Disasters jump demand for freeze-dried foods as retailers prepare for summer rush

Recent natural disasters and some economic worries are driving up demand for freeze-dried foods, including those intended for the outdoor market. Manufacturers say they're feeling the pressure. Retailers say they haven't seen any panic ... yet. SNEWS looks into the story.
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The recent Japan earthquake and nuclear disaster, along with some lingering economic fears, have more people demanding freeze-dried food pouches meant for backpackers and campers.

That could lead to supply issues this summer, some manufacturers have said, but outdoor retailers say they have yet to see a panic.

The latest scare in the freeze-dried food industry – it’s been through this before with Y2K, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 economic crisis – spilled into the outdoor industry when Oregon Freeze Dry sent a letter to retailers on April 14, saying it was receiving “unprecedented” demand of its Mountain House (www.mountainhouse.com) food pouches.

The demand from the emergency-preparedness crowd is usually confined to the company’s No. 10 cans said Oregon Freeze Dry retail sales manager Melanie Cornutt. The canned products last longer – up to 25 years versus about a seven-year lifespan for the pouches. A No. 10 can holds about 110 ounces in fluid weight, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute.

But after a shortage of cans in February, and the Japan earthquake in March, the demand moved over to the Mountain House pouches, Cornutt told SNEWS.

“Normally, people wait for our cans, but this time they didn’t want to wait,” she said. Demand spiked 400 percent in a 30-day period.

Perhaps adding some fuel to the fire, Oregon Freeze Dry told retailers in its April 14 letter that, because of the rush, it would “not accept any additional orders for the 2011 season.” Cornutt said the company has since retracted that statement in another letter, saying it would accept additional 2011 orders from existing customers based on past sales, plus some growth.

The April 14 letter sent a number of retailers to alternative sources such Backpacker’s Pantry and AlpineAire Foods. Officials with both companies confirmed a spike in their business primarily due to the Oregon Freeze Dry letter.

Representatives from all three companies told SNEWS they’re hiring workers and expanding hours to try to meet the increased demand, but the key, they added, is not to overreact or overproduce.

“We have a buffer in place, and we respond the best we can to these spikes, but we don’t want to increase to a point where we end up sitting on a pile of inventory,” Cornutt said.

“We learned that lesson well during Y2K under previous ownership,” said Tim Pratt, vice president of sales and marketing for Rocklin, Calif.-based TyRy Inc. (www.tyry.com), parent of the AlpineAire, Natural High and Richmoor freeze-dried foods for the outdoor market. “We won’t be overextending credit or letting just anyone be a dealer. Our goal is to take care of the business we have -- monitor volume and create longer lead times.”

Still, growth is coming for TyRy with plans for a new larger location and new equipment. It’s a similar story for Boulder, Colo.-based Backpacker’s Pantry (www.backpackerspantry.com), which recently purchased No. 10 canning line equipment to allow it to slowly venture into that market, President Rodney Smith said.

“I think Japan scared people more than usual, especially on the West Coast” Smith said. “It’s a first-world country similar to the U.S.” Manufactures added that they see increased demand from everyday families and even businesses, which want to be prepared whether the disaster be natural, or even economic.

Several outdoor retailers contacted by SNEWS said they’ve seen a bump in their spring sales of food pouches, but there hasn’t been any kind of panic.

“I’d say about a 25-percent increase from last spring,” said Mark Hyatt, owner of Santa Barbara Outfitters (www.sboutfitters.com) in California. “So far, it hasn’t affected us.”

In Olympia, Wash., Joe Hyer, owner of The Alpine Experience (www.alpinex.com), echoed those observations – “we haven’t seen the doomsday crowd,” he said, adding that most emergency-preparedness business comes in the fall before the winter.

The rush from the outdoor customer comes in summer for upcoming camping and backpacking adventures, so there could be concern soon if supply remains constrained, he said. After receiving the Oregon Freeze Dry letter in April, Hyer said he contacted Backpacker Pantry to order some extra stock for the summer.

“Demand explodes in the summer,” especially in July as people head out to camp, he said. “From July 1-15, we sell as much (food pouches) in those 15 days as we do in the previous 60 days.”

-- David Clucas

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