Episode 3 – Chris Cage – Quitting his job, Hiking and Developing new food products

June 27, 2019

In this week’s episode I speak with Chris Cage, the founder of Greenbelly Meals. Chris developed the product after taking two years off to travel the world and ride the length of New Zealand, travel around Asia and complete a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Sites and Resources Mentioned:


Kevin Graham: Hey guys, Kevin Graham here. And today on the podcast I have a good friend of mine, Chris Cage from Greenbelly Meals. Chris and I met a few years ago in Chiang Mai and I've been following his story over the last few years with how he's been building the business. But to tell you a bit more about himself and Greenbelly, please welcome Chris to the show.
Chris Cage: Hey, what's up Kevin? Thanks for having me.
Kevin Graham: Excited to have you on the show. Can you give the listeners a bit more of an intro than I did about you and what it is that your company does?
Chris Cage: My name's Chris. I'm the founder of a company called Greenbelly. And Greenbelly makes backpacking meals. And specifically meal bars. So, the pouches come with two fluffy meal bars inside of them, like an all natural. Think fruits and nuts and crisp rice. And each one of those pouches has about 650 calories and a pretty balanced nutritional profile for one third of your daily nutrition of macro nutrition. And they're designed for hikers doing really long hikes. People that are burning a lot of calories. And outdoorsmen that are needing a quick, easy meal on the trail.
Kevin Graham: Right. So one third of your daily energy and across a bunch of macros all in like these small little bars?
Chris Cage: You got it. That's it. So, you've got calories, proteins, fats, fiber, you know, that sort of thing, sodium.
Kevin Graham: Tell me about how you got started in your entrepreneurial journey?
Chris Cage: Yeah, how far back to go? I graduated college in 2010 with an accounting major in Birmingham, Alabama. I was an accountant for a couple years and I didn't really hate my job, per se, I was just thinking that's not really where I envisioned myself down the road, you know, in 10 years from then.
Chris Cage: So, I had kind of had a childhood thing where I was in Boy Scouts growing up. I'd always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. Which the Appalachian Trail is a trail that goes from Georgia to Maine and it takes about six months to hike. So, I'm two years into my accounting job and I'm thinking about this hike that I'd always wanted to do since I was a kid. And I thought, you know, I should really be doing it while I was still young instead of waiting until I was older and retired.
Chris Cage: So, I started saving up some money and planning to do this hike. And while I was going to quit my job, essentially, and go for this long hike, I said, "Why not tack on some more travel while I'm at it?" And part of that travel was I went to Asia and did a lot of backpacking, not in the sense of hiking, but backpacking in the sense of the hostel travel life.
Chris Cage: So, I did that for a few months in Asia, and then went down to New Zealand and did a bicycle tour. So, I shipped a bicycle from the States and shipped it to New Zealand and did three or four months bicycle tour down there in New Zealand where I was just cycling the length of the country and camping out along the side of the road.
Chris Cage: After that New Zealand trip, I came back to the States and eventually did the Appalachian Trail. So, that took me six months to hike.
Chris Cage: After all this travel was done, that was probably about nearly two years that I'd been unemployed from my accounting job. But on that travel, specifically the cycle touring and the hiking on the Appalachian Trail, both of those types of travel I was doing a lot of physical endurance. So, you know, whether I was cycling maybe 80 miles a day in New Zealand or hiking 15 or 20 miles a day on the Appalachian Trail, I was burning a lot of calories. And the food I was eating was very processed stuff. You know, thinking like cured meats. Or it was just, you know, kind of junky. I needed a lot of sugar to replenish that hike out caloric burn, you know. If I was burning 5,000 calories a day, the stuff we were eating was just all over the place. Practically, you know, drinking olive oil and trying to get as many calories as we could to replace that burn.
Chris Cage: But anyway, I started realizing kind of ... or thinking about an idea to develop a product that would be a little bit cleaner nutrition, or cleaner label, cleaner ingredients. It would still provide that high level of calories and would be made shelf stable for people that are within five to seven days of another resupply point. Resupply being, you know, when you're hiking you might have five days before you hit the next town and you can resupply your food. So, the food that you need to carry needs to be pretty shelf stable.
Chris Cage: So, while I'm doing this travel, I'm kind of thinking about this idea for a product. And I knew that at the end of all this travel, I really didn't have a plan. And I knew I didn't want to go back to accounting.
Chris Cage: So, I started thinking about producing a meal. And I moved back in with my parents and ... Yeah, I really didn't have any entrepreneurial experience. There was no big kind of light bulb moment that, "Now's the time to start a business." It really just kind of slowly evolved into, "This seems like the way I should be going with my career right now."
