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Sweet Success Story Of The Tanka Bar

January 31, 2012, 10:05 PM by Derek Olson

Sweet Success Story Of The Tanka Bar
KYLE, SD - Snacking is serious business on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

That's because the Tanka Bar, which is made there, has made its way onto the shelves of some big national retailers.

"Tanka Bar is based on a traditional recipe called wasna, which is buffalo and berry put together. And we still use it in a lot of ceremonies and events, occasions, things like that," Native American Natural Foods Co-Founder and CEO Karlene Hunter said.

It's a tasty treat that has taken off in the world of healthy snacks.

"Very healthy for you.  High in protein; low in calories. It's only got 70 calories and no preservatives added, so it's actually a healthy food snack product that helps us accomplish our double bottom line," Hunter said.

But the Tanka Bar is about more than just maximizing profits. It's about building the community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

"We're not just about making money, but we're actually social entrepreneurs. There's a reason that we're in Kyle, South Dakota, and that's to make sure that we're a company on the reservation making opportunities for Lakota people," Hunter said.

It appears those opportunities are growing as the bar's popularity increases -- something the company has been working towards since it opened 16 years ago.

"Well, we started out doing consumer direct; people ordering off the Internet and us shipping out. We worked very hard to get into distribution nationally," Hunter said.

That included hiring a person to manage the company's image and market their products online through social media.

"People would say, 'You're not that large to afford a social media network marketing position.'  But we knew what we wanted and where we were going with it. So now we're interacting with more than 50,000 people on the net monthly," Hunter said.

"We have about 5,000, almost 6,000 people that like us on Facebook," Marketing Specialist Jason Stover said.

It's become one of the main sources of advertising for the company.

"Being that it's free, it's actually the cheapest form of advertising. So that's why we utilize it the most," Stover said.

And all of that work has paid off in a big way. The bars are now sold at REI Outfitters, Whole Foods and Amazon.com.

"Whole Foods we worked on for a long time. REI was wonderful because it opened up the outdoor arena. Amazon is kind of the guru in the Internet world. So we're looking into different avenues and trying to crack those avenues as we go," Hunter said.

There's also a chance that the Tanka Bar could be going even further.

"We got our plant EU approved so it's possible that we might be going international shortly. We'll see how that goes," Hunter said.

But even expansion comes with its own set of challenges.

"It's a running joke around here. It's like, 'Yes! We're in Whole Foods! Oh god, we're in Whole Foods.' Because then in turn, you have to scale up with all of your raw materials to make sure that you have enough on hand to fulfill orders and everything. So you have to back-end load all of your supply chain, your manufacturing projections and everything else so you're ready to take off when they start sending orders in," Hunter said.

And with most of the Tanka Bars ingredients coming from local South Dakota producers, the company's growth is having a positive effect on the area.

"Those dollars have rippling effects. All of our employees live around here, so they buy gas here, buy propane here, a lot of them pay for day care here. So you have that rippling effect of the dollar being turned over more than once," Hunter said.

It's a message that Hunter hopes will encourage more people in the area to buy locally made products whenever possible.

"People really should look at our state and products that come from it and really support, where they can, the products that are made in South Dakota," Hunter said.

Native American Natural Foods employs 18 people and has ten different Tanka products.

For more information go to the Tanka Bar's website.

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