Phillip Gaudon was a nervous wreck going into the Natural Products Expo West Pitch Slam semifinals on March 8, he says. But it wasn't the premise of public speaking that had him rattled. As director of sales for Native American Natural Foods, maker of Tanka buffalo meat snacks, Gaudon was accustomed to sharing the groundbreaking company's story.
"When I was getting ready to go up on stage, all I kept thinking was that this is time to showcase what we do and how important it is, not just to us at Tanka but for indigenous foods across the board," he explains. "This was about representation, so as odd as it might sound, I felt like the weight of Indian Country was on my shoulders. To be able to go onstage and have our message heard on such a large scale was so important for other Indigenous people who want to bring their food ideas, their histories and their medicine forward."
Gaudon carried that weight masterfully, delivered a compelling pitch and answered the judges' questions thoughtfully and succinctly, earning Tanka a spot in the Pitch Slam finals the next day.
"I think all the nerves went away that first night because when I went into the final, I was ready," Gaudon says. "I was ready to speak our truth, to speak about what we are trying to achieve and how it will impact indigenous foods going forward."
In the finals, Gaudon once again nailed his presentation. The judges were so impressed and inspired by the 14-year-old company's business model, mission and plans for growth that they awarded Native American Natural Foods the Pitch Slam grand prize: a free booth at Expo West 2023 and marketing services equivalent to $35,000.
"I am still processing the fact that we won," Gaudon says. "It was an honor just to be able to speak, let alone win. The free booth and services will benefit us in so many ways, allowing us to do wondrous things and share our message with more people."
Merging ancient wisdom with modern practices
Native American Natural Foods is not a new company or even a new exhibitor at Natural Products Expo West. Indigenous entrepreneurs Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen co-founded the business in 2007 directly from the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota people. A remote 2.9-million-acre food dessert in southwestern South Dakota, the reservation is among the most economically challenged regions of the U.S. And with limited access to healthy foods, obesity and type 2 diabetes are rampant.
"There is a mishmash of reasons Karlene and Mark started this company," Gaudon says. "But the main reason was they wanted to heal people and Mother Earth by integrating new food products based on Native American respect for all living things and feeding mind, body and spirit."
To do that, the founders wanted to merge ancient Lakota tradition with a modern healthy lifestyle. They turned to prairie-raised buffalo, a keystone species for the Lakota and part of their creation story, as well as a lean, nutrient-dense, antibiotic- and hormone-free protein. More specifically, Hunter and Tilsen aimed to create portable meat snacks similar to wasna, a pounded mix of dried buffalo meat and berries.
"Traditionally, people would take buffalo meat from harvest time, mash it together with chokecherry and put it in a buffalo horn," Gaudon explains. "The sugar from the berries would preserve the meat, and they'd eat it out of the horn to sustain through the harsh winter when the buffalo migrated elsewhere. That's how our people survived."
It took Hunter and Tilsen several years to dial in a modernized shelf-stable wasna recipe that featured only natural, nutritious ingredients and had no added sugars or nitrates. Finally, using antioxidant-rich (and more readily available) cranberries, they developed Tanka Bars, the first 100% buffalo-based meat bars, followed by Tanka Bites and Tanka Sticks, providing delicious, nutritious meat snacks for the Pine Ridge people and consumers everywhere.
Tanka brand supports regenerative practices
Native American Natural Foods has grown the Tanka brand steadily over the last 14 years, creating jobs on the reservation and landing retail partnerships nationwide. But the company has never expanded just for the sake of it.
"We make sure that every sale we do represents what we are trying to do as a whole," Gaudon says. "We think about our mission and how each deal would impact Indigenous communities and demand on the buffalo. For us, it's not just about the money. It's about the impact we're going to have, both good and negative."
Another key aspect of Native American Natural Foods' mission is to bring buffalo back to Indigenous communities and regenerating the land. For centuries, buffalo roamed the northern plains en masse, but by the 1800s, only about 1,000 remained in North America. Today, thanks to restoration efforts by Native American Natural Foods, other companies and initiatives, the buffalo population is back up to 600,000, Gaudon says.
In making Tanka products, the company creates a market for buffalo.
"We work directly with 10 Indigenous ranchers, nine in South Dakota and one in Texas," Gaudon says. "Instead of constantly harvesting corn or cattle, which destroy soil, they are bringing back buffalo, which regenerate the soil as they move in herds and move across the prairie."
Native American Natural Foods further supports Indigenous ranchers through its nonprofit arm, Tanka Fund, which supplies the tools they need to be successful and grow their herds.
"It's all about returning buffalo to the land, lives and economies of Indian people," Gaudon says. "It means complete food independence for our communities."
Making waves in the naturals food industry
As the company as matured and evolved, Hunter and Tilsen have taken a backseat, still serving on the board but handing the leadership reins to CEO Dawn Sherman. "They are elders now, so they've earned their rest," Gaudon says. "Our CEO had big shoes to fill, and she's doing a phenomenal job."
Under Sherman, the company forged an innovative partnership with Niman Ranch, which provides technical support and helps raise Native American Natural Foods' profile. The brand also has strong partnerships with National Co+op Grocers, Whole Foods Market and many other brick-and-mortar outlets, as well as e-commerce deals with Vitacost, Costco and Onnit. Gaudon sees direct-to-consumer sales as the next big growth avenue.
Winning the Pitch Slam grand prize will open even more doors for the company.
"We go to Expo every year, so it's a big deal for us to have a free booth in 2023, as it lets us reinvest that money in buffalo," Gaudon says. "The more buffalo our ranchers can produce, the more meat we can purchase from them.
"The services provided will allow us to broadcast our mission and product in a way we've never been able to do before," Gaudon says. "It will allow us access to ads we could never afford before, which will create awareness that you just can't buy. It will bring a lot of momentum and interest to our booth and showcase what we're doing. And once people hear about that, once they understand the real impacts of Tanka bar, it's going to make waves in the food industry."
Tanka's mission is especially pertinent now, Gaudon adds, as more people are thinking about where their food comes from and where their food dollars go. Consumers are also focusing more on their health, which should broaden the appeal of Tanka's heart-healthy, protein-packed, lean buffalo snacks.
What's next for this remarkable company?
"We will be stabilizing our core sets and growing the quantities of what we have in stock," Gaudon says. "One of the hardest things we deal with is that buffalo are not cattle. We would never entertain harvesting buffalo like cattle, even if we could, because it is disrespectful to the animal. We will make sure our inventory is exactly where we need it to be for successful growth."
After that, Native American Natural Foods intends to branch into other indigenous proteins, such as elk or salmon, to uplift other communities.
"This whole experience was an honor," Gaudon says of the Pitch Slam. "It was an honor to speak my culture and do it in a way that represents the Lakota people and the work we are doing to bring indigenous foods forward in a meaningful way. I see this as a privilege, one that not everyone has, and I am truly grateful for this opportunity."