Housed in a massive warehouse on the outskirts of Boulder is one of the nation’s largest distributors of dry meals. Consisting of five brands — Backpacker’s Pantry, Astronaut Foods, Colorado Spice, Mountain Standard and most recently Chef Soraya — the multifaceted business is a true Colorado institution. Although you may know them best for Astronaut Ice Cream, that’s hardly the direction they’re heading toward now.
For those unfamiliar with Astronaut Ice Cream, now would be a good time to get acquainted. The Stephen Colbert-approved treat is more than just a novelty. The freeze-dried ice cream sandwich can at first be delightfully strange — the chalky texture and viability at room temperature confuse the senses. But the lightweight snack, developed in 1974 and apparently sent into space (though the time and place are still contested), has become iconic not only for its now legendary space travel, but also for its enduring charm and legitimate deliciousness. Having enjoyed many iterations throughout the years, the sandwich is sold in all NASA gift shops as well as outdoor equipment retailers like REI. While the famed history of Astronaut Foods may lend a certain humorous intrigue, the many businesses are anything but a gimmick.
The business began in 1951 with the opening of Dri-Lite, a concept conceived after an ill-fated Girl Scout outing — the young children’s morale was destroyed after a long trek carrying canned food. Troop leader Ann Benedict realized that in order to preserve energy while active, the food would need to weigh substantially less. She developed the idea of freeze-dried and dehydrated meals that would provide the foundation for Backpacker’s Pantry.
A Greener Future
Purchased by current owner Rodney Smith’s father in 1971, Rodney and Soraya Smith have continued to grow the business into the multi-brand conglomerate it is today. Currently producing a wide range of meals for outdoor-enthusiasts and health-food fans, the Smith family continues to push the envelope for what can be done with dry cuisine. With an impressive array of gourmet dishes — including beef stroganoff with wild mushrooms, huevos rancheros and key lime pie — Backpacker’s Pantry aims to proves that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor and quality no matter how remote your location.
Soraya Smith has been hard at work developing new recipes for the many businesses from a lovely open test-kitchen in the front of the building. Most recently Chef Soraya has been concocting a healthy alternative to existing instant food bowls — aimed predominantly at a college audience. Chef currently has six enticing flavors to choose from — Kathmandu Curry, Chana Masala, Cuban, Chipotle, New Mexican and Creole beans and rice are all delicious, beautifully spiced renditions of their wide-ranging source material. Both gluten-free and vegan (something well-considered across all the brands) the Chef Soraya line allows convenience without sacrificing health. Whether planning an excursion to some far-reaching destination or simply looking to elevate your instant meals Backpacker’s Pantry and the affiliated brands provide a solid reminder that adventure is a crucial aspect of great dining.
As an outdoor brand, concern for the environment and sustainability are paramount. Rodney and Soraya recently attended the Regenerative Earth Summit, a two-day gathering of natural food leaders, farmers and activists to discuss innovations in farming technology that can actually restore carbon levels to increasingly bare soil. With such a large scale operation and solid relationships with many farmers and producers, the Smiths are in a strong position to influence practices in favor of greater environmental consideration, something the two have already been doing as part of the Conservation Alliance.
All photography by Danielle Webster.