Austin Ashcraft held a small package under a tall metal machine at the Heather’s Choice factory in Midtown Anchorage on a recent summer afternoon. Once the contraptions noisily dispensed precise amounts of dried salmon, veggies and potato flakes into the bag, Ashcraft gave it a good shake and then sealed it.
“Do you know why he does the shake?” Heather Kelly, the company’s founder, asked from across the room. “So that when you go to pack your backpack, the meal is as flat as it can possibly be. The shake is kinda his signature move.”
Kelly started the dehydrated food company in 2014, after realizing how difficult it was to pack food for extended backcountry trips. Having worked as a sports nutritionist, she focused on high-quality, healthy meals-in-a-bag. In contrast to most of her competitors who freeze dry their food, Kelly dehydrates everything. That means her meals are slightly heavier and have a shorter shelf life, but provide a distinct advantage for backpacking.
“If you were to take a bunch of grapes and freeze dry them, they would maintain their original size and shape. Where with dehydrated, if you dehydrate a bunch of grapes, you get a box of raisins,” Kelly said. “And that’s one big differentiator for us at Heather’s Choice is that we take up way less pack space then our freeze-dried counterparts.”
The company has been growing quickly in the Lower 48, recently partnering with a national sales group to get their meals in hundreds more stores.
Heather’s Choice is one of at least half a dozen up-and-coming women-led outdoor recreation businesses in Anchorage. In recent years, women have been making inroads in the traditionally male-dominated industry, and there seems to be a higher concentration of the female leaders here in Alaska. Kelly said there’s a group of local businesswomen who meet up regularly to talk shop.
“We actually have a really sweet group of entrepreneurs here in Anchorage that includes Fishe Wear, it includes Skhoop, Elevated Oats, AK Coffee Company, Versa Outfitters, Alpine Fit,” Kelly said. “There’s just this awesome group of women-owned local Alaskan outdoor brands, and we get together quarterly and just share war stories, of whatever we’re dealing with.”
Informally called the “Outdoor Alliance,” some of those companies have had success by filling a need for outdoor apparel designed specifically for women. Fishe Wear (that’s pronounced fi-SHE) was started by Linda Leary, who realized fisher-women needed a better garment than cotton long johns to wear under their waders.
“You don’t want to take your waders off and have somebody see you in your long johns,” Leary said. “Like, this is ridiculous, why not have clothes you can go right from the river to dinner? And so it can be functional for fishing, but just lifestyle as well.”
Their bright colored patterns featuring “fun sassy fish,” in Leary’s words, have taken off in Alaska’s fishing community, and the company just opened a new storefront in downtown Anchorage.
Jon Bittner directs the Alaska Small Business Development Center, and has worked with many of the small business owners in town. He said there’s data that backs the apparent trend of female business leaders in the state.
“What you’ll find is, there’s been studies that show that Alaska actually punches pretty well above its weight class when it comes to women owned businesses,” Bittner said. “And, you know, it’s a natural fit for an outdoor specific industry up here.”
A 2018 study from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Center for Economic Development found that Alaska had the highest rate of female-owned businesses in the country. And Bittner said, especially in manufacturing, the support those businesses offer each other can go a long way.
“Being able to access people that are in the same situation you are, who have already learned some of the lessons that you won’t need to learn yourself, you can just learn from their experience. I think that’s huge,” Bittner said. “And I think there’s been a desperate need for something like that for a really long time.”
For example, Leary said she’s currently focused on a contest with national retailer Title Nine, with the encouragement of fellow Outdoor Alliance member Jen Loofbourrow, who won the contest a couple years ago.
Loofbourrow runs Alpine Fit, another apparel company that sells stink-resistant base layers and offers multiple body shape options in each size, something she said was desperately needed for active women.
“I have seen women try them on and be in tears of joy, that they finally have a pair of pants that they can feel and look the part that they want to be to go out and do the activities that they want to do,” Loofbourrow said.
And at the Alpine Fit store in midtown Anchorage, they now have a showroom for products from Versa Outfitters and two other Lower 48 women-owned businesses that don’t have storefronts of their own yet. Loofbourrow said customers can come try on their products at her store, to make sure they get the right fit, before ordering online.