“Epic” is not an exaggeration for the entrepreneurial journey of Christopher Ian Gladue. A member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, he spent his teens living on the streets of Alberta, Canada. Today he is the founder, President & CEO of Native Delights Inc., and Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat, employing some 30 to 40 people, and distributing his traditional-smoked, dried buffalo meat worldwide.
Gladue debuted Native Delights, his Edmonton-based Indigenous cuisine service, in 2012—gradually growing his operation from a self-built concession stand to food truck to restaurant dishing out aboriginal comfort food. Native Delights also offers catering services, boasts two new kiosks in Edmonton, and operates food trucks in summer months.
Come 2015, the ever-hungry entrepreneur sought to create something more. An epiphany hit him that year, while watching his mother hang dried meat. He instinctively knew that was his next calling. After seeking an Elder’s guidance and blessing, he introduced Pȃnsȃwȃn Traditional Dry Meat, made solely of two ingredients: buffalo and smoke. Gladue even recreated traditional smoking at an indoor facility in Leduc, Alberta.
Little did he know interest for his Pȃnsȃwȃn—meaning “thin sliced meat” in Cree—would spread like wildfire across Alberta, then Canada, then internationally. Today, he ships orders to France; the United States—from Hawaii to Florida to New York to Montana; and all throughout Canada. “It’s really been a blessing,” he says.
Pȃnsȃwȃn, Inc. is actually the first First Nations company in history approved to sell its traditional delicacies globally. Gladue worked closely with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to meet standards for national and international distribution.
Gladue anticipates Pȃnsȃwȃn Traditional Dry Meat reaching one thousand stores by December 2019. And, Gladue is excited that Pȃnsȃwȃn will even vend at The Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, April 25-27, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
That’s just a quick snapshot of Gladue’s seemingly quick rise to success. Below, Gladue recounts his story, and reflects vulnerably on the hardships that inspired him to persevere in the face of both personal and external challenges and rejection.
Learning From the Street Hustle
“I grew up on the streets and experienced homelessness at a very young age, about 13-years old. I was living on the streets and fending for myself. I kind of lost of my way. I experienced a lot of trauma with alcohol, drugs, gangs and jail. I was extremely lost—no direction, no sense of culture. My family was raised in the residential schools, so a lot of our culture—our ways, our language, and our support through the family—was lost,” Gladue shares with Native Business Magazine.
In his 20s, Gladue “started to smarten up. I became self-independent, learning from the street hustle,” he says.
The restaurant industry was one of Gladue’s first saviors from homelessness. He worked his way up the rungs—“from washing dishes to bussing tables to taking orders to working on first line and second line. I was running the kitchen in no time,” he says.
His solution to succeeding in life became diversifying his trade knowledge and strengths. He attended culinary school in his mid-20s to learn the kitchen confidence of a chef, in addition to honing his skills as an electrician. At the age of 26, he started to work in the oil fields “on the rigs,” off-and-on for years on end.
That’s not all. Gladue became a serial entrepreneur. He says, “I had a Christmas light company for about 12 years; I had a landscaping company; and I had an electrical company. All of those just weren’t satisfying to me. I was able to make them profitable, but in 2009 I started to want something deeper.”
The oil field continued to draw him back “because of money.” But ultimately, Gladue knew his calling was something closer to his heart.
Gladue chose to follow his lifelong passion for cooking. “When kids were playing house or doctor, I was playing restaurant,” he laughs.
Gladue started working with Rez Boys in 2006—while he continued to labor in the oil fields. “It was a concessions company that did the whole Pow Wow circuit,” Gladue says of Rez Boys.
“That is essentially where the first pebble dropped in the water for me. I started to do some research and ask other people—concessionaires who worked the Pow Wow circuit—questions about why they didn’t go into the city and serve our food. There was a lot of defeat; there was a lot of negativity. I saw it differently. I saw it as an opportunity to restore and revive our culture that has been lost,” Gladue says.
He made a plan to save his money and launch a food concession business. But he quickly realized the barriers to entry—namely the high capital cost of acquiring a food truck. “The average truck was anywhere from $90,000 up,” he says.
“Being someone who had lived on the street the majority of his life and had zero credit, it didn’t seem to work for me. I had no idea how I was going to get this truck or this dream to life, but I refused to be defeated. I think a lot of that has to do with my survival instincts and street smarts. I started to look at these little hot dog carts. They weren’t too expensive. They were about $15,000-20,000. I started to save up for something like that,” Gladue says.