Chris Cage: It was kind of by process of elimination. I knew I didn't want to go back to accounting. And I knew I was young, I kind of really didn't have too much to risk by pursuing it. So, that was kind of all the events that led up to starting the business.
Kevin Graham: So, you'd worked for a couple years in accounting. You said, "Hm, this maybe isn't for me." You had this childhood dream of, "Hey, I want to go hike the Appalachian Trail." And you sort of combined all of those things together and said, "All right, that's it. I'm quitting my job. I'm taking two years off. I'm going to go travel Asia, go to New Zealand, do all the travel down there. And then go hike the Appalachian."
Kevin Graham: And I guess while you're doing all those things, there's a lot of time to think about, "Hey, what's next? What could I do?" So, that makes a lot of sense.
Chris Cage: Absolutely. There's a lot of time thinking about what I'm going to do. That was ... looking back, I was actually really stressed about what I was going to do. I knew that, you know, quitting the accounting job, especially at that time of graduating college, I was so thankful to have gotten a job and to be in a stable career. And by leaving that career and traveling for that long, I was really terrified of my options of coming back into the workforce.
Kevin Graham: I guess what do I do next was probably the second thing on your mind after, "How do I find 5,000 calories every day? And how do I put five to seven days worth of food on my back that is going to get me to my next resupply point?"
Chris Cage: Exactly. Exactly. How do I eat and what am I going to do after this.
Kevin Graham: Yeah. You said you got back to the States, you moved back in with mum and dad and started working on this idea. So, when was that?
Chris Cage: I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail in December 2013. I knew immediately that I was going to go home and live with mom and dad for a little bit and kind of figure out more what I was wanting to do. I don't really remember exactly when I said, "Yeah, okay, I am going to pursue this business idea."
Chris Cage: Some time after December 2013, in early 2014, started working on it. And working on it just was kind of ... I think at first, honestly, bought a couple books that were kind of like how to start a business, you know? Just really real 101 type stuff to just kind of hear some stories of other entrepreneurs. Just kind of, you know, hear a little bit about it. Because I didn't have any friends any family that were entrepreneurs.
Chris Cage: So, anyway, early 2014, the idea started really brewing. Started pursuing the concept in Spring of 2014. I was committed by then to start the business. I was reading everything I could, trying to understand how to start a business. This was a food product, therefore, I was trying to educate myself on the food market. I was trying to understand about product development. I didn't even know that phrase, product development. I was just kind of tinkering in the kitchen at my mom's house with this food product.
Chris Cage: There were several months in there of being at home with my parents and living rent free just trying to come up with how on earth this thing was going to manifest into a real business.
Kevin Graham: And so I can just imagine you've moved back in late 2013. It's the Spring of 2014. You're there every day in the kitchen just making an absolute mess trying to put together this new food product that you're wanting to do. I can imagine that would have been a tense time.
Chris Cage: Not paying rent. Yeah, my parents were not loving it. And I think ... I know my dad specifically was I think beside himself that I'd quit my job. Here I was unemployed back at the house.
Kevin Graham: And making a mess every day in the kitchen.
Chris Cage: Right. So, definitely some deep love there, I'm not going to say they weren't supportive. But they were definitely questioning my decision making.
Kevin Graham: Coming off two years travel, as well. Like, has Chris just totally lost it?
Chris Cage: Right. Right. 100%.
Kevin Graham: You start to formulate a product, you've successfully developed some recipes. What happens next?
Chris Cage: Yeah. That was sometime mid-2014. I had a product ready. So, I contracted with what's called a food scientist. And the food scientist ...
Chris Cage: So, back to the kind of tinkering in the kitchen, quickly realized that formulating a food product, especially the type of food product I was wanting to formulate, gets complicated very quickly. From a nutritional profile point of view, I had some specific macros I was wanting to target. And then you think about ingredients, shelf stability starts getting complicated. And you start thinking about the way certain ingredients are reacting and the way certain ingredients are oxidizing. You start really needing somebody who knows what they're doing when you're formulating something like that. And of course in things like taste and is this product going to bind together well? Going to fall apart?
Chris Cage: So, all that tinkering in the kitchen, I realized at some point I needed to bring on somebody that knew what they were doing from the food point of view. And so, yeah, I contracted with a food scientist and we had a product ready ... In sometime mid-2014 there was a product ready.
Chris Cage: And then from there, it was really ... I had no clue what I was doing from a business point of view. I was just thinking, "Okay, I have a product. How do I sell it?" So, that was then throwing a million darts at the wall, trying to see which one of them might hit something.
