When Mark Tilsen first tried to sell his Tanka Bar — a blend of buffalo meat and fruit — he was often shunned.
“I’d go into a buyer or call a buyer, sometimes it would take 15 or 20 times to get a buyer on the phone and I’d tell them, ‘I’m selling a buffalo and cranberry bar,’ and they’d laugh at you or hang up on you," Tilsen recalls.
"Then you’d put it in people’s mouths and nine times out of 10, their eyebrows go up, they taste it, they smile, their face lights up and people love it," he said. "We use this whole plump cranberry so you take a bite into this meat bar and you get this rush of fruit flavor from the cranberry.”
Tilsen was reached on a recent Tuesday morning as he was preparing for his day of meetings and training at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas. He was there promoting his company’s tasty health food snacks — Tanka Bar and Tanka Trail.
“Today, I will actually be at their corporate headquarters meeting with some of the leadership people and then we’ll be meeting with the brokers who are the people who go out and check on the stores and we do a lot of trainings with them,” said
Tilsen is president and co-founder of the Kyle, S.D.-based Native American Natural Foods that produced the fruit/meat bars. Tilsen and his business partner, Karlene Hunter, co-founded the company in 2007.
Though the buffalo fruit snacks were dismissed by some initially nearly nine years ago, these low-calorie, natural protein snacks are now sold nationwide at some 8,000 locations. In January, the company released five new products with Whole Foods, including two new flavors for the Tanka Bar and three new Tanka Trail snacks, which Tilsen says is “the latest innovation” of Native American Natural Foods and are now distributed across the country.
The Tanka Trail, which ranges in flavors from sweet to spicy, is packaged to help preserve the product, yet has no preservatives, no antibiotics, no lactose and is gluten free.
“It’s a double pouch that has meat and fruit on one side and seeds and nuts on the other in a resealable double pouch called the Tanka Trail, which is really designed for the trails that life takes you on every day and it gives you a compact healthy product in one package,” Tilsen said.
Though Tilsen and his partner came up with the idea to produce the snacks, he attributes the original concept to his Native ancestors.
“Their goal was to preserve enough meat to survive the winter. They would dry fruit — in South Dakota, it was probably choke cherries or buffalo berries — and then they would dry their meat and would pound them together into like a meal," he said.
The Natives would then package their food in the white fat, the organ fat of the buffalo, which is the richest fat. Tilsen says the meat and fruit mixture is based on wasna, a Lakota word for “all mixed up.”
“They would package that into a ball because their goal was to survive on enough calories to last the winter then they would put those back into the stomach of the buffalo and that’s how they would seal it, so they would have their winter packs with food all ready to go. So when we were looking at how to create the Tanka Bar, we were trying to come up with a simple recipe,” Tilsen says.
The Lakota people, in a way, created the process more than 1,000 years ago still used today. The only significant changes are that Tanka foods are produce in a USDA-certified smokehouse environment to uphold consistency and safety, he said.
The Tanka Bar is only 70 calories and has 7 grams of natural protein.
“It’s buffalo protein so it’s highly digestible, it’s a really healthy powerful protein that’s really the origin when somebody says, ‘who created the Tanka Bar,’ I think it’s some grandma thousands of years ago that figured out when she combines her fruit with her meat, that actually, it creates its own preservative,” Tilsen said.
For Tilsen, the historic and natural processes also allow his company to provide a brand that has an impact on the community where employees own part of the company. They also receive training in financial literacy, as well as management and technical training. In addition, 25 percent of the buffalo comes from Native producers and is purchase throughout the five state region using premium products.