Turning up the heat: Savvy marketing and quality products mean growth for Native food companies

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

These days, Native food producers from the eastern tip of Long Island to the Pacific coast are reeling in bigger customers and finding wider markets. Some ventures are owner-operated, while others have professional managers who make an array of business decisions, from marketing the core products to extending the product line. In some cases, the companies have outsourced manufacturing, and in others, they’ve installed or purchased automated facilities.

The Cooking Post
The best Native food companies have something in common, though: One of their outlets is Santa Ana Pueblo’s The Cooking Post (888-867-5198; cookingpost.com), in Bernalillo, New Mexico. In addition to being the most important clearinghouse for products of tribal operations and individual Native proprietors nationwide, The Cooking Post offers its own community’s Tamaya blue corn — parched, ground into cornmeal and packaged as pancake, muffin, and cornbread mixes (packaging operation shown here). That business continues to grow, in part because of star chef Bobby Flay talking up the virtues of blue corn, and also because The Body Shop purchases the ingredient for use in facial scrubs and other cosmetics.
Once a catalog operation, The Cooking Post now sells online almost exclusively. “We only send out catalogs these days if a customer specifically requests one,” said general manager Jerry Kinsman. “We did have a small drop in orders after we went internet-only in 2004, but our cost of sales plummeted, so we’re actually doing better financially.”
Some of The Cooking Post’s hottest sellers this past Christmas were from Native American Herbal Tea (605-226-2006; nativeamericantea.com), run by Richard Vallie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The Cooking Post had placed Vallie’s tea — along with other products — in the “gourmet foods” category of Amazon.com. “Sales could have been even higher, but Amazon has a terrible search engine,” said Kinsman.
The Cooking Post has varied relationships with its suppliers. Some, like Dr. Joseph Hesbrook, Lakota, owner of American Indian Tea & Coffee Company (505-424-6611; americanindiantea.com) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, market their goods themselves, but have The Cooking Post do the processing. In this case, that means assembling the tea bags, packing them in envelopes and boxes and shipping them. “We’ve got a great machine for making the bags,” said Kinsman.
In contrast, Deborah Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, owner of Pueblo Food Specialties (888-317-8325; pueblosalsa.com) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has her salsas and hot sauces manufactured at a custom-processing facility and delivered to Santa Ana. She also sells to grocery stores, primarily in New Mexico. Another regular customer is the Saginaw Chippewas’ Soaring Eagle Hotel and Casino, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, which guarantees that each month it will purchase approximately six cases of Haaland’s Two Flaming Arrows hot sauce, the super-hot signature condiment of a restaurant there. The casino-hotel makes the purchases through The Cooking Post.
“Assuming that Indian-owned businesses offer quality and competitive pricing, we give them preferences,” said Soaring Eagle’s purchasing manager, Mike Rademacher. “At this point, that includes food companies and a supplier of cut flowers and arrangements.”

No room at the inn
Soaring Eagle appears to be one of few Native-owned casinos with an active buy-Indian program. “Most don’t have Indian preferences,” said Kinsman. “They’re there to make money, and that’s all.”
“The hundreds of Indian casinos could do a lot more to help Native people,” said Ben Haile, Shinnecock, owner of one-year-old Thunder Island Coffee Roasters (888-711-1127; thunderislandcoffee.com), in Southampton, New York, at the eastern end of Long Island. “But the off-reservation management companies that run them aren’t thinking about that. So you politely go over their heads to the tribal council and remind them that they could do some education in this area. When selling to a gift shop, you might find a Native employee who can explain the issues to the non-Indian manager. It takes persistence.”
The approach is working; Haile has placed his young company’s products in the Mohegan Sun Hotel and Casino, in Uncasville, Connecticut, and is negotiating with three other casinos. Half his revenues come from wholesale customers, including organic-food stores, and half from retail customers who buy from his website.
Haile is committed to indigenous-to-indigenous commerce. He buys his organic, shade-grown beans from Native farmers in Guatemala and Peru and patronizes a reservation recording studio when making television and radio commercials. He’s anticipating that the solar power he’s installing for his coffee roaster will mean long-term benefits for a Shinnecock construction firm. “Once I see how the solar works, I’ll have the construction company look into it for other businesses and homes,” he said.

Going international
Over the past two decades, Rich Vallie has built Native American Herbal Tea into a 16-employee operation, with products in 5,000 gift shops and grocery stores in the United States. “When we started out, the privately held Indian company was an anomaly,” he said. “Now, there are many.”
His teas are also sold in 28 other countries — from France and Italy to Japan and Australia — largely because foreign tourists purchased them in the U.S., then wanted to continue buying them after they got home. “Europe has tight regulations for natural products, but once