#MyStartupStory: Tennessee’s Orion Coolers Stands Out in Crowded Upscale Cooler Market

By Chris Clancy

The Orion 65 in Bluefin

Take one cooler from every notable player in the crowded high-end cooler market, and the Sparta, Tenn.-based Orion cooler stands out from your Yetis, Igloos, Cabelas and Orcas every time. See, it’s the one that looks like it’s been tie-dyed.

Orion Coolers currently has on offer 10 different designs for retailers. Three are hunter-friendly (forest, mangrove, blaze), three are fishing-oriented (mahi, bluefin, rockfish) and then there’s boring old gray (stone) for the chromatically timid. Oh, and there’s also a black cooler available, in commemoration of Orion being named the official cooler of Metallica, but that’s only available in a couple of sizes.

“When our logo is facing away, you can still tell it’s an Orion,” says Damon Bungard, brand manager and developer for Orion. “That’s the strategy behind it.”

Bungard says it’s the company’s roots that played a big part in that strategy. Orion was born in 2014 out of Jackson Kayak, whose whitewater, fishing, and recreational vessels have for the last 14 years been available in multi-color blends. Orion’s coolers, in fact, are made by the same rotation-molding process as Jackson’s kayaks.

“Jackson has always made products that have to perform in extreme weather conditions, when your life depends on stuff working,” says Bungard, who doubles as Jackson Kayak’s product manager. “Orion is the same way. We wanted to go beyond just being a cooler to really address people’s needs.”

That said, it’s the other stuff — standard on every Orion — that truly sets it apart: six tie-down points, bottle openers on each corner, a lid that doubles as a standing pad for traction, and a polyethylene shell encasing two inches of insulation. For those who take their food and drink transport and storage needs seriously (and, going by the number of cooler roundups on YouTube, such people are legion), it’s these things that make the Orion a consistent best-in-class contender.

Bungard adds that the launch of Orion resulted in some pretty cramped working conditions for its 140 employees, creating the need for a second 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, which opened earlier this year.

Other challenges remain. For instance, despite receiving funding and support from both the state of Tennessee and White County, finding qualified employees in the tiny town of Sparta (population: 5,000) is an ongoing issue. And bringing Orion products to market has seen a rather steep learning curve.

“There’s a fine balance to walk when you want to let a product be known and when it’s ready,” he says. “There are always snags in production, or something breaks and you’ve already got orders to fill. That’s when you have to count on customer service. If you’re strong there, then you just take extra good care of them and they’ll stay customers for life.”

Another fine balance to maintain is that while Jackson Kayak caters heavily to, well, kayakers, Orion’s marketing caters to the hunting lifestyle, what with hunters always needing to keep their meat cold, often for days at a time. (Keep in mind, Orion was the hunter giant in Greek mythology.) Its website contains dozens of blog posts on stuff like how to field-dress a deer, and Orion sponsors shows like “Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg” and “Gun It with Benny Spies.”

But Bungard, a lifelong kayaker and hunter himself, says it’s not much of a problem switching hats.

“There’s more of a seasonal challenge with Jackson Kayak than Orion, as things tend to slow down on the Jackson side in the winter,” Bungard says, “but everybody always has cold beer needs.”