took both substantial time and working with a food scientist, but eventually he figured out how to make a product that met his parameters and was also shelf stable. And thus Greenbelly Meals was born.
In the beginning, Chris made his meal bars in his mom’s kitchen, hand-sealing them with generic packaging sleeves. To get word out, he sent samples to 30 some bloggers and influencers. Before long, reviews began to roll in and sales started to pick up.
Chris, however, still found himself flat broke and frankly discouraged that he needed to live with his parents.
“Looking back I definitely had some insecurities about living with my parents after being independent for several years,” he said. “The greatest challenge was definitely the psychology of getting through year one.”
In addition to having given up a stable job, Chris for the first time encountered the demoralizing equation where effort didn’t always equal reward. “You put in the time and effort and you have no idea if you’re going to get any return on it,” he said.
To keep himself going, he’d sometimes find himself repeating, over and over: “I’m not a loser, I’m not a loser, I’m not a loser.”
It was a 2015 Kickstarter, which raised $19K, that proved to be the turning point for Chris and Greenbelly Meals. “Now it doesn’t sound like much money, but at the time, it was exactly what I needed to get out of my mom’s kitchen,” he said.
In addition to getting a proper kitchen setup, the Kickstarter funding allowed Chris to shift his focus from production and customer service to marketing. And, as marketing can be done from anywhere in the world with Internet, Chris once again hit the road.
His first stop was Thailand, where he rented an apartment for $150 per month. The cheap lifestyle allowed him financial breathing room. “Beyond the desire of wanting to travel, it was actually fairly necessary,” he said.
Ever since that stint in Thailand, Chris has run Greenbelly Meals remotely, hopping from one country to the next over a 4-year span, putting down roots for four to five months at a time. His travels have taken him to Spain, Bali and Guatemala, among other destinations. “It’s been an absolute blast. I’m super thankful for it,” he said.
Meanwhile, a team of folks in Kentucky holds down the Greenbelly fort. All Greenbelly Meals are custom made in small batches and shipped fresh daily directly from the brand's facility.
Of the flavors offered, Dark Chocolate Banana slightly edges out the other options as the most ordered. Greenbelly also recently released a new flavor, one Chris particularly loves — Mango Cashew Coconut.
It’s possible that in the not too distant future Chris will be joining the Kentucky crew back in the States. At age 31, he’s feeling ready to put down roots. His time abroad has also given him a specific appreciation for the American mindset.
“The States has a unique combination of work ethic and ambition,” he said. “Americans make things happen. I love that. I really love that.”
As Chris reflects on his last six years of first launching and then running Greenbelly Meals, he feels super proud of creating something that people like and value. Greenbelly Meals continue to be made from clean, raw ingredients, and feature chunky fruit and nut textures. “When we order peanuts, we make sure they’re whole peanuts,” Chris said by way of example.
Chris also feels quite proud of how starting a business allowed him to take control of his life. “Having a profitable business that sustains the lifestyle I want is a big personal one,” he said of his list of accomplishments.