The founders of Grand Trunk — a company well-known for its hammocks, pillows and travel gear — shared a love of adventure. Close to 20 years since launching in 2001, Grand Trunk is practically an industry leader when it comes to making what it calls “goods for the road.” Among the media outlets that have recently praised Grand Trunk are the New York Times, Outside, BuzzFeed, and Real Simple.
Yet not everyone realizes that Grand Trunk is an Illinois-based company, and I had the pleasure of discussing that with its head of marketing, Kyle Wood. More on Grand Trunk, including its popular Tech Throw Travel Blanket, can be found online.
If my research is correct, you are an Illinois lifer, college studies included. What is it that has kept you in the area for so long?
Kyle Wood: Well, technically, I left Illinois for undergrad at a small school called St. Ambrose in the great state of Iowa. But it was right on the Mississippi River, so depending on where you were standing in town, you could look across and see Illinois. So it was basically in the area! (laughs)
Long story short, I’ve always been fascinated by how people think and what drives us to behave the way we do. St. Ambrose had a Forensic Psychology program and, coming out of high school, the dream job was to be a forensic profiler for the FBI. But in my sophomore year, I took a marketing class and was amazed at how much the worlds of Psychology and Marketing overlap. I ended up taking on another major and graduating with both Psychology and Marketing degrees. It sounds fancier than it is. (laughs)
After graduation, I took a marketing and business development position at a Behavioral Health Hospital in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. From there, it’s the classic falling in love with the city story. Tough to leave the big city!
You are the Brand Manager of Grand Trunk. How did you wind up working with the company?
Kyle Wood: While I was getting my MBA at DePaul I met all sorts of really impressive people in the marketing world, many of whom were already brand managers at their companies. Between working on projects with them and learning more about their roles, companies, and industries, I really fell in love with the challenges a CPG marketing role brings. I immediately began looking and found Grand Trunk. Lucky for me, I went to high school with the graphic designer on staff. All I remember from my interview is talking about DJ Khaled for like 20 minutes. But here I am! (laughs)
Grand Trunk is based in Skokie. Why Skokie?
Kyle Wood: We actually get that a lot. But Chicago is the outdoor capital of the United States, right? Denver and Seattle and all the other wonderfully beautiful places in this country don’t hold a candle. Our biases aside, the reason Grand Trunk is based in Skokie is because the Chicagoland area is the hometown of one of our co-founders, Kevin Kaiser. He and his partner Jon Neff built Grand Trunk out of their truck, then a van, then Kevin’s parents garage. And now we have our own garage! A couple actually, with a warehouse and offices and hammocks to lounge in. The Chicagoland area has been good to Grand Trunk.
Grand Trunk makes “goods for the road.” What are some of your favorite outdoorsy spots within the Chicago area?
Kyle Wood: Oooh, good question! Having lived in Lincoln Park area for a large chunk of my Chicago life, the lake was a hop, skip, and a quick bike ride away. There’s something about it; every time I’m on the lakeshore trail, I get a jolt of energy. Plus, I always come across a handful of hammockers lounging along the way. Occasionally, if the hammocks are not Grand Trunk, I’ll stop and give the lake loungers a discount code to our website and let them know that we will be here for them whenever they’re ready to upgrade to the best. So, if you’re ever relaxing by the lake and a random dude strolls up to you, don’t be afraid, he’s just trying to save you money.
Also, every year, we partner with the Chicago Parks Foundation to help sponsor an awesome event called Camp Northerly where we set up an overnight campout at Northerly Island. It’s a surreal experience being able to sit around a campfire with pristine views of the skyline behind the rising smoke. There are all sorts of activities from the classic s’mores and Capture the Flag to yoga at sunrise and arts and crafts. Every year, we bring in more and more local businesses to make the event more diverse. Last year, we even had Beyoncé and Jay-Z play. Well, technically they were playing at Soldier Field, but we had a few campers rockin’ out. (laughs)
Outside of the city, if you’re looking to camp or hike, you may need to drive a bit to find a good spot, but most are within two hours. Not too shabby. Starved Rock is a beautiful spot that has everything from hiking to a waterfall to local wineries. I’d be lying if the idea of combing the two didn’t cross my mind. Another amazing place is the Indiana Dunes State Park. Seriously, give the park a Google. It doesn’t even look like the Midwest. As far as outdoor activities go it’s got camping, hiking and beach front. Be sure to bring your Grand Trunk Parasheet Beach Blanket to keep the sand where it belongs.
So do you have a favorite of the Grand Trunk products available?
Kyle Wood: Honestly, it really depends on what I’m doing. If I’m headed out to the lake to hang on the beach or find a nice grassy spot, I’m bringing my Parasheet beach/picnic blanket. But, if I’m looking to take a nap, I’m definitely stringing up a TRUNKTECH Hammock. This may sound convenient considering the recent launch of the new line, but it’s no lie. TRUNKTECH is lighter, stronger, bigger — opened up — and smaller — packed away — than the classic packable travel hammock you may be familiar with. Plus, it’s silky smooth. Seriously, I’ve never napped better than in my hammock.
What is coming up for Grand Trunk in the coming months?
Kyle Wood: We’ve always been known as an innovative leader in our category and, since I plugged TRUNKTECH already, I would say to look out for our new line of prints/designs, as well as upgrades to some of our current products. We take great pride in the killer prints we release every year and, this year, we have prints that are both Thai- and U.S.-landscape inspired. We have also upgraded our whole line of integrated mosquito net hammocks and accessories for the more camp-oriented hammocker. If that’s up your alley, I would recommend giving it a peek. Beyond that, we already have some interesting stuff in the work to expand and improve the suspension comfort market with several new products in 2020. Keep an eye out!
Since this is for a Chicago-based publication, what are some of your favorite Chicago restaurants?
Another good one! I’m a simple man, I like the basics. Maybe it’s easier to list my favorite in each category?
Burger: Au Cheval — hands down, by far the best burger in the city. Call me bandwagon, but I’m still looking for something that comes even close.
Tacos: Tony’s Taco Burrito on Belmont and Damen. Awesome little authentic joint. Not sure what they do to their meat but it melts in your mouth. Mmm!
Breakfast: Quantity — S&G’s Diner on Lincoln. Get #27 and you’re set for the day. Maybe even leftovers tomorrow.
Quality: Kitsch’n On Roscoe. Amazing coffee, killer chicken and waffles.
And what was the last concert you attended within the Chicago area?
Kyle Wood: It was probably Dave Matthews Band last summer at Northerly Island. Love the outdoor concerts! But you can usually find me grooving at most of the street fests, especially if Rod Tuffcurls & The Bench Press is in the lineup.
Finally, Kyle, any last words for the kids?
Kyle Wood: One of Grand Trunk’s priorities this year is to continue to build our communities, wherever they may be. Whether it’s online through social media, nationally through our charitable outreaches or right here in our hometown, we are building both literal and figurative campfires for people to gather around to share their stories, listen to others, and devise plans to make new ones. Our mission is to inspire people to get out and experience the things the world has to offer, to get out and live. And, if you happen to need some gear to make those experiences more comfortable, we’ll be here to hook you up.