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Tanka Bar’s Whole Foods Business Is at Stake. They’re Not Backing Down.

Instagram repost from @mredshirtshaw: “We just bought $200 worth of @tankabar to help ensure that they stay on the shelves at @wholefoods after we saw via the company that they’re in danger of losing their partnership because of lower sales. #TankaBar is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is one of the highest employers there. It’s non-GMO and uses local buffalo meat, a healthy and protein packed snack that make great stocking stuffers 🎄 We’re on a grad student budget but we wanted to make the effort to support tribal sovereignty and a Native owned business. Other non-Native companies have created similar products, but we as Plains people know the tremendous impacts Buffalo meat had on our life and health – and we knew it first. We do it best. If you’re not able to make a purchase, call on #WholeFoods to support Native owned businesses and keep #TankaBar in stock. #BuyNative” (Instagram @mredshirtshaw)

Tanka Bar’s placement on Whole Foods’ shelves is in jeopardy. That’s only driving Native American Natural Foods’ commitment to educate the public about their snacks, based on traditional wasna and pemmican, and to restore the buffalo economy on Native reservations.  

Tanka Bar’s shelf space at Whole Foods locations nationwide is under evaluation. In January, the Lakota-owned business Native American Natural Foods meets with the retailer to review its relationship.

Central to Tanka products’ declining sales is competition with General Mills’ Epic Bar. The food conglomerate purchased Epic Provisions in 2016 for $100 million. Epic, founded by married “hippie endurance athletes,” as Inc. Magazine describes them, is on track to exceed $80 million in revenue in 2018, Inc. estimates. That’s more than four times Epic’s sales before it was purchased by the food conglomerate—the parent of Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, etc.

Katie Forrest and her husband, Taylor Collins, blended smoked animal protein with nuts and dehydrated fruits to create the Epic Bar. A Houston-based angel investor put down $750,000, and the Austin, Texas natives raised an additional $3 million, primarily through a Colorado-based venture capital group, to launch their business.

But here’s what Inc. Magazine got wrong: “At the time, no protein bar of this kind existed, and it wasn’t easy to get the product right,” Inc. reported.  

This is exactly the awareness problem that Karlene Hunter, Oglala Lakota, and Mark Tilsen, co-founders of Native American Natural Foods, are looking to topple. The partners co-founded Native American Natural Foods in 2007 as part of a mission to return buffalo to the land, lives and economies of Indian people.

RELATED: Tanka Fund Supports the Buffalo Economy

The Tanka Bar, made from dried bison and fruit pounded together, has returned healthy, ancestral foods to indigenous peoples—including those who are geographically isolated in food deserts. The Tanka Bar has also created employment opportunities on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Native American Natural Foods aspires to advance a greater mission as well: reviving the buffalo economy. An estimated 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains in the mid-1800s, providing indigenous peoples with a regenerative food and economic system. “Buffalo were destroyed out of a military campaign to subjugate Indians. Billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural assets were lost,” Tilsen shared with Native Business Magazine on a Saturday afternoon.

By 1900, there were less than a 1,000 buffalo left. “Now we’re getting close to 500,000. That’s from people working together,” he added. “Buffalo have been returned from extinction by tribes and entrepreneurship.”

“I think it’s really important that both the media—both Native media and non-Native media—make sure that they’re telling the truth, and be aware when they’re telling the story of faux Native brands, of which there are many—in food, fashion and other places. [It’s important to] call them out, so the consumer can make that conscious choice,” Tilsen said. (Flickr/Creative Commons Kabsik Park)

When large corporations like General Mills use the buffalo as their symbol to “mimic the regenerative agriculture that indigenous people have led, it’s another threat to buffalo,” Tilsen stressed. “It’s a threat to whether buffalo can be returned to the economic prosperity of indigenous communities. In the same way that the military campaign removed buffalo as an asset to Indian people, now we have a corporate campaign that’s basically an economic attack, that’s doing the same thing. It is a unique issue.”

Now the Epic Bar is out-selling the Tanka Bar and other Native American Natural Foods products on Whole Foods’ shelves, and the company’s business is at risk. Rather than conceding, the co-founders are handling the challenge like buffalo—they are running toward the storm. When buffalo sense a storm coming, rather than run away, they charge into it. Thus, the storm passes faster.

