Lillian Hoodes ’13 MA is helping to fix a common problem for environmentally aware hikers: how to pack nutritious food when headed out on the trail.
Hoodes is co-founder and CEO of TrailFork, a company dedicated to providing outdoor adventurers with sustainably packaged and healthy dehydrated food. The Colorado Institute for Social Impact named her the 2019 Social Impact Entrepreneur of the Year of Northern Colorado, and TrailFork was recognized as the Social Impact Startup of the Year at the institute’s PRISM Awards, which honor exemplary social entrepreneurs and businesses.
“We aim to sustain adventurers and the landscape that they love,” Hoodes says, noting that it seemed counterintuitive to her that companies making trail food were packaging their meals in harmful plastics that couldn’t be recycled. “We’re the only company making this kind of product that uses biodegradable packaging.”
Hoodes, who grew up in Salt Lake City, came up with the idea in 2013, after embarking on a hiking trip with students while teaching high school in Sedona, Ariz. Frustrated with the lack of viable healthy options, Hoodes realized that others might have similar concerns and set out to create her own trail food.
“A backpacking trip can be a little bit like a marathon in that it is an endurance sport and you have to fuel appropriately,” says Hoodes, who launched TrailFork in Boulder, Colo., in summer 2017. “Your body needs pretty specific input to perform well, and I was finding when I was out doing these trips and not planning well in terms of nutrition, I would crash.”
The freeze-dried meals she found in retail stores were not just poorly packaged, they were also high in sodium and did not provide adequate nutrition for hikers lugging heavy packs, Hoodes says. Hikers need food that’s high in fat and calories.
Working out of a shared kitchen space in Broomfield, Colo., Hoodes and her TrailFork co-founders and staff create prepackaged vegan and vegetarian offerings that include Unwrapped Burrito, Apricot Almond Couscous and Coconut Granola.
When she started, Hoodes admits, she did not know much about the retail food industry, wholesaling or product pricing. “I had to learn everything as I was doing it, and because things happened so quickly, I was often learning how to do something after it had already been done,” she says.
The first in her family to go to college, Hoodes says her graduate degree in history from Northwestern helped her overcome early challenges and succeed as an entrepreneur.
“Studying at Northwestern set me up with cognitive skills to do something as simultaneously creative and analytical as running a startup,” she says. “In particular, the way history is taught at Northwestern allows students to look at a really detailed instance or work on a level of fine detail and then zoom out to draw conclusions about the wider world. I have to do that multiple times a day. That is 100 percent a skill that I developed at Northwestern.”
Hoodes aims to make to make TrailFork profitable by the end of the year. It is already in more than 30 REI stores, as well as 20 independent retailers, and Hoodes hopes to continue expanding within the outdoor supply industry while getting TrailFork products into grocery stores.