By Gregory Daurer | Sep 13, 2020
Mac and cheese mixes and grits
"Our three favorite things are fly fishing, skiing, and Southwestern foods," McCormack says about he and his wife, Tania, who's also the company's co-founder and chief marketing officer. "The original recipes were backpacking-camping-rafting recipes of ours that friends had been pushing us to sell."
Today, their company FishSki Provisions makes quick-to-prepare macaroni and cheeses with Hatch green chiles in one and Hatch red chiles in the other. But, by far, their spiciest product isn't a mac and cheese: it's their Jalapeno, Hatch Green Chile, Cheddar Grits. The addition of Hatch chiles, in all the items, speaks to their passion for those beloved New Mexican pods: "There's not a better chile growing region in the world," says McCormack. (Although the McCormacks lived in Colorado for ten years, and their company is based in Boulder, they presently reside in New Mexico.)
McCormack says his business uses "winter wheat durum semolina pasta from Kansas that's higher in protein, a little more toothsome, and we think that makes our product stand out a little bit more than the commoditized macaroni that other companies use." FishSki also uses "higher-quality dairy [than competitors], so our products don't require butter or milk to make, just a couple cups of water." The cheese is an rBST-free, "flavor-aged cheddar."
Additionally, FishSki doesn't incorporate freeze-dried ingredients: "Our [chiles] are air-dried instead of freeze-dried, so there's definitely a better flavor, and also none of the unhappiness that comes with freeze-dried foods and your stomach." He's referring to a distressing phenomenon sometimes called "trail belly." McCormack says, "With freeze-dried foods, it's pretty much never going to rehydrate all the way. So if it's inside your body -- even if you've waited the ten minutes for it to cook -- it's still going to be rehydrating [uncomfortably] in your stomach later on."
Prior to co-founding his company, McCormack worked as a management consultant. But he's also earned a living as a "professional fly fisherman," serving as a guide in wilderness spaces. After his return from an extended trek to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, he and Tania began their business in 2016. Rob now devotes himself full-time to running the business. But, of course, there's still time for backpacking and fishing with friends, he says, while describing a recent weekend outing: "We had brook trout that we caught and [FishSki's] grits for dinner."
For production, the McCormacks utilize Colorado Kitchen Share's facility in Thornton. Rob says, "We've been fortunate to have the facility kind of build out with us as we've grown, purchase equipment that we need." Today, around 240 stores in over a dozen states carry FishSki products, in addition to the items being sold online by the company. "The independent stores in Colorado really gave us a good foothold to build on, and for that we're really appreciative," says McCormack. Safeway stores in Colorado carry the brand, as well. "We've grown over 200 percent since this point last year," he says. Later this year, the products will be further available in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.
While working at Colorado Kitchen Share, the McCormacks were introduced to the cannabinoid CBD by a fellow food maker, who was adding it to chocolate recipes. That led to FishSki releasing a version of its Cheddar, Hatch Green Chile, & Garlic macaroni and cheese preparation featuring the addition of 35 milligrams of a hemp CBD isolate. "As far as we know, we're the only complete hemp CBD meal available in the country," says McCormack, who calls Colorado "the world's epicenter of hemp foods." McCormack says, "We really like it backpacking or after a long day skiing. It kind of eases those muscles, as well, as after a stressful day dealing with brokers and buyers."
The company donates 3 percent of its sales to causes close to its founders' hearts: McCormack says those include "conservation or access projects, things that improve fisheries, so that fishing stays good or gets better; or access for skiing and hiking, so we can continue to enjoy our mountains."
FishSki Provisions provides more than just a career, says outdoorsman McCormack: "We wanted to make sure we had a purpose beyond just selling our products."
Challenges: "Gaining shelf space and customer eyes," says McCormack. "We compete against two of the largest food companies for shelf space, especially with mac and cheese: Annie's [owned by General Mills] and Kraft. They largely have purchased up most of the space on the shelf that you see in traditional grocery stores."
While the company often sees repeat customers for its products, McCormack says, another challenge is “getting the initial meal in their hand -- and in their stomachs." Social media and word of mouth are the primary vehicles for driving sales.
Opportunities: The growing popularity of Southwestern cuisine. McCormack says, "Hopefully we can be part of that -- introducing the flavors through people's favorite comfort foods."
Needs: "Right now, we're growing pretty fast and starting to think about our next steps [in terms of] manufacturing," says McCormack. That might mean FishSki building its own production facility.