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The Back Country Story – 21 years and counting

Lunch on the hunt

How to carry everything in a pack needed for a full-on extended backcountry adventure without compromising nutrition? This was the question posed by military and outdoor enthusiasts in 1950s NZ that ultimately led to the creation of Back Country Cuisine.

Back then, lightweight outdoors gear didn’t exist – everything was heavy. So, from the 1960s onwards, the focus went onto reducing the weight of outdoors gear, and this is where the Back Country Cuisine story starts … with the Alliance Freezing Company (Southland) Limited freeze-drying beef. In the 1960s, Alliance pioneered the development of freeze-drying food in NZ to reduce its weight and extend its shelf life, supplying products to adventurers like Sir Peter Blake for Lion New Zealand’s Round-the-World yacht race, and the NZ Army.

By the 1990s, the Alliance Freezing Company had changed its ownership structure to be a cooperative, changed its name to the Alliance Group and refocused on core business; Back Country Foods Ltd was established to take over the freeze-dried meal side of the business. This was in 1998, when Arthur and Shirley Ballantyne and Invest South purchased the freeze-dried food business from Alliance Freezing Company. Invest South is a Southland private equity fund, 100% owned by Community Trust South; they provided equity capital to assist Arthur and Shirley to buy the business from Alliance, and Back Country Foods Ltd was formed. Invest South saw an opportunity to add value to a local business that was clearly focussed on growth. The business was relocated to Otepuni Avenue, Invercargill, and the iconic Back Country Cuisine brand was created.

Invercargill is at the bottom of NZ and is one of the southernmost cities in the world with great access to some of the best wilderness areas in NZ – The Catlins, Stewart Island/Rakiura and Fiordland. Many raw ingredients, including meat and vegetables, are produced by food processors in Invercargill – the region is something of a gourmet food box! With amazing world-class food producers on their doorstep, Back Country Foods have always been proud to source locally as much as possible to go into their Back Country Cuisine meals.

Like most new business ventures, nothing is plain sailing, and difficulties were experienced in the early days. While Invest South’s initial investment was passive, it soon added to this providing management support in the form of skilled directors and systems to assist the company with its growth objectives; some of Arthur’s file notes show his appreciation of the support and advice from some great mentors – Invest South showed patience in assisting the business to realise its objectives.

In 2009, Invest South facilitated a succession plan which enabled Arthur and Shirley to exit the business and brought in new shareholders Brent and Kara Crossan who focused on market growth, particularly in export markets.

In 2013, Invest South facilitated the funding for a large new freeze-dryer that delivered a steep change in production capacity and generated efficiencies to enable their growth strategies.

In early 2017, Brent and Kara – for personal reasons – wished to exit the company, so Invest South acquired a 100% shareholding, putting in place a management team to support the company through a transition period and to underpin future growth.

Invest South recently sold Back Country Foods to George Wilson Group. George Wilson Group is a well-established Invercargill-based family business with more than 65 years’ experience in engineering, farm machinery, and more recently, campervan hire. Group director Murray Wilson says Back Country Foods presents an excellent new opportunity for them to diversify their Southland operations by growing an already successful business.

“We’re very excited about the potential of Back Country Foods, a strong and profitable business with a high-value brand that’s extremely well-positioned for growth and expansion into new markets. Our vision is very much focused on realising that potential, developing new products and exploring new markets whilst continuing to contribute to the Southland region’s economy and community.”

Products

So, what’s so great about Back Country Cuisine, and who’s been eating the half a  million meals, desserts and smoothies they produce every year?

Back Country Cuisine products are lightweight, easy to prepare and taste great because of the unique freeze-drying process used. This combines quick-to-hydrate, freeze-dried vegetables and meats with delicious sauce mixes that retain their natural flavours. The result is tasty freeze-dried meals that can be prepared inside their packaging in 10 to 15 minutes by just adding a bit of boiling water.

During the freeze-drying process, crystals of frozen ice in the food are sublimed (evaporated) to water vapour in a vacuum chamber. The result is a completely dry product that doesn’t shrink during the drying process. After packing, the food is heat-sealed in foil pouches from which all the air has been removed and replaced with nitrogen gas, keeping the food safe and flavoursome for at least four years. When preparing for eating, the water is quickly absorbed by the pores left by the ice crystals to give a juicy, tender food product. Back Country Cuisine meals are formulated to meet the high energy needs of outdoor activity, and their products have a careful mix of essential components needed for a healthy diet; these include balanced carbohydrates and sugars for instant energy, protein to replenish exhausted muscles, and oils and fats to keep you feeling full.

Back Country Foods General Manager John McGrath says that Back Country Cuisine meals provide outdoor adventurers with not only less pack weight and nutrition, but also a connection to home while they’re out in some of the toughest environments in the world – from crossing deserts or oceans to climbing mountains in pursuit of game or the summit.

“We produce in excess of 500,000 meals a year, with ‘Roast Lamb & Vegetables’ being our best seller every year; it’s a really classic Kiwi dish that’s popular with both hikers and hunters alike in NZ, Australia and South Africa. It’s incredible how many international adventurers also try our meals while visiting NZ or adventuring with Kiwis abroad. It never ceases to amaze me where our meals get taken – from climbing in Nepal, participating in Oman Desert marathons and kayaking the Tasman to sailing around the world and hunting in Kazakhstan. Subsequently, we get requests from all around the world for our meals.”

The Future

To help celebrate Back Country Cuisine’s 21st birthday this year, they decided it was time to give their meal bags/pouches a makeover. Their new look is clean, simple and designed to retain and enhance their NZ heritage. Green from native bush and orange from track markers is now combined with a sunset mountainscape including clouds or a lake depending on how you perceive it. They’ve kept the same range-category colour scheme to make finding and buying your favourite meals easy – dark green for meals, light green for breakfasts and desserts, and blue for meal complements. Over winter and beyond, Back Country tell us they’ll be working on improving their labelling to increase legibility, improving bag tear lines and providing an on-bag water-measuring system, which we think will be a great addition!

With 21 years of experience, world-wide demand, great-looking new packaging, a new owner, and new meals being developed, the future looks very bright for Back Country. If you’d like to know more, check out their website: backcountrycuisine.co.nz.

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