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Tasting success

Tasting success


Mark Tilsen and Karlene Hunter are at the point when some entrepreneurs would start thinking about their exit strategy — how to sell their business, pocket the profits and move on.

But while the Tanka Bar buffalo snack they launched three years ago is now sold in 4,000 locations in 50 states — with help from national distribution and sales management partners — Tilsen and Hunter say there is much more work to be done.

“We’re very, very excited about the success we’ve achieved,” Tilsen said, “but we feel we’ve just started.”

They announced this month another in the string of growth initiatives they’ve celebrated since launching the homegrown Tanka Bar in October 2007 at the Black Hills Pow Wow. They’ve partnered with IGNITE Sales Management and Consulting, a company specializing in natural foods that will manage the product’s business development and sales processes.

That will mean Tilsen, the company’s president, won’t have to put so many miles on his truck traveling the country to meet vendors and promote the Tanka Bar line at college campuses and food stores.

Now he and Hunter, the chief executive officer, can focus on what they see as the larger mission of their

Native American Natural Foods. The company started with the Tanka Bar and now also sells Tanka Bites miniatures, Tanka Wild summer sausage and Tanka Dogs bison hot dogs.

The company has to meet what the Federal Reserve Bank called a “double bottom line” in a 2009 profile of Native American Natural Foods and other “social enterprises,” those businesses that try to profit while also making the world a better place.

For Tilsen and Hunter, that means economic development on the reservations. The two are Pine Ridge Indian Reservation residents and longtime business partners. Together they founded the Lakota Express direct marketing firm years ago and both also have been board members at the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce.

They want to fight poverty and unemployment among Native Americans in a number of ways: first, through hiring and job training. They now employ 18 people at their Kyle headquarters, some of whom had

never worked before and who might otherwise have not seen a way out of poverty. Five others work for the company in other locations, and the actual processing is done at plants the company contracts with.

The Kyle staff includes people working in distribution, customer service, sales and marketing, including social media marketing.

Tilsen said he expects excellence from his employees. Too often, he said, people expect that a Native

company will somehow provide service that is “less than.”

“We pride ourselves in being a little ‘more than,’” he said. With the skills the employees have developed, “They could walk out of Kyle, South Dakota, and get a job anywhere.”

They also want to buy from Native Americans where possible. They say today they get 20 percent of their bison from Native producers and hope to increase that further.

Another part of their mission is helping to fight obesity and diabetes that disproportionately plague Native people. People aren’t going to eat low-fat buffalo just because their grandmothers tell them to. It has to taste good and be branded as something cool to do, they said.

“We need to learn how to snack better, and that means better products and better-tasting products,” Hunter said.

Now that the Tanka Bar is a national brand, with the marketing, sales and distribution system in place to support it, the company can develop new products and help other Native entrepreneurs bring products from remote reservations to a national market. That might appeal to people who have a good product, but not the business expertise or connections to bring it to its sales potential, they said.

Hunter said people ask her why they don’t move their business from Kyle to a metropolitan area, or use fillers in the Tanka bars.

“As long as we stay true to our goals, then the fear comes down,” she said. “We know we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Contact Barbara Soderlin at 394-8417 or

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