It all started on a 7-day backpacking trip through the Sawtooth mountains. Dissatisfied with the commercially available options for freeze-dried meals, Vincent Robichaud made all the food for the trip himself. The meals were gluten free, as his son-in-law has celiac disease, and tasted delicious, thanks to the decades his mom spent teaching him how to cook.
At some point during that backpacking trip, everyone looked at Vince and said he ought to consider setting up a business to sell his meals. His response: “You guys come up with a really good name and I’ll do it.”
The brainstorming began with all sorts of possible business names getting thrown into the mix. Then, at some point, the group landed on Trailtopia.
“I really liked it,” Vince said. “So I was kind of on the hook after that.”
As soon as they made it back to civilization, Vince registered Trailtopia’s domain and formed an LLC. He also did some back-of-the-napkin calculations to figure out if he had decent enough margins. Then the real work began.
“Converting the stuff you make for friends and family to commercial production is a whole other matter,” Vince said.
Methodical by nature, Vince fine tuned his recipes and dove into ingredient sourcing.
“Sourcing ingredients is extremely important,” Vince said. “I’m really particular about the ingredients we use.”
For example, he tested more than 30 different noodle possibilities for Trailtopia’s Beef Stroganoff, looking at variables like texture, cook times, certificates of analysis, price and supply.
Most of Trailtopia’s ingredients are freeze dried, with a few exceptions such as the noodles, seasonings and flavorings. And only the meat is pre-cooked. That means that all other ingredients get cooked for the first time when you add boiling water to the bag.
“Freeze-dried food has a better quality, texture and flavor profile, and it rehydrates faster,” Vince said.
Trailtopia meals are also free of preservatives, additives and MSG, and include premium freeze-dried fruits and vegetables. “When you look at our broccoli, it looks like broccoli,” Vince said.
In addition to obsessing about ingredients, Vince gives a tremendous amount of attention to how Trailtopia meals taste, creating all the flavorings himself from scratch, and making his own ingredients when necessary. For example, the graham crackers used in the cheesecake pudding are made in-house, as is the crisp in the fruit desserts.
“The crisp topping is essentially the same topping I make here at home,” Vince said.
Another example of the attention to detail that goes into Trailtopia’s meals: Vince recently decided to change the beef and chicken bullion used in his recipes because they contained “very chemical sounding” ingredients.
“In my search for a bullion replacement, I literally tried over 100 different kinds,” he said. Most of them were high in sodium or “simply didn’t taste very good.” Six months later, Vince settled on a yeast based extract.
Trailtopia’s commitment to going above and beyond doesn’t stop at the food itself. The brand also custom makes all of its packaging.
Vince and his family had long been annoyed with the tall bags that hold most backpacking food. To use them, you have to stick your utensil deep inside, resulting in sticky hands and wasted calories that can’t quite be scraped out.
“So, we said, why don’t you turn the bag sideways,” Vince said.
To make Trailtopia’s bags squat and wide, Vince first welded his own prototypes and then worked with a packaging company. While more costly, the result is well worth it, Vince said, adding that they get a lot of positive customer feedback on the design.
Trailtopia also color codes the labels on all of its meals — light yellow for breakfasts, dark blue for lunches or light dinners, forest brown for entrees, and a tantalizing orange for desserts. The idea is to make it easy to find what you’re looking for when the meals are heaped in your pack.
In addition to preparing Trailtopia’s meals, Vince and his family do all of their own labeling and packaging. They started out by renting a kitchen in a senior center. Then they bought and moved into a 2,200-square-foot building in a small Minnesota farm town. It took a significant amount of remodeling to bring the building into compliance with stringent food processing codes.
“We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that building,” Vince said. “Now we’re about outgrowing it.”
In addition to Trailtopia, Vince works a full-time IT job, meaning that he has to fit his business into morning, evening and weekend hours. Right now, his day job is funding Trailtopia, but he hopes to be able to move on from corporate America — and the shifting whims of higher ups — at some point.
During the Great Recession he was laid off for two years, getting only two job interviews in that time.
“I’ve been working in corporate America for a long, long time, and I don’t really want to do that any more,” Vince said, while also fully recognizing that being an entrepreneur is riddled with its own challenges.
“You have to invest your body, mind, spirit and money to really be successful,” he said. “You put a lot of life and hobbies to the side.”
But, fortunately, Vince is not totally in it alone. His three grown children all play an active role in the business, as does his wife. And friends help out too.
“My family has been just fantastic in supporting this vision and idea,” Vince said. “I’m super grateful to have such a great family.”