Gladue officially quit working the oil rigs in January 2012. “I didn’t save much money from the oil field. You make a crazy amount of money there, but I hadn’t learned about budgets or saving properly. I didn’t have much money to start off with,” Gladue admits.
His first move: he called up the health inspector and informed them he intended to build a concessions cart—using a former hot dog cart as his base. He asked for guidance to meet health codes and was given “this really big book to follow with all these rules and regulations for food trucks. I took this big book and I started to go through it and build this cart from scratch,” he says.
All his prior experience came into play. “Being an electrician worked in my favor, because I was able to wire the whole cart myself. My experience working in the oil filed helped, because I learned about water circulation,” Gladue says.
Initially, he failed health inspection, so he went back to the drawing board and did it again. “I failed again. I lost count of how many times I failed. I was really frustrated,” he says.
Most people would have thrown the towel in, at that point, and chalked the experience up to a hard life lesson in the books. Not Gladue.
“I started thinking about all the things I had been through in my life, and I told myself that I could do it. I became more motivated and more determined,” Gladue says.
Finally, on this umpteenth inspection (he lost count), Gladue passed. The health inspector told Gladue that he was the first person in the city of Edmonton to be approved for a Class C, high-risk, mobile cart. “He told me that he couldn’t believe that I had actually built it,” Gladue says.
(While the average hot dog cart can operate with a Class A license, a high-risk cart requires meeting stringent codes. “I wanted to cook burgers and chili—foods that have a higher risk of getting somebody sick, so you have to be extremely careful,” Gladue says.)
Thrilled with passing on April 4, 2012, he went to Churchill Square in the city center that afternoon and set up his cart.
Native Delights: “Make Bannock Not War”
“I started serving Bannock Burgers, Indian Tacos, and Rez Dogs. Within an hour, we sold out completely,” Gladue says.
That’s when he came up with the name Native Delights.
“We went back to Churchill Square and sold out every single day. It was unbelievable, because people were coming from everywhere to support us. You should have seen the lines,” Gladue says.
Year one primarily attracted indigenous clientele. Gladue was grateful for their support, yet he felt the desire to expand. “I wanted different walks of life to experience our food and our ways,” Gladue says.
Saving every penny possible from his first year of business, Gladue then upgraded and designed “the trailer that I always wanted. We hit the streets with that—our concessions cart and our trailer.”
Soon, Gladue began marketing on bigger circuits, like Taste of Edmonton, which draws more than 500,000 people over 11 days. And despite outsider skepticism that Native Delights could succeed among a mainstream market, response proved incredible.
“We’re probably one of the highest selling concessions in Edmonton. We have lines as far as you can see—sometimes 200 to 300 people. Our system is so well-developed that I can pump out five orders in less than a minute. I got so good at it that we could maximize profits, and people weren’t standing in line so long. I put all my skills together to make it work. Everything was juts unfolding for me here,” Gladue says.
Come 2015, Native Delights opened its first restaurant in Edmonton, eventually branching out to the Super Flea Market (Native Delights’ participation there is ongoing).
Before Beef Jerky—There Was Pânsâwân.
That year, the entrepreneurial bug came back to bite Gladue. While he had attained his highest vision for Native Delights (at least, at that stage), he once again found himself craving more.
“I was sitting with my mom and I told her that I wasn’t satisfied. I told her that I felt there was still something deeper and that there was something bigger calling me. The reason why I started Native Delights was so that my mom didn’t have to work anymore. I wanted to help her, because she gave so much to me, and she never gave up on me. Anyway, she was cutting up dried meat and putting it on the racks to smoke. I looked at her and told her I was going to do dry meat. That is one of the deepest-rooted delicacies here. Dry meat dates back for thousands of years to when we used to roam around on Turtle Island,” Gladue says.
Gladue’s cultural and spiritual foundation influenced his next course as well.
“I am very spiritual and started to learn our ways in my early 30s and going to our traditional sweats and learning about the Sun Dance. I took that thought, and I took that vision, and I went to a respected Elder that I looked up to. I offered tobacco to and asked him for guidance and permission to do this in a good way. I told him that I wanted to make traditional dry meat, and that I wanted to do it for people and for our grandfathers and grandmothers, and for our culture. I gave that tobacco in a positive way and in good prayer—not for fame or money. The sole purpose was to revive and bring our culture back to life,” Gladue shares.
With the Elder’s blessing, Gladue began to make dry meat and sell it through his restaurant. (Today, Native Delights, Inc. and Pânsâwân, Inc. are two separate companies.)
