SubZero Heats Up

Perhaps it makes sense that a North Slope worker might have some thoughts about freeze drying. That was certainly the case for Monica Peck. When she’s home in Palmer instead of expediting up north, she and her big, outdoorsy family spend lots of time camping, hunting, and fishing. Seven years ago they started making freeze-dried meals to fuel their adventures instead of taking food in heavier, perishable forms out on the land. The method grew into a bit of an obsession, and then into a full-blown business: SubZero Freeze Drying. For a year, they’ve operated within the constraints of Alaska’s cottage food laws, but soon their kitchen will be commercially certified and they’ll start wholesaling to retail stores.

Peck started out just freeze drying fruit. “The kids would take it to school and they started sharing with everybody. We refer to the bananas as ‘crack’, now—everybody had it and everyone wanted more. We would hook everybody up and share everything.”

That was three years ago. When she started working up on the Slope, she would bring some there, too. Folks loved it and made clear that they would buy it if there were more available. Eventually, recognizing how popular freeze dried products have become in the Lower 48 and that no one was really making them in Alaska, Peck and her family decided to make a go of it. They bought more equipment and leveled up. They started out just selling on the Slope, initially, and would sell right out. They bought even more freeze dryers, started a Facebook page, and kept growing.

In addition to several kinds of fruits and berries—raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, mango, bananas, and more—they began experimenting with snacks and candies, too. Familiar products undergo fascinating transformations during freeze drying processes. Sour Skittles are one top seller. The process intensifies their flavor profile. Freeze dried Jolly Ranchers are another hot item. “The best way I can describe them is like a crunchy cotton candy… You get that first bite and it just melts in your mouth,” Peck said. Regular Skittles are also popular, and the process makes them actually expand, almost like a popped corn kernel. “It’s science. It’s fun,” Peck says. “We run fruits through an entire process of sublimation.”

The business is a family operation. Peck and each of her four kids are 20% owners. They’ve got several freeze dryers running around the clock and still can’t meet demand. While they don’t offer mail order, they deliver in the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage and sell in person at markets. Each person in the family pitches in and some of the kids have come to manage certain lines. Zearha does the organics—fruits and berries. Rachael, the family “dog whisperer,” makes dog treats, for example.

They’re only selling direct to consumers so far because of cottage food laws, but several companies have shown interest in carrying their products in stores. “As soon as we become certified, then we will be pushing retail.” And they’ll expand their menu. They’re working on developing meat products and will most definitely tackle “the cool stuff” like ice cream and even cheesecake. “Freeze dried cheesecake is heaven,” according to Peck. They’re even experimenting with freeze drying tiny crickets sought after by baby reptile owners in Alaska, but which are tough to source live because they grow so fast.

Read the rest of this story with our friends at Edible Alaska!