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Scaling a Home-Grown Business with Melanie Ang of Backcountry Wok

“Whenever people ask me about the growth trajectory, I don’t feel like I’ve come that far. But when I reflect back to the full three or four years, it’s like, wow, we’ve actually done so much. But because it’s been such a gradual progression of small steps along the way, it really adds up to such a momentous journey.”

Melanie Ang, founder of Backcountry Wok

In this episode

Join Melanie Ang, Founder of SheEO Venture Backcountry Wok, and SheEO founder Vicki Saunders, as they discuss Melanie’s journey as an entrepreneur and what led her to begin her Venture. Backcountry Wok creates Dehydrated Asian-inspired and plant-based meals in 100% compostable packaging. A portion of profits supports outdoor education and sustainability programs for youth.

They also discuss:

  • Melanie’s path to entrepreneurship and growing the Venture organically
  • How spending time outdoors led to recognizing a gap in the market
  • Reflecting on the gradual progression of Backcountry Wok’s growth trajectory
  • Her business model, expanding to retailers, and an expansion into the US
  • Co-creating her products + working with a dietician
  • What’s next from Backcountry Wok + her asks for the community

We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Melanie Ang 0:00
Whenever people ask me about the growth trajectory, I don’t feel like I’ve come that far. But when I reflect back to the full three or four years, it’s like, wow, we’ve actually done so much. But because it’s been such a gradual progression of small steps along the way, it really adds up to such a momentous journey.

Hannah Cree 0:17
Welcome to the SheEO.World podcast, where you will meet women who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable. Your host for today’s podcast is the founder of SheEO, Vicki Saunders. Welcome to SheEO.World.

Vicki Saunders 0:35
Welcome, Melanie, it’s great to have you here today.

Melanie Ang 0:38
Thanks, Vicki. Really excited to be here.

Vicki Saunders 0:41
So tell us who are you? And what is your company?

Melanie Ang 0:46
Yeah, so my company is Backcountry Wok and I am, I would define myself as a marine biologist. And so marine biologist turn food entrepreneur, and now the founder of Backcountry Wok. So during my master’s degree in environmental sciences, I ate a lot of camping food, just spent a lot of time in the outdoors. And just realized that the meals that were available, you know were packaged, and lots of plastic and aluminum packaging, and lots of single use. But on top of that, there are lots of preservatives, and you see lots of salts and unknown ingredients in the meals. And what really got me was also the the types of flavors that were available. It’s always lots of pasta and chili, which is all great. But you know, when you’re eating days and days on end, you want to see a little bit more variety. So I eat a lot of Asian food at home. And so I wanted to see a bit more diversity in the camping meal.

Vicki Saunders 1:40
I know this is like such a fascinating thing. But you’re one of the other Ventures was a marine biologist as well. Do you know that?

Melanie Ang 1:47
Yes. Is it Brianne?

Vicki Saunders 1:49
Brianne, yeah, from Nada. So I’m like, What is it about this like perfect training ground for coming up with really cool products? That’s great.

Melanie Ang 1:59
Yep. Brianne’s, a friend of mine from Vancouver.

Vicki Saunders 2:03
Yeah.

Melanie Ang 2:03
Yes. Very cool.

Vicki Saunders 2:05
So you shared a little bit about the background, but like, how did you actually get started? What was the thing that kind of got you into doing this? And, you know, did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Melanie Ang 2:14
No, I definitely did not want to be an entrepreneur. My whole plan was I wanted to be a marine biologist and do my masters at the time. And I wanted to do my PhD in marine biology as well. And then how we got started was, it was it was a camping trip, me and my friends went on actually May long weekend. So it’s now I think this is our fourth year anniversary. And so, on this trip, after the trip was over, we decided that we wanted to create these foods for ourselves for our future trips. And so we just started dehydrating, we have a home dehydrator has like nine racks on it. And so one day after I finished cooking my dinner, I just put the rest of it onto the dehydrator. And that was our first Backcountry Wok meal. And then from there, it just came to sharing it with friends that we were on camping trips with, and then people that we met on the trails, and then it sort of expanded from there. So very organic in the way it started.

Vicki Saunders 3:12
And then how did you—I mean, tell us like about the state that your business is in now and give us a little bit of a tour on how you got from camping trip to where you are now.

Melanie Ang 3:21
Yes, so for the last three years, definitely been a roller coaster of ups and downs as I’m sure all entrepreneurs stories are. And some of the highlights, you know, as having our own facility over the last couple of years, and then expanding it into—right now we have a co, two different co-manufacturers that have our products. So being able to scale that has definitely been a journey of like working at first, like from my own home kitchen when we’re testing recipes. And then at one point in time you mentioned Brianne, that was when she already had Nada open and so I was talking to her about renting space from her when we were in Vancouver, all the way to working in a shared kitchen commissary by hour and then a shared space with one other business. And then it’s just been a very gradual progression. And I think that has largely been the story of my business. Whenever I—people ask me about the growth trajectory I, I always I don’t feel like I’ve come that far. But when you reflect back to like the full three or four years, it’s like, wow, we’ve actually done so much. But because it’s been such a gradual progression of small steps along the way that it really adds up to such a momentous journey over time.

