Oso Meals is bringing “abuelita-approved” food to the mountains.
A couple years ago, friends Dominque Barrera and Felipe Vieyra took a backpacking trip in the area of Lost Lake near Nederland. They ate packaged freeze-dried beef stroganoff and mac and cheese, and dreamed of something better.
“We were reminiscing and thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to have our grandmas cooking in the backcountry,” Barrera said. “With new technology and good science, there’s no reason you can’t have good food.”
The result is Oso Meals, a line of freeze-dried meals with options like posole and huevos rancheros. Since launching on Kickstarter in spring 2021, the company has sold roughly 2,000 meals, according to its founders, and landed in local REI stores.
Vieyra, who was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and moved to Colorado at age 2, and Barrera, born and raised in Five Points, grew up eating authentic homemade food like huevos migas and spicy enchiladas.
When they got back from the trip, the duo brought their friend, Connor Lawrence, on board and got cooking. The first few tries were “pretty terrible,” but Lawrence said after Vieyra’s grandma, Eulalia, shared her secret family recipes the meals started getting better.
The trio’s Kickstarter campaign in spring 2021 raised $21,000 in 45 days, and allowed the founders to hire a food scientist, Kerin Kennedy with Mesh Food Labs, to help them convert Eulalia’s recipes into backpacking food that still tasted good.
After a lot of practice, they settled on post-seasoning the food and freeze-drying ingredients individually. Oso — which means bear in Spanish, because a bear ate some of their food on that backpacking trip — currently has four meal options: Posole, Huevos Rancheros, Enchilada Bowl and the Veggie Enchilada Bowl.
Each two-serving meal costs about $5 to make and retails for $13, the founders said. Comparatively, other brands available at REI include Backpacker’s Pantry ($10), Mountain House ($11) and Peak Refuel ($13.95). There’s also the Canadian company Nomad Nutrition, which offers a range of $13.50 plant-based meals in diverse flavors including Spanish paella, Hungarian goulash and Ukrainian borscht.
Lawrence said the majority of Oso’s sales — $4,500 so far in 2023 — have come through the company’s website. The company is also stocked by some mom-and-pop outdoor retailers and natural grocery stores, and received its first order from local REIs two weeks ago.
“We want to be in every major outdoor retail store, have a heavy online presence and get a new crowd of folks involved in the outdoors as well,” Barrera said.
After its Kickstarter, Oso Meals received $250,000 from the state of Colorado through its Advanced Industries Grant program. Barrera said they are also wrapping up a $1 million raise from individual angel investors and expect up to another $300,000 from Rockies Venture Club this year.
“Fundraising for us is a way to lead into the company, lead demand in the market and take Oso to the next level,” Lawrence said.
All three founders kept their day jobs and aren’t taking a pay check from Oso. Barrera, 31, founded and runs the nonprofit Colorado Food Cluster, which delivers meals to kids in need. Lawrence, 30, is in the software industry and currently the head of business operations for PicnicHealth. Vieyra, 32, is the director of programs and advocacy for Denver Families for Public Schools.
Right now the ingredients are sourced throughout the U.S., but Lawrence said they expect to be fully sourced and produced in Colorado by year-end. After that, they expect to release gluten-free and vegan options.
“I believe we’re going to disrupt the adventure food market … people want flavorful food,” Lawrence said.