“We used to give complimentary Bannock and tea to anyone who came to our restaurant. It was out of respect. Now, I introduced dry meat with a little bit of butter to dip it in. People loved it and started asking me if I had any for sale. That’s the way it started,” Gladue says. (Traditionally, his people dip Pânsâwân in butter, “or the old timers would use lard and salt,” Gladue says.)
Word started spreading, and beginning in June 2015, Gladue began receiving calls from stores wanting to carry his Pânsâwân, or traditional dry meat.
He gradually began distributing to a couple of stores. “We started to prepackage it and seal it and get it on the shelves. More stores wanted it. It all happened very fast. We couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was selling faster than we could make it. We got up to 30 stores, and I decided that I couldn’t take on any more stores,” Gladue says.
In April 2018, Gladue took a big leap of faith—he went to the federal board to have indigenous traditional ways recognized to create regulations for wider distribution of Pânsâwân.
“It was tough because scientists wanted us to do it in a particular way. They wanted us to add salt and other things to our traditional dry meat. I’ve been fighting with them and telling them that I can’t do this. I can’t add things and call it traditional dry meat. We have to do this identically to the way we’ve been doing it for thousands of years,” Gladue says.
Gladue recognized he needed to work along with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), rather than fighting them. “Otherwise we couldn’t distribute worldwide,” he says.
So, he obliged over a month-long trial, ultimately surprising the CFIA board and receiving approval for his two-ingredient meat: just buffalo and smoke. “They were extremely happy with the product and that we were able to do it without any sugar or preservatives that’s shelf-stable and can last for years,” Gladue says.
From 2015 to 2018, Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat operated strictly provincially in Alberta. Following CFIA approved, Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat increased its marketshare from 30 stores to 60 stores in less than two weeks. “And then the next month we were at 100 stores, and then a few weeks after that, at 170 stores. It just blew up huge,” Gladue says.
Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat was later signed by Sobeys, Inc., whose brands include Safeway, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo and others, and Pânsâwân’s garnered placement at 330 stores through Sobeys alone.
That spurred interest from The North West Company, another leading retailer across Canada. “We’re doing about 200-plus stores with them on a trial and error basis. Hopefully it works out well,” Gladue says.
“We’re probably going to hit a thousand stores by December of this year. We’re shipping all over the world now. We have orders going out to France, Hawaii, Florida, New York, Montana, and all through Canada. It’s really been a blessing,” he says.
Gladue’s ultimate dream is for people across the globe to visit Turtle Island—today’s the United States and Canada—and experience truly authentic foods, pre-contact. “I want them to know that we’re still here despite all the genocide and hurt. I feel a calling that is deeply embedded in me that I must fulfill,” he says. And his message is resounding. “We’ve been getting tons of support from everyone all around. Phones won’t stop ringing.”
Pânsâwân, Inc. handles all distribution and relationships with third-party distributors. Continuously putting his resourcefulness into action, Gladue utilized the easiest means at his fingertips to promote his new company. “We did everything through Facebook, to be honest. Facebook allowed us to get the word out. If you get with the communities, and you can touch their hearts, there is no better advertising than word of mouth,” Gladue shares.
Today, Pânsâwân, Inc. counts some 30 to 40 employees, Gladue estimates.
“We have a great team with one department that strategically does social media, and one department does accounting. We have teams that work on production; we have our office staff taking orders and generating invoices; we have demo teams that go to the stores on the weekends and really promote the product,” he shares.
Promoting Prosperity for All & Giving Back
Gladue wants to see Indigenous people and entrepreneurs succeed. “We put them on our social media. We really try to open doors and empower our people in a positive way and let them know that all these dreams are possible if you put the work in and really want something and refuse to give up,” Gladue says.
During the holiday season, Gladue’s big heart truly shines. “We have a Christmas tradition that whatever we take we must give in return. Before we ask for anything we must give. We have a big Christmas party every year that is free and we feed hundreds and hundreds of people. We have a big feast, and it’s all on us. We have bands and First Nations comedians. We also bring in Santa Claus and give out presents to children—all of them are First Nations, ages 1-12. Last year we gave out 285 presents to First Nations children. Some of these children don’t have a Christmas. That will be their only present and their only dinner,” Gladue says.
At the end of the day, Gladue never forgets his journey and struggles, and the people who offered him support along the way.
“I try to remember where I came from and where I was at one time,” he says. “Business might be going well, but I always have to take a second to bring myself back to balance and really say thank you to all of the people.”