It’s not often a great idea is born inside of a 30-foot 1996 Winnebago that’s cruising the California coastline. However, that’s exactly where PlayHard GiveBack sprouted from.
The 5-year-old company based in Ketchum, Idaho leverages the power of sports and the influence of athletes to make the world a better place. Its catalyst? Trail mix.
Building homes for families in need in Mexico? Check. Providing meals to hungry kids within the U.S. school system? You bet. And, it’s done one snack at a time.
Spencer Brendel, a former college hockey player, and his father, Jeff, got the ball rolling inside that Winnebago on a father-son trip in 2012. Today, you might say they’re leading a dried fruit and raw nut renaissance, with purpose at the helm. Athletes like pro skiers Lexi Dupont and Julian Carr are all-in on this company that doesn’t just nourish the body, but fuels social change around the world.
A Yearning for ‘Something That Matters’
Growing up, Spencer Brendel, 29, lived and breathed hockey. He started playing at 5 years old and quickly developed into a standout player.
“I went through the junior hockey program until I was 14 years old, and at that time, there wasn’t really enough competition to push me to the level I wanted to get to, so I moved to Colorado Springs by myself as a 15-year-old,” he said.
He played on private teams and attended three different high schools in Colorado before moving to Utah to play on an elite team until his senior year. Then he returned to Idaho and graduated with all of his hometown friends. He was recruited out of high school to play hockey in Sweden for two years before landing at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he earned a degree in entrepreneurship and marketing.
However, the summer before graduating from college, Brendel was peering out at the world from the passenger seat of the Winnebago, unsure of what he wanted his future to look like.
“As we were on the road, my dad tossed me a book called, ‘Start Something that Matters’ by Blake Mycoskie, the CEO of Toms shoes. I read it, and coincidentally, I was soul searching a little bit,” Brendel explained. “I didn’t really know what to do after college, didn’t have my sights set on anything, so it got me thinking I would like to start something that matters, and try to harness my experience in athletics and all the relationships I had within the athletic industry. Growing up in Sun Valley, a lot of my friends were pro athletes in skiing, snowboarding, Nordic racing and snowmobiling. This town breeds a lot of high-level athletes.”
So, Brendel and his father, who helped start the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, toyed with a concept in which snacks and athletes could merge together to make a difference.
Once the seed was planted, Brendel didn’t sit down for days on end hammering out a business plan. He took another approach. He hiked more than 100 miles over a 20-day period in the Idaho backcountry to develop his idea.
“I applied for an entrepreneurship grant through a locally-based organization called Wild Gift. They bring four to five entrepreneurs every year on this massive trek, where you hike during the day, and every night, you work on your business plan without other distractions like phones and emails,” Brendel said. “So, when you come out of the mountains, you have this clear vision that you follow, where you meet quarterly goals and at the end of the year, they give you a $10,000 grant to pursue your project.”
More Than Just a Thesis
With a plan in place, Brendel returned to the University of St. Thomas for his last year of formal education, which included a senior thesis project.
“All the rest of the class was working on made up projects for companies. I got special permission to work on a real life project,” Brendel said. “So, myself and four other classmates worked on PlayHard GiveBack, and when we handed in the project, the professor actually gave me a $7,000 check and said, ‘I want to be your first investor.'”
Between that and the grant from Wild Gift, Brendel launched PlayHard GiveBack from a solid foundation immediately after earning his college degree.
“To start, my dad and I went to Trader Joes and got peanuts and dried fruit, mixed them up, threw them in a bag and slapped a label on it with a picture of an athlete,” Brendel said.
Since then, their snack mixes are quite calculated, from a peanut butter protein blend that includes peanut butter bites, raw almonds, flax seeds and dried cranberries to a blueberry antioxidant recipe with chia blueberry bites, ginger, hemp seeds and honey roasted nuts. They’re offering these energy-laced mixes so athletes can “Play Hard,” but what about the “Give Back” portion of the “recipe?”
“In 2018, for every snack that we sell, we’re donating a meal to a hungry child in the U.S. via our partnership with No Kid Hungry,” Brendel said. “Our goal for 2018 is to raise about 150,000 meals for kids here in the United States.”
Additionally, PlayHard GiveBack has partnered with Hope Sports in order to travel to Rosarito, Mexico twice a year and build homes for families who need them.
“It’s a short-term service trip, about four or five days long, with a group of professional athletes, Olympians and other athletes of all abilities,” Brendel said.
With a team of about 50 people who make each trip, they can usually build two or three homes. Of course, PlayHard GiveBack provides the on-site snacks. But, the meaning of each trip extends well beyond anything in a sealed bag.
“It a very impactful experience for everyone involved, not only the family who gets the keys, but the athletes who are involved,” Brendel said. “That’s one of the main goals behind our company is to instill purpose into these athletes’ lives. A lot of these athletes are at the top of their game, winning gold medals at the Olympics or World Championships, yet they’re depressed or confused within their athletic career, and they’ve lost purpose.”
‘Get your Beer, Get your GiveBack’
As for the future of PlayHard GiveBack, Brendel and his team of four employees are working on getting their product into college stadiums.
“It would be nice to have healthier snacking options available,” Brendel said. “Instead of a corn dog and cotton candy while watching a football game, maybe you get a bag of trail mix instead. Or, you have a fresher take on peanuts and beer at a baseball game.”
However, the ultimate goal, of course, is to feed more hungry mouths, build more homes and ignite the GiveBack movement among athletes across the board.
Talk about a flavorful mix everyone can get behind.