Photo of Tony Cisneros and Caroline Ebinger

YSE Students Spicing up Trail Foods in Sustainable Ways

 
Tony Cisneros ’21 MEM/MBA was hiking in Colorado feeling pretty blasé about the food options he had in front of him. The variety of instant foods were high in calories but lacking in nutritional and flavor diversity he would have liked.
 
That’s when an idea hit him. 
 
“I looked around for better options in the back country and didn't find any solution,’’ says Cisneros. "So, I thought that I could try and do that myself.”
 
And now that idea is ready to reach consumers through Mesa Foods, a company he runs with co-partner Caroline Ebinger ’22 MEM/MBA who is earning a joint degree at the Yale School of Management. The company is selling two varieties of their new product, Trail Spice, to add to foods such as beans and lentils for backpacking meals. One mix is Berbere, an Ethiopian flavor, and the other is Tex-Mex. 
 
The students worked the concept of the company through Yale's Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking Spring Accelerator 2020 cohort, where they received startup funding; the company also received grant funding from the Yale School of Management. They also received YSE's Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) Climate Innovation Grant.
 
Mesa promotes an earth-friendly lifestyle by providing nutritious, sustainable food products, it’s official mission states. 
 
Included in Mesa’s core goals and values are supporting sustainable farmers and food suppliers who are practicing core planetary health principles. The spice packets, which provides extra nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, are packaged in a compostable pouch with labels and an adhesive that is also compostable. The ingredients are primarily organic and provided by independent farms and suppliers.
 
“At school I realized how important food was and the food system and how much that's interconnected to conservation. And so that was primarily why I was interested in working on Mesa,’’ says Ebinger. 
 
Mesa has pledged to give back 1% of profits to land conservation organizations from the areas where the food and flavors are sourced including donating to an Ethiopian nonprofit that helps conserve the endangered walia ibex, a type of mountain goat. 
 
The company also seeks to promote inclusivity on the hiking trails and a passion for the outdoors and is offering discounts for customers facing financial challenges. 
 
To launch their two inaugural products, Cisneros and Ebinger spent hours working in the commercial kitchen provided by City Seed, a New Haven-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable food systems and serves as an incubator for startups.  
 
“It was a long day for Tony and me in the kitchen with our gloves and hats making the product,’’ says Ebinger. “We produced 500 units in 12 hours.”
 
The partners are seeking B Corp status for Mesa, which is a public benefit corporation through the state of Delaware. 
 
While they are selling direct to consumer now, they have been exploring selling Trail Spice at major outdoor retailers as well. They hope to expand on the three core value pillars that are the foundations of their company.
 
“I really have always believed that for-profits can really be a tool for social environmental impact,’’ says Ebinger. 
 
Stuart DeCew, executive director of the Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), says the work Ebinger and Cisneros have put into Mesa shows they don’t settle for uninteresting answers to complicated questions.
 
“Tony and Caroline are great models for how to think and act in building a business. They embrace an approach of thinking about the big picture impact of their venture and where it can support and sustain healthier ecosystems and communities,” he says. “They are curious and driven to figure out a better approach to a range of questions on supply chains and packaging, which makes building a business a meaningful and motivating endeavor. They demonstrate that when you are driven by a purpose far beyond just dollars and cents, you are more likely to keep at it and find success.”
– Fran Silverman  •  fran.silverman@yale.edu  •  +1 (203) 436-4842