American Indian energy bar wins national appeal
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It's a 70-calorie energy bar made of two unusual ingredients and branded with a funny-sounding name. Who knew that combining buffalo and cranberries would be so sweet?
But therein lies the recipe for success for Native American Natural Foods, a company based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
After two years of development, the company launched the all-natural Tanka Bar, a modern version of the traditional Lakota food called "wasna," in October. The bars were initially available online at www.tankabar.com and a few outlets in western South Dakota.
But the company has since quadrupled its manufacturing capacity and signed distribution agreements with regional retailers including Walgreens and Sunshine Foods, as well as gift shops and tourist sites such as the Corn Palace and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Bison meat is high in protein and low in cholesterol. The cranberries add antioxidants and a sweet, natural flavour. The bars look like jerky but have a lot more water in them than the dried meat. And each package is sealed with a unique card that keeps the bars fresh.
Since March, when company owners Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen attended the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., demand from elsewhere has been "growing every single day," Tilsen said.
"We've got this little booth with an eight-foot (2.5-metre) table and a buffalo hide on it. We had never been to a national food show before," he said. "It was incredible. People were lined up four, six deep all day long. We gave away well over 10,000 samples."
The company's distribution list includes more than 1,150 points, some of which supply numerous outlets, such as the Sunshine grocery stores, and the bar is now sold in North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, California, Maryland and even Hawaii. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian also sells Tanka Bars.
Customers include athletes, people with diabetes, backpackers, travellers, rock climbers and business people looking for a natural snack. The national food show in Anaheim also put Native American Natural Foods on the radar of the food industry, and several articles have been written in the food press.
The Tanka Bar's initial focus was to provide a healthy food to American Indians, but much of the interest is from the non-native community. "The simplicity of the product - that it's just buffalo and cranberry and all natural and tastes so great. It's like they were looking for it," Tilsen said.
The attention led to an invitation from Slow Food Nation to promote the Tanka Bar at its first planned gathering over the Labour Day weekend in San Francisco. The goal is to build a more sustainable food supply driven by values as well as the bottom line, and the Tanka Bar fits that mission, said Anya Fernald, Slow Food Nation executive director.
"It's a great way to keep traditional wisdom of a food alive that's palatable to today's American culture," she said.
Besides the one-ounce (about 30 grams) Tanka Bar and smaller Tanka Bites, Native American Natural Foods will announce its next product at the event: a summer sausage made of buffalo, cranberry and wild rice called Tanka Wild. It will be available in several sizes that can be eaten as a snack or in a meal, Tilsen said.
"This category of shelf-stable multipurpose meats is growing more and more. You could buy this and eat it driving down the road or buy it at your store and take it home and eat it," he said.
Because of the exposure, the company will exhibit this month at the Healthy Foods International Exposition in Dallas and at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.
The company's fast growth has led to larger challenges, including how to build a company when food prices are skyrocketing, Tilsen said.
"We're learning how to manage that," he said. "We're dealing with all the things a small company deals with."
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