Vicki Saunders 4:32
It’s one of my favorite things about a lot of entrepreneurs in the SheEO community and I think about this a lot with my own journey too like, most of us are just like, what’s the next step? What’s the next step? We never started out and went how’s all this going to scale? How’s it all gonna go? Just put your head down, start moving, and then doors open. Things reveal themselves, people show up to help you along the way. And with the co-manufacturing stuff you’re doing now, where are you selling into? Who is your customer?

Melanie Ang 5:00
Our business is majority ecommerce and direct to consumers. So on our website, backcountrywok.com is where I make majority of my sales. We do sell into outdoor retailers and independent health food stores across Canada. So here in Toronto like Unboxed Market, and in Ottawa like Trailhead Paddle Shack and zero waste grocery stores as well. We are expanding into the US next month. So that’s really exciting for us and trying to hit more retailers, south of the border.

Vicki Saunders 5:31
And so are you mostly—like, are you trying to do B2B versus B2C or both?

Melanie Ang 5:35
Definitely B2C. That’s, I think our strength. And I think it really helps because you can kind of leverage the data to just put the product out there, see where the customers are based, and then really leverage that to target outdoor stores in the areas that people are purchasing a lot of our meals from.

Vicki Saunders 5:51
And so in the US, do you have distributors set up yet?

Melanie Ang 5:55
No, no distributors yet. So open to, if you know anyone.

Vicki Saunders 6:00
We’re ready for it. Okay. So it’ll be an ask of our people that are listening.

Melanie Ang 6:04
Yeah.

Vicki Saunders 6:05
Who are based in the US. We’re looking for distributors. That’s amazing. And are are you working with MEC in Canada? Are you inside MEC? Not yet.

Melanie Ang 6:12
No, I’m not in MEC. I have been stalking them the last three years. I’m very close, though I have managed to locate the buyer. I got his home address. I’ve sent him products. So now I’m just very short of just showing up at his doorstep. But I’m working on it.

Vicki Saunders 6:31
Well done. There you go. Okay. And I mean, well, that’s a hard, it’s hard right now, right? Because people aren’t actually in the office. So it’s like, how do you? Yeah, people? Okay, cool. We can help with that. So I think that part’s important. Is it mostly like outdoor enthusiasts, like campers kind of who are grabbing this? Are you noticing, like any trends in who shows up as your customers?

Melanie Ang 6:53
Yes, during the summertime, a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, obviously, with the nice weather and people wanting to go outside. But before COVID, we also saw a lot of people who purchased it for a quick meal in the office at home for traveling on the roads, used to do pre COVID times a huge show here in Toronto, the one of a kind show. And it was such a great way to test out the product be able to like talk to hundreds of customers over the course of a weekend. And then people really tell you like how they use their products. So that feedback was really helpful. And it actually Jessy, used to volunteer at my booth.

Vicki Saunders 7:32
Yeah, she was like, I’m so excited about this food. That’s really great. And how do you decide on—do you work with nutritionists? Or like, how do you decide on recipes? And how do you do the sort of innovation around your product?

Melanie Ang 7:44
So I have a dietician that we work with, she’s a sports dietitian. And so when we go through the product, it’s so much about balancing the tastes of it with the nutritional value. So I usually create the recipes like this is how, in my vision of how the tastes work, like this is how I envision it to be and then I’ll send her the recipe and she’ll like then tweak it like, oh, have you considered maybe using this type of ingredient instead, it might still give you the same types of flavor, but really boost your calories. So really, it’s like a very iterative, back and forth process.

Vicki Saunders 8:16
Cool. So what does it—tell people what the flavors are right now that you’ve got, and then what’s coming.

Melanie Ang 8:21
So I have three flavors. We have the bibimbap, which is the very first meal that I created. With my home dehydrator, it’s still my favorite. It is a little on the spicier side. So for people who like a punch of flavor, that’s the one I highly recommend. Then the Thai green curry, it’s mild to medium, it’s actually the most popular recipe. So that’s also a good one to try. And then the original fried rice. They—it has much milder flavors recommended for like, kids. They love it when they go camping, soy puffs in there. And they’re all vegan plant based recipes.

Vicki Saunders 8:56
Awesome. And what’s next?

Melanie Ang 8:58
So many things.

Vicki Saunders 9:01
Tell us all the things.

Melanie Ang 9:02
So we have a few new recipes in the works. I think in the next few months, I’m hoping to launch another three SKUs, which we’re developing right now. A rebrand is in the works as well. We’ve been in the works for a couple months now. And so launching the new packaging with three new flavors, one of them is going to be a tom yum, the other one is going to be a miso flavored and the third one we’re still working on. So really excited about that.

Vicki Saunders 9:30
I cannot wait. That’s really amazing. So what do you most need right now? How can we help you as a community?

Melanie Ang 9:36
So right now, lots of changes, especially with moving towards the co-manufacturing and so I have a lot of staffing changes right now. In the past year, a lot of my staff have been on the production and now I’m looking to really boost up my sales capacity to support the increased volume that we’ll be able to produce through co-manufacturing. So I’m actually hiring for a sales and business development person right now, job posting is on our website and our social media. So if you know anyone who’s interested, we’d love any feedback on that. As well, we’re expanding in the US. So any connections to retailers, distributors, brokers in the US, I would also love, love that.

Vicki Saunders 10:17
Awesome. Well, we will get right on it. And thank you very much for all you’re doing. We’re really excited about your business and how we can help you grow. So thanks for joining us today.

Melanie Ang 10:24
Thanks, Vicki.

Hannah Cree 10:29
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women at SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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