Whole Foods is one of Native American Natural Foods’ biggest accounts, probably accounting for 15 to 20 percent of its business, Tilsen estimates. Native American Natural Foods is doing whatever it can to increase its sales with the retailer.

“We’re very close to hitting that goal. One of the reasons why we asked our friends on social media to support us is we lack a marketing budget powerful enough to compete with [General Mills]. The response we’ve gotten from the community supporters of Tanka around the country has been pretty incredible. I’ll be really surprised if the numbers aren’t significantly increased just off of this social media campaign we’ve run,” Tilsen said.

RELATED: Leveraging Social Media: An Inside Look at the Strategy to Keep Tanka Bar Competitive

Beyond the social media campaign (check out the brand’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages), Native American Natural Foods has offered discounts and hosted more than 100 tastings at Whole Foods stores this month alone.

Social media influencers are taking to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to buy Tanka Bars at Whole Foods. (@HydetheFood on Instagram)

“We’re always interacting with Whole Foods’ social media team and their retail team. The tasting program is the most effective way to sell Tanka products. People hear buffalo and cranberries, and they think it’s weird. But once people taste it, their eyebrows go up, a smile comes over their face, and they love it,” Tilsen said.

Long-Term Strategy

Tilsen thinks their efforts will prove enough “to get us through the hump we’re in right now.” The big picture, though, will require strategic partnership and investment to diversify the brand and update its branding and marketing to be more competitive, he noted. “At this point, we’re reorganizing ourselves,” he said.

As part of Native American Natural Foods’ new structure, they’ve created a producers co-op called Tanka Resilient Agriculture, “and we’re raising separate capital to help more Natives get into raising buffalo,” he said.

“We’re really focused on our land-based partners—the reservation community that Tanka was born from 10 years ago, and really trying to figure out how we can drive more value back into the community and utilize the brand to break the economic and political and social isolation of the reservation. I think our social media proves that we have a brand that has national reach that can accomplish that. With these new partners that we’re working on, we’ll have a national Native American brand that will be competitive. Right now, we’re distributed in every state in the nation. It’s just that we lack the resources to compete properly.”

Native American Natural Foods has never been approached by a major food company like General Mills, though Tilsen and Hunter have engaged in conversations with numerous venture capital organizations. In the past, potential investors have backed out.

“The brand tends to attract people; they like the brand and what we’re doing. When they get involved in the due diligence, they realize, this truly is a reservation-based brand. It really is tied back to the producers in the community. It’s really about restoring buffalo back to the lives, lands and economies of Indian people. They look at all of those positives, and they think of how they could possibly exit an investment and accomplish their goals without having to deteriorate that. The fact that we are as authentic as we are—I call it a magnet. It attracts people, and when they get really close, it flips over, and their fear kicks in, and they resist that type of investment. As you know, the investment in the natural food industry is a fairly risky investment. There are very, very few people who are willing to take that risk and [also] cross the border investing in a Native American-raised and owned business,” Tilsen said.

Knowing that, Tilsen and Hunter have shifted their strategy. They’re currently in discussions with new investors at the table, who have invested with indigenous communities around the world. Investing in Native American Natural Foods will be one of their first investments in the United States.

“But they understand the investment in indigenous sovereignty and supporting indigenous leadership. We’re pretty excited; we’re probably three weeks to a month away from making this announcement, and we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to pull this off with some pretty extraordinary partners,” Tilsen told Native Business Magazine.

Tilsen underscored that on both the philanthropy and investment sides, it’s challenging to get money to flow on the reservation—particularly to larger, land-based reservations isolated from major population areas and not heavily impacted by gaming.

That’s why Native American Natural Foods is pursuing a “blended capital solution,” Tilsen shared.  

In addition to accepting investments in Native American Natural Foods, they’re seeking to cooperatize Tanka Resilient Agriculture to create opportunity for Native American producers. And they’re continuing to raise money through their nonprofit the Tanka Fund to provide direct grants for technical assistance to Native ranchers.  

“We realized to overcome the barriers that exist for Native producers and to overcome the challenges that exist for the brand, that we really need to strategically blend several different types of capital in order to accomplish this. That’s why we’ve created these three entities and are marketing all three of them—jointly, but they each have a separate board and separate function,” Tilsen explained.

Stay tuned for more updates on Native American Natural Foods .

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