Kate’s Real Food Has Roots in the Tetons
By Brian E. Clark
When Kate Schade moved from her college digs at the University of New Hampshire to Wyoming in 1993, she never anticipated that she’d one day be heading a company that will produce between 5 and 6 million energy bars this year.
She was simply following in her older brother’s footsteps, pursing an outdoor lifestyle that would allow her to ski, mountain bike, hike and play in the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho.
Schade, who launched Kate’s Real Food in 2010, began making energy bars in her own kitchen a few years after she arrived in Jackson, Wyoming to stoke her backcountry adventures.
“I’d actually spent the summer before I graduated in Victor, Idaho, joining a brother who’d already moved here,” said Schade, who grew up cooking with her mother in Palmyra, New York.
“I’d never experienced mountains like these. I was enthralled and one of the first things I did when I settled here was buy a mountain bike.”
She also began skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which has an impressive vertical drop of 4,139 feet and covers 2,500 acres.
“Back then, I’d take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my pack and snack on a trail mix of raisins, nuts and M&Ms to fuel me on my outings,” she said.
It wasn’t long before she got into snowboarding and then switched to Telemark skis, which she still uses on backcountry trips. She said she’s pretty much given up on riding lifts, preferring to skin up slopes.
In the beginning of her time in the Tetons, she waited tables at night so she could ski during the days. Schade also cleaned houses and condos and later became a reservations manager – an indoor job she came to loath. After that, she landed a job at an organic farm.
“I think it was sometime in the mid-90s that I began making the bars, simply because I wanted good, hearty food to stick in my pocket and take with me whether was skiing or hiking or biking,” she said.
“It started with whatever was in my cupboard. The first bars always had dried fruits, cereal or oats that I’d would mix together and see how they came out. They kept evolving.”
Schade said she served friends who enjoyed them. It wasn’t long before they were requesting “slabs” of the bars.
“So I cut them up, put them in bags and sold them to friends to pretty much just cover the cost of the ingredients,” she said.
But they raved about them and encouraged her sell them commercially.
“I hemmed and hawed for a long time,” she recalled. “But eventually, I knew that I didn’t want to wait tables for the rest of my life. I decided I could give it a try and that’s how the business began.”
Her first outlet was at a small ski shop at the base of Teton Pass. She wrapped her bars in Saran Wrap and put little gear stickers that were laying around the shop on the packages to dress them up.
“Wilson Backcountry Sports was my first customer,” she recalled. “Eventually, I got the (government health) paperwork done to really become legitimate, which was a big feat. After that, I made the bars at a local restaurant to ramp up production.”
Schade’s bars grew in popularity after she began handing out sample squares at a restaurant where she was waitressing. She sold the bars there, too.
About that time, she met Bruce Thaler, who became a big fan of the bars. Today, he’s a co-owner of the company.
“Over the course of six months we chatted and then partnered up,” she said. “Not long after that, I quit my other job and started working on the business full time, even though I really had no idea what I was doing. But Bruce did.”
Kate’s Real Food now makes seven bars, but she started with the “Tram Bar,” which had milk chocolate and peanut butter as its main ingredients. It was named after Jackson Hole’s aerial tram which goes from the resort’s base to its 10,450-foot summit in nine minutes.
“That was even before connecting with Bruce,” she said. “I was also selling them at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. They wanted to sell the bar, but didn’t want the name Tram on it. So I changed it to the Grizzly Bar and swapped the ingredients to dark chocolate and PB. It’s now our top seller.”
She also experimented with a spicy coconut bar, which she said was ahead of its time.
“It was savory with something of an Indian flavor, with raisins and sesame seeds and a bit of cayenne pepper in addition to the dark chocolate and coconut,” she said. “We called it the ‘Caz Bar,’ but eventually stopped making it.”
The bars are available around the country at REI stores, on line, some Whole Foods and other groceries. Depending on the store, the price per 2.2-ounce bar ranges from $2.50 to $3.50, she said.
Her favorite creation is a dark chocolate mint creation, though Schade said she is fond of all the bars her company makes.
“When I began all this, I just wanted to make something that tasted great with natural ingredients that would digest well,” she said.
“For me, having a clean, natural product to eat and digest well was huge. We are USDA organic. Our bars are a combination of a lot of things: They have a wonderful texture, every bite is different and a bit of an adventure.”
Schade said there is no preferred time to eat one of her bars.
“I eat them before, during and after an outing,” she said. “So it really depends on the individual. They digest well, so you can eat them before a workout. But I don’t like to have solid food in my stomach when I’m going for a run. But for mountain biking, skiing and hiking, any time is good.”
Schade said with the boom in interest in the outdoors during the pandemic and more stores carrying her bars, business has doubled in the past year. With the growth, she moved production to Pennsylvania to be more efficient.
“I’m glad the company is doing well,” she said. “And if I can get more people to play outside and gain in the physical and mental health benefits that come from that, I’m happy.
“I’m also trying to make organic foods more accessible at reasonable prices. If I can help do that, then I’d like to think the world will be a better place.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.