Chris Cage: And by the way, I was making, you know, all this product in the kitchen. So I was making all the product, packaging all the product, shipping all the product. And those first orders came from reaching out to lots of like mini-hiking influencers and saying, "Hey, are you interested in trying this new product I've got?"
Chris Cage: You know, I mean, still to this day there are plenty of blogs out there. Instagram, if it was around then, it certainly wasn't a big thing. Nobody was using it. So, the channels to be pushing were blogs at the time, or at least that's what I was targeting. So, after sending out these samples to all these folks, eventually some of them started posting it on their blogs. And then they'd post it to their followings and then some people started ordering it.
Chris Cage: That was kind of the Fall of 2014 I started generating some orders. It still wasn't enough to really live off of, though. It was just kind of like, "Okay, this is cool. I've got this idea, I've got this product, I've got some orders, I've got some customers. But this really isn't a real business yet in the sense that I am really able to fund myself."
Chris Cage: So, that kind of segwayed into, okay, well why don't I do a kick starter and get some money and try to take this thing up a notch. You know, big things for a kickstarter I wanted to do were, one, get more exposure. Also get money. I was low on money. I was just entirely operating off of savings from my accounting job. Which my accounting job, I wasn't making a ton of money. I'd only worked there for two years. And I had been depleting those savings for two years of travel. And then the leftover bit I had was being used for this business. So, I needed money. And a kickstarter was kind of an idea to get some funds, get some exposure, and hopefully with those funds, move up to a proper facility to make the product and help me ship the product.
Chris Cage: So, that kickstarter then was in Spring of 2015. And that's kind of when I think Greenbelly really kind of started to come together into a real business.
Kevin Graham: I guess it's moved on from cooking everything in your mum's kitchen now. Because I've seen you a few times out in Thailand. So, can you explain the business model now to our audience?
Chris Cage: Yeah. Exciting to not be in the kitchen anymore. I hated making product. I mean, that was one piece of the business, from truly a dislike point of view, I was like, "I need to get this off my plate ASAP." Yeah, I mean, because if a big order came in and, you know, I had weekend plans, guess what? I don't have weekend plans anymore. I'm going to make the product. I mean, there was a lot wrong with that.
Chris Cage: Yeah, the kickstarter was Spring 2015. And looking back on it, it's a very humble amount. It was $19,000 we raised. But at that time, that was exactly what I needed. We also had large ... I don't remember how exactly how many meals that was. That was maybe like four or 5,000 meals, which was enough to kind of have a reasonably large purchase order to place with a co-packer and say, "Hey, I actually have some money to give you to help make these meals."
Chris Cage: So, I started searching around for small facilities in the U.S. that were obviously certified to make food. And say, "Hey, are you interested in making this product I have?"
Chris Cage: So, I started off looking at bar manufacturers, people that would make just, you know, there are hundreds of bar companies out there, so I figured there'd be a bar company out there that could make this bar. And I quickly realized that was not the case.
Chris Cage: Our bars are fairly unique. They're a lot bigger than a lot of other bars. Their texture is different. They're fluffier. A lot of bars use a process that's called extrusion, which they blend the ingredients into kind of like a liquid, almost like ... I don't want to compare it to concrete, but it's kind of a liquid that you slath out. And our bars were not like that.
Chris Cage: And we had two bars in a package. So, packaging them, it couldn't go down a machine or anything. Not to mention, we didn't have a huge volume. Some of these bar machines had huge minimum order quantities in order to even open up the dialogue.
Chris Cage: So, I started looking for kind of a custom solution, which would be a small kitchen to help make the product. And I eventually found some folks in Kentucky. And they were excited to take us on. And that was it. That was July 2015. By the time the kickstarter was over, we had the kitchen lined up, we had the packaging lined up, the new website ready to go. Everything was locked and loaded by then to get the real business going.
Kevin Graham: So, these days, the business model is there's a co-packer kitchen that makes it and then fulfillment by a third party, right?
Chris Cage: They fulfill everything in-house. So, we've talked about potentially using, you know, 3PL, but I don't think it makes sense, you know, it's more expensive to ship our product to someone else to eventually ship to the customer. It's a lot easier to ship directly from the facility. So, they've been great. They've fulfilled directly from the facility.
Kevin Graham: Nice. Can you tell me about an inflection point that's happened in the business? Obviously, you've been around for five-ish years now. And what would you attribute the success of that inflection point to?
