SD snack maker expects big growth with Whole Foods

By Kristi Eaton

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 3:16 p.m. MST

FILE - In this May 31, 2008, file photos is a Tanka Bar produced by by Native American Natural Foods in Kyle, S.D. Initially created several years ago as a way to provide a healthy high-protein, low-cholesterol snack to American Indians, the Tanka Bar quickly developed a growing demand among athletes, people with health problems and those looking for a quick and easy snack.

Chet Brokaw, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota company created to provide a healthy snack for American Indians expects its sales to grow by a third this year after seeing its product picked up by national grocery chain Whole Foods Markets.

The development also could lead to more hiring at Native American Natural Foods in Kyle, adding valuable jobs on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which encompasses some of the poorest counties in the United States.

Native American Natural Foods produces Tanka Bars, which are made with bison meat and cranberries. The high-protein, 70-calorie snack bars are based on the traditional Lakota food called wasna.

The company sold 1 million units of Tanka products, which include bars and packages of smaller bites, last year and expects that to increase by a third this year with sales at Whole Foods, co-owner Mark Tilsen said. The products are sold at 3,500 stores nationwide and online, including 67 Whole Foods stores in the Northeast and South.

Whole Foods began selling the bars late last year, and its stores in other regions are expected to add them before the end of this year, Tilsen said.

"It's wonderful when you see a company — start it from scratch — see it grow from consumer direct and then distribution and then products go out to retailers. And then we see it get to chains," co-owner Karlene Hunter said. "Whole Foods was just sort of icing on the cake and exemplifies all the work the company has been doing and fruits of the labor."

With the increased sales, the company hopes to hire four or five more full-time employees by the end of the year, Tilsen said. Native American Natural Foods started with four employees in 2005 and has grown to 16 full-time and several part-time workers.

Theo Weening, global meat coordinator at Whole Foods, said the company became interested three or four years ago in offering Tanka Bars as part of its growing selection of buffalo products.

Weening said he likes the story behind the bar and the positive effect the company is having on the Pine Ridge community.

"I'd like to expand on it," he said.

Unlike the term organic, which is federally regulated, there's no official definition of natural food. However, Whole Foods has its own standards, and it took about two years for Native American Natural Foods to meet all the requirements, including having its plant certified, Tilsen said.

The payoff comes with access to a much broader market.

"Native American communities only represent 2 percent of the country," Tilsen said. "As we try to become a national natural brand, Whole Foods is the leader."

Michael Watson is the type of customer Native American Natural Foods hopes to attract with sales at Whole Foods.

He's not Native American, and he's never been to an American Indian reservation. Yet the 20-year-old University of Florida junior became hooked on Tanka Bars after his aunt gave him a box for Christmas. Since then, many of his fraternity brothers have become fans too and ordered their own supply online.

"It feels like a much more natural type of food," Watson said. "But what I like most is (that) it's a very American product."

His aunt, Ellen Harvey, 56, of Freehold, N.J., said she bought two boxes of bars to distribute as gifts to her family after learning about them from story about the Pine Ridge Reservation on ABC's "20/20."

"They're producing a quality product based on their heritage and putting people to work for everyone's benefit. I know buffalo is a good lean meat with a lot of nutrition in it," Harvey said. "I wanted to do my bit to help."

Online:

Tanka Bars: http://www.tankabar.com

Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton

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