Denis Mikhailov turned a lifelong hobby into a successful business
The usual freeze-dried fare gave him indigestion
Originally, rock climbing was a way for Denis Mikhailov to procrastinate during his international relations degree at UVic. But it quickly became an obsession and, through a chance encounter, led to the start of a full-fledged business.
Although Mikhailov’s passion for rock climbing and mountaineering has taken him all over the world, it was on a weeklong 2016 trip through the Bugaboos mountain range in southeastern B.C. that he had an awakening of sorts. “I don’t want to draw any comparisons to biblical times, but like Moses, I came off the mountain and had an idea for a company,” he remembers with a laugh.
Battling indigestion from the freeze-dried meals he’d bought at his local MEC outlet, Mikhailov ran into a mountain guide who gave the North Vancouver resident his homemade dehydrated food.
“It changed my perception that it could be done better and more naturally using whole-food ingredients,” Mikhailov says. “Nothing else could compare to what he made, and the question I had was, why wasn’t anyone using whole-food, natural ingredients without preservatives, without chemicals?”
Mikhailov, who previously earned an MBA from SFU and worked as a financial analyst for the City of Vancouver, launched Nomad Nutrition in early 2017 to help out like-minded individuals who were fed up (pun intended) with the lack of choices in dehydrated meals. “I started it from my home kitchen and grew the company to where I built my own factory in Burnaby,” he recalls. “We source fresh ingredients locally, cook them in-house, dehydrate them in-house and distribute and sell from the same location.”
It seems that Mikhailov, like so many other entrepreneurs, identified a market need at exactly the right time. “In terms of mountaineering, you need a lot of carbs, a lot of protein and food that’s going to sustain you for long periods of time,” he maintains. “What was on the market at that time was rice and beans. It’s good enough—it’s calories, it’s going to keep your belly full, but it’s probably not going to aid in your athletic pursuits, whatever those are.”
Today, Mikhailov admits he’s more of a weekend warrior than a full-on climbing fanatic, but he doesn’t lack street cred, having taken on ranges in places like Thailand and Sweden. Perhaps surprisingly, his favourite place to hike (Squamish), his longest trek (the aforementioned tussle with Mount Spire in the Bugaboos) and his hardest climb (Mrs. Negative in Squamish) are all in B.C.
He also has a soft spot for California’s Joshua Tree, though. “It’s just the energy of the place; I love desert terrain and how inhospitable it is,” he says. “And how nature just finds a way to survive the most inhospitable environments. It’s a really beautiful juxtaposition between life and death, which is kind of an allegory to climbing.”
It works for the business world, too. For a short time, it looked like death might be around the corner for Nomad Nutrition. The company lost all of its retail partners overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in March. Mikhailov had to trim his workforce, and uncertainty began to set in for a business that was just over three years old. But the retailers eventually reopened, and catastrophe turned into opportunity.
“The pandemic created a different kind of demand—people who could no longer travel abroad,” recounts Mikhailov. “They had plans to go to Europe or Hawaii and weren’t able to do so. So everybody started to discover [their] own backyard by camping, hiking, climbing, outdoor activities. These people started coming to us directly, going to our website. We had big lineups out of the [virtual] door during the pandemic because people didn’t know where to purchase their meals. And they wanted them right away to go on their weekend camping trip.”
Part of Mikhailov clearly wishes he were one of those people checking out of work early to go spend a few days wrestling with a mountain. But his business is now the No. 1 focus in his life, even if he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“That trip in 2016 was pivotal in my perception of this industry,” he says of his tough adventure in the Bugaboos. “And I haven’t stopped thinking about dehydrated food ever since then.”
Denis Mikhailov is founder and CEO of Nomad Nutrition, which makes a variety of dehydrated meals, like Irish Shepherd’s Pie, Kathmandu Curry and Indian Red Lentil Stew, and distributes them across North America to hundreds of stores through retailers such as Atmosphere, MEC and Valhalla Pure Outfitters.
“It’s important for us to be in every location where people go outdoors,” says Mikhailov. He notes that Nomad, which has a heavy B.C. presence, is in communities like Kelowna, Nanaimo, Nelson, Prince George, Smithers and Vernon.
Mikhailov, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and raised in Vancouver’s Kitsilano, works with his 15 employees to produce the plant-based, organic, ready-to-eat meals in a Burnaby factory.