Chris Cage: Yeah, that's a really good question. You're looking back in the rear view mirror and trying to think of a time that was ... yeah, an inflection point. And really helpful for our growth.
Chris Cage: Short answer is I don't know. And the longer answer would be is really it's been a kind of a gradual growth. We never ... There's never been an explosion point. We've steadily grown every year by at least 80%. So, I mean, that's every year has just been grow, grow, grow. Not in the sense that there was a make or break moment that really fundamentally shot us through the charts.
Chris Cage: All that being said, if I were to try to pinpoint down to a single thing, it would be Joe Rogan.
Kevin Graham: Yeah.
Chris Cage: Going on Joe Rogan's podcast, for the listeners, in 2017 ... That was Spring 2017. So, two years after we had launched the kickstarter, I went on the Joe Rogan Experience, the podcast, and that just gave us a really big amount of exposure to a much larger audience, a larger audience that had never heard of us. And that was just, I think, big. You know, I could tell from the discussion, we have a survey on the back end that asks how you heard about us and a lot of people were saying Joe Rogan. And still to this day say Joe Rogan.
Chris Cage: So, I mean, that was ... Business had been steadily growing since 2015. But that was definitely a really nice unexpected amount of exposure that I think definitely was probably one of our bigger, if not biggest, inflection points.
Kevin Graham: Awesome. We'll put that in the show notes if people want to go and hear you on Joe Rogan's podcast, as well.
Chris Cage: Yeah, good dude. Really good dude.
Kevin Graham: So, tell me about an unexpected crisis that happened in the business then? And how you handled that?
Chris Cage: Yeah, there have been a lot. I have not had anything too terrifying happen. Like we have run short on orders a couple times. It's been obviously extremely stressful dealing with that. And especially during peak summertime, you know. But honestly, the biggest points of crisis were not more recently. And I think that's because there's so much more stability with having a more established business. You know, we're still very small, but we're much more established now than really I was back in my mom's kitchen.
Chris Cage: So, the bigger moments of crisis, I think, came on actually more in the early days. I was stressed out, really wondering, you know, I'm working at home at my parent's house with no sense of is this business actually going to come to fruition.
Chris Cage: So, the biggest pontis of crisis probably back then I remember specifically there was one time I was ... We had an order come in and my mom and I had worked all day and late into the night making this batch for an order. And we realized after making that batch that we had mis-poured one of our ingredients. And it came out after we had made them all.
Chris Cage: And I remember just like having this breakdown moment of anger after that. Because our whole day had been shot after that production. And at that time, it was just a tense time. You know. I really didn't know if we were going to do anything. You know, if anything was going to come of it. And here we had had, at the time, a reasonably large order come in. And then we had totally screwed it up. And we were going to have to do it all over again. So, if you're going to measure a moment of crisis by pure anger and stress, I think we'd have to go back to the early days and that screw up.
Kevin Graham: And I can imagine, as well, if that's the early days of the business and you're very much bootstrapping it and funding the production with revenues that are coming in off each order, if you mess up a big order like that in the early days, it's two, $3,000 worth of ingredients that you're just having to throw out, plus like 12, 16 hours of work. And you have to do it all again.
Chris Cage: Totally. Profitability was very low in the early days. And cash flow was very difficult. So, we screwed something up in the early days, I was really stressed out about it. The early days, no doubt, were definitely where more of the crises. Which seems kind of counter-intuitive. You think the larger you get, the more is at stake. I disagree. I feel like there's more stability and there's more confidence. There's more of a buffer in that sense.
Kevin Graham: Yeah. And hopefully by that point you've got all those processes down and everything just sort of is streamlined and works really well.
Chris Cage: Hopefully.
Kevin Graham: All right. What's one thing about your business that makes you excited today?
Chris Cage: That's a good question. Probably is just a big generalization is I am excited to work in an industry that aligns with my hobby. So, I love hiking and backpacking. And I love being in that industry. So, you know, everything about it from like our customers, you know ... Like our customers just ...
Chris Cage: The emails we get are just so cool. They're always like going on this epic backpacking trip and telling us about it. They don't just say, like ... They don't just ask a question like about our ingredients. They preface their question with, "Hey, I've got this awesome trip coming up and we're going to do all these miles in the back country of Alaska and all this stuff." So, I guess the point is, I like dealing with those customers. I like everything about being in the outdoor and backpacking industry. So, I find that inherently exciting. It's just something fun to be involved with.
Kevin Graham: And I know as well, early this year when you were working on that new product, we were chatting about that in I think January. You seemed to have a lot of excitement about that as well.
