It’s interview time again! Who better to pester with a great many questions than Jon Fong, the man behind Flat Cat Gear, and backcountry baker extraordinaire! Jon has not only been crafting ultralight stoves for some time now, he’s also been boiling, baking, steaming, simmering, and frying up all kinds of delicious food using his stoves and various techniques. Are you curious about Epicurean? Do Flat Cats pique your interest? Does the idea of baking a cheeseburger intrigue you!? What sort of trail sorcery is all of this?? We’ll get to the bottom of it…
Hello Jon. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I started backpacking soon after I got married (mid 80’s). We didn’t have much money but loved to travel and see the outdoors. After our three girls were about 7-9, we started taking them on backpacking trips as a way to discover new environments and skills. Now that our kids are out on their own, we are backpacking even move and going on longer trips.
What are some of your favorite places to hike these days?
Our favorite places are above tree line (Yosemite & SEKI – Sierras) and slot canyons (UT & AZ). We have also been doing some international backpacking: this July, we hiked the Laugavegurinn Trail in Iceland.
Those are surely some great places! What was your overall experience in Iceland?
Iceland was truly an outstanding place. We spent 5 days on the one of the most popular trails: the Laugarvegur Trail. Thermal features everywhere, unique landscape and we meet a lot of wonderful people. We then rented a micro camper and toured the perimeter of Iceland for another 2 weeks. Geysers, hundreds of waterfalls, millions of birds( Puffins, Terns, etc), Icebergs: there were too many sites to see. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Sweet! What’s a typical baseweight look like for you?
On every backpacking trip, I am taking along multiple sets of new cooking systems and recipes. Additionally, I take analytical tools to record and validate the performance. That usually translates into +3-5 pounds of extra base weight. I worry less about base weight and more about if I am taking the right gear for the trip.
Cool. Right now Flat Cat Gear is exclusively manufacturing stoves and cooking systems, correct?
Right now, I am focusing on Cooking Systems and as a one man shop; it takes quite a bit of my time. I fully expect to expand our product offering outside to the cooking genre. Stay tuned…
So, how did your designs come about, and what problems do they solve?
Traditional alcohol stoves are not easy to use. There is a lot of fiddle factor in getting one to work correctly. We designed our standard alcohol stove so that they are seamless (no adhesives), don’t need a primer pan or wick and you don’t have to wait for the stove to “bloom”. To use our standard stoves, you fill them with fuel and light it – that’s it. Secondly, most systems are fragile and are easily damaged. Our driving objective was to make the cooking systems that are easy to use and will nest inside your pot or mug. This eliminates the need for a caddy or other protective devices. Finally, our gear is designed at the system level to make sure that all of the components work in concert with each other.
For my day job, I have been in R&D developing consumer based, high technology products. Designing gear that is easy to use and performs well will give you a significant advantage over the competition. You can buy an alcohol stove on eBay for under $5 and make windscreen out of oven foil, but I doubt that it will have anywhere the reliability and fuel efficiency of one of our cooking systems. When you are deep in the backcountry, you have to have gear that works every time. Our systems have been trail tested and proven on the AT, CDT, PCT and even the Iditarod 350 race.
Where are you currently manufacturing your stoves?
I actually manufacture the stoves myself. I am constantly fiddling with the design to improve ease of use and manufacturability. As the volumes increase, I develop customized tooling to reduce labor content and improve consistency.
Do you have any thoughts on offshoring
Going offshore has the risk of having the design knocked off and you end up competing against your own design, but at a lower price. There are quite a few cases of this happening to cottage industry guys. The advantage of keeping the design and manufacturing in house is that there are a plethora of trade secrets that will make a cooking system work correctly.
As a smaller, independent manufacturer, what can you say to folks out there who haven’t taken that step away from the mainstream? What should they expect with Flat Cat Gear in terms of customer service, and product quality?
I back up my gear with a 100% satisfaction guarantee. I work with customers to resolve or educate them over any issues they have. If I can’t satisfy their needs I will give them a full refund on their purchase. I encourage potential customers to contact me and to discuss their needs. I will help them find a solution even if it means pointing them to a different company
Do you have any plans to expand your current product offerings, or any new products on the horizon that you can talk about?
We do have a pipeline of products in the works and expect to release 3-4 in the latter half of 2015.
Are your cook systems aimed at hardcore ultralighter backpackers, or do they make sense for the average person out there hitting the trail?
We make products to solve a need and are not aiming at specific market segments. We recently changed our messaging to “epic meals at awesome places”. Our goal is to let you eat the food that you really want to eat where ever you happen to be. We are aiming to produce cooking systems that are easy to use and if the systems happen to be light weight then that is a bonus. I currently know several hard core UL backpackers that occasionally bake a muffin on the trail.
Can you talk about the difference between a stove that can boil water, and one that can actually simmer? Why might this matter to someone?
For freeze dried meals, the ability to boil water is all you need. Having a stove that simmers allows you to move way beyond freeze dried meals. Now you have the ability to cook rice, pasta and some bean dishes. We also make soup on the trail: Bear Creek is one of our favorite soup brands and can be found in many grocery stores. Bring your water to a boil, add the soup mix and simmer for 20 minutes, it really is pretty simple. With our cooking systems, we can simmer for over 30 minutes using about ½ oz. of alcohol. If you add up the numbers on a multi day trip, it’s less weight than using a cozy and will cook your meal faster.
Ok let’s talk about baking a little bit; first off can you briefly explain what “dry baking” is?
There are basically two ways to bake goods: steam baking and dry baking. Steam baking is the more common practice; you place your goods above a pool of boiling water and the steam cooks your bread/muffin. Technically, the flour mixtures need to reach a temperature of about 185 F to cross link or bake. That being said, the sugars need a temperature of ~350 F in order to reach a brown crust. The steam baking process is limited to the boiling point of water and will never achieve a golden crust. The way we dry bake is to transfer heat from the pot to an aluminum pan. The heat transfers up the bottom and sidewalls of the pan to bake your goods. We easily reach temperature above 350 F and achieve a nice golden crust. In our process is slower than steam baking as we keep the energy down in order to keep your pot from warping.
What do we need in order to be able to do some baking on the trail?
You need two things to dry bake. First you need a thick walled aluminum pan. We recommend the Fat Daddio’s brand. The walls have to be thicker to transfer the heat evenly up the walls. Second and most important, you need a stove that has a controlled heat output of about 100 Watts. We have been able to achieve this 4 ways:
Using Esbit in our Epicurean stoves
Using an alcohol stove with a simmer ring
Using a canister stove [with the ability to simmer]
Using 4 tea lights
An easy way to test your stove is to boil 2 cups of 70ºF water; a 100 watts stove will boil the water in about 30 minutes.
Does elevation affect the baking time or the finished results at all?
Elevation does not affect baking as we have made lasagna, breads and quiches at +13,000 feet. Stove performance and baking times were identical to the results at 1000 feet.
Awesome info! What are some of your favorite tasty treats to bake up and what is the typical time to bake a meal?
#1 on the list is a cheese burger; we make one on every backpacking trip. Next would be a lasagna followed by a deep dish pizza. Epic meals at awesome places!
I think that the time issue is pretty interesting. If you look up the direction to bake anything at home, they are comparable to our baking times. I baked a traditional lasagna at home last night. I took 20 minutes for the oven to get up to temperature and then 40 minutes to bake. Compare this to a freeze dried meal. There you have to boil the water (on an alcohol stove – 7-10 minutes), and then let the meal set (~10 minutes). For an incremental amount of time you can prepare a better tasting meal with a lot more calorie content.
Sounds Good! Speaking of tasty food, do you have any recommended sources for recipes?
Which of your products has been the most popular to date?
Our most popular product is the Epicurean Titanium Stove. This stove has brought new life to solid fuels; in particular Esbit. The Epicurean Titanium is the first commercial stove that could boil fast AND/OR simmer: 1 Esbit tablet will burn for 50 to 60 minutes.. This is the most reliable stove for dry baking.
Just for fun, what are some of your favorite pieces of gear made by other manufacturers?
Enlightened Equipment down quilt: Tim makes a great product
Trail Designs – Russ, Rand and Lee are innovative and good guys
Tarptent – Henry is excellent and they provide great customer service
What are your “big three” items for a typical backpacking trip?
Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 – I’m a flopper and need space
Enlightened Equipment long & wide 30 degree down quilt
Gregory Baltoro – (I will eventually get a lighter pack)
Do you have any thoughts on the progression of ultralight backpacking, or backpacking in any of its “lightweight” flavors?
I am thrilled to watch products take off and get adopted by the UL/Traditional backpackers. It is fun to see products like the NeoAir, & Sawyer filter take off and become adopted by customers. I give a lot of credit to the guys out there pushing the edge: I hope that water resistant down and cuben are successful.
Looking toward the future, what’s your vision for yourself and your company?
Interesting and timely question. I took a sabbatical from my last full time job to travel a bit and I am currently at a crossroads. I am either going back into a tradition Engineering Management position or I am going to start another company.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Flat Cat Gear cook systems will…”
… delight customers from around the world!
If you have questions for Jon feel free to post them here, or contact him directly via his website www.flatcatgear.com or email him directly and say whats up!. You can follow along with Flat Cat Gear and all the epic meals that Jon is cooking up on his Facebook page too. Thanks Jon! Hike It. Like It.
Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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