Frybread goes global: Small business in the Badlands serves huge corporations

Published in Indian Country Today in 2006. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle...

It’s cold, overcast winter day in South Dakota’s rugged Badlands, with just enough of a breeze to remind you that between here and the North Pole there’s little more than a few barbed wire fences. But inside the Interior, South Dakota, office of frybread-mix manufacturer WoodenKnife Co., owner Ansel WoodenKnife is basking in the glow of warm memories.

The story starts in 1979, when WoodenKnife, Lakota, and his wife, Teresa (shown, left, with her mother), opened a café in Interior, a village just 60 miles from where he’d grown up on the Rosebud Reservation. Nowadays, the couple count among their customers some of the nation’s biggest corporations. Safeway, Stop & Shop, Nobel/Sysco and Wal-Mart purchase WoodenKnife Co.’s frybread mix and/or frozen dough and sell it in almost every state in the nation. In recent years, restaurants, museum stores and gift shops have joined the client list.

At the beginning, however, the duo operated a modest restaurant that included among its offerings Indian tacos, which are a mix of ground meat, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese on a frybread base. Their tacos’ popularity was due in large part to an unusual ingredient in the frybread dough: timpsila, or prairie turnip. Thanks to this potato-like root, a longtime Lakota favorite, the WoodenKnifes’ frybread was naturally sweeter, lighter, and yet more substantial than other types.

“Timpsila acts as a leavening and is what made our frybread so fluffy,” said WoodenKnife. “The recipe was my mother’s. She put timpsila in everything.”

Diners flocked to the café. Visitors to nearby Badlands National Park dropped by. Singer Tracy Chapman, who has a house in the area, was a regular. In 1992, movie stars Val Kilmer and Sam Shepherd ate at WoodenKnife Café nearly every day while shooting Thunderheart. Good Morning America and The Today Show broadcast episodes from there. In 2000, star chef Emeril Lagasse shot a Food Network episode at the café and put it on the national culinary map. It appeared in travel guides.

As we talked, WoodenKnife began to look through a big box of guestbooks he and his wife used to leave out for patrons to sign. “Here’s the president of Finland,” he said, and read, “‘The best meal I’ve had in the United States so far.’”

Customers repeatedly asked to buy some of the ever-popular frybread dough to take home, so the couple decided to create a dry mix and market it. “We started in local grocery stores and grew from there,” WoodenKnife recalled.

After the Food Network broadcast another episode about WoodenKnife Café in 2002 — this time praising the frybread mix — the phones started ringing almost immediately. The WoodenKnifes rounded up their daughters, friends, and neighbors to take orders around the clock. “That was the end of the restaurant. We had to close it down,” recalled WoodenKnife. “Until then, I had no idea of the power of the media. The episode was broadcast four times. After each showing, the phones rang twenty-four hours a day for a long time.”

He turned his attention to the frybread products, which are made in an automated facility behind the shuttered café, now converted to office space. He still gets calls from former patrons, who ask if he’d consider re-opening the restaurant. “I don’t see how I can,” he said. “Besides, we like having our weekends free.”

The company uses thousands of pounds of wheat flour annually; harvesting proportional amounts of timpsila from the prairie, as WoodenKnife’s ancestors did, would threaten wild populations of this plant, so he contracts with a farm to grow virtually all he needs. “I do buy a few arm’s lengths — that’s the traditional way of measuring braids of timpsila — from families who gather them,” he said. “They rely on the income, and the small amounts they harvest wouldn’t do any harm.”

Ask him about the beige-and-blue cardboard container he designed to hold one-and-one-half pounds of dry mix, and he reveals a stubborn streak. The cardboard is made from recycled paper, the ink has a soy base, the gloss is cornstarch, and the inner wrapping breaks down in sunlight. He won’t print any of that information on the box, though, despite people advising him to do so as a marketing ploy. He’s happy to seek out environmentally sound practices, he said, but he’s not willing to brag about them — or to risk acting out a “stewards of the earth” stereotype.

WoodenKnife Co.’s expansion plans include the development of mixes for other types of baked goods and adding military business; the firm has just become a Department of Defense contractor. “The frybread will be a taste of home for our soldiers overseas,” said WoodenKnife, whose family has a long warrior history, including several generations in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Ansel WoodenKnife’s products may be circling the globe, but his primary concerns remain local and imbued with Lakota ethics. He volunteers in the community in many ways, including as a fire fighter, in the school’s reading program, and as a Little League coach. He supplies the team’s uniforms and equipment.

“It’s the way we were raised,” he said. “Caring for your community is a central part of life — a value that comes down to us from long ago.” 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Ansel WoodenKnife.

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