Chris Cage: Yeah. Totally. That was Mud Meals. We launched that about three weeks ago. That was our first product since we've launched the business, which was a powdered meal beverage. Another high calorie, all natural powdered meal drink. Yeah, that was really exciting. I mean, you know, that took ... again, you know, we had to kind of go ...
Chris Cage: It was fun to go back to square one and work with a food scientist again and come up with a concept and work on the formulation and test it and all that. And, you know, re-do the marketing plan, come up with a new launch for a new product. So, yeah, that was really fun.
Chris Cage: And I guess the other exciting thing we got coming up is a new flavor, which will come out in a couple days. So, yeah, this year's been kind of launching new products. Which we haven't done new products since we launched the actual business. So, that's been a totally another channel of fun is launching new things that I haven't done since the business started.
Kevin Graham: So, while you've been back in the States, have you actually had a chance to road test the products yourself and get some hiking in?
Chris Cage: Yeah, man, for sure. I'm in Chattanooga right now, which as you know, often I travel around a lot. We kind of had to narrow down if we're going to be in the States, what city are we going to be in. And I was looking, I was just Googling best outdoor towns in the States and Chattanooga popped up. And it was kind of like all right, well, let's check out Chattanooga.
Chris Cage: It's near my mom, it's near where I went to school. There are a lot of other reasons why beyond that article. Chattanooga's a very outdoorsy town. And there are mountains all over the place.
Chris Cage: So, yeah, we've done lots of hikes. There are lots of great day hikes around here. Done a couple backpacking trips just this past month. Went up to Roan Mountain, went back on the Appalachian Trail. Did a two-nighter out there. And been test driving the product, and a lot of fun.
Kevin Graham: And I know you guys are really big on your content marketing game. So, was that best outdoors town article actually on Greenbelly?
Chris Cage: No. I wish. I wish. Maybe we should write one on that. But no. That was not our article. But yes, we do do content marketing. And it has been very helpful.
Kevin Graham: Obviously, this year's been a pretty busy year for you guys with launching Mud Meals and the new flavor in Meal2Go section of the business. Where do you see the future of the business over the next three years?
Chris Cage: That's a good question. Growth just is the first word that comes to mind. I want to grow in a lot of ways. You know, more exposure. And we have not attacked retail at all. We do everything straight from the website. I would love to get more retail exposure.
Chris Cage: We had traditionally done, or traditionally earlier done, the direct to consumer sales for a variety of reasons. The main one being is margin. You know, we have a much better margin doing that. But as we've grown, our margin has gotten a lot better. Which enables us to go for retail. So, I definitely want to be attacking retail in the next ... Really next year I'd like to be looking at doing it. But over the next three years, I would definitely see us doing more of that and seeing us more on shelves.
Chris Cage: Definitely more products. You know, this year has been, like I said, our first year of doing new products. And it's been a lot of fun. A lot of fun from a product development point of view. A lot of fun from a marketing point of view, and a lot of fun from customer feedback and seeing what excites them. And ultimately, it helps grow sales. So, new products and retail would be the big ones. And overall general growth.
Kevin Graham: That sounds like an excellent three year plan. Especially with what you've said before about how much fun you've had working on those new products. It makes sense to just keep doing that while your customers are receptive to it and you can continue to find exciting new products you could develop.
Chris Cage: Yeah. As long as the customers like it.
Kevin Graham: So, where can our listeners connect with you if they want to chat hiking or send you a bunch of emails about all the exciting hiking that they're going to do and make you jealous about what they're doing?
Chris Cage: Yeah. Our website is Greenbelly.co and my email is [email protected], C-H-R-I-S. You can find us on the website or feel free to email me directly.
Kevin Graham: Awesome. Well, thanks for your time this morning and jumping on the podcast with me. And I look forward to hanging out with you when you're back in Chiang Mai soon.
Chris Cage: Yeah, man. Look forward to seeing you and thanks for having me.

Show Notes

  • 1:58 Wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail
  • 3:31 Physical endurance and high caloric burn
  • 6:33 Moving back in with his parents
  • 8:50 Working with a food scientist to improve the recipe
  • 9:52 Reaching out to influencers and launching a Kickstarter campaign
  • 14:18 "Gradual" growth of 80% year on year
  • 14:45 Going on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast
  • 16:12 Mispouring an ingredient and wasting a day of production on a large order
  • 17:52 Working in an industry taht aligns with your hobby
  • 19:32 Road testing the product and living in Chattanooga TN
  • 20:46 Direct to Consumer to begin, growing the margin and wanting to move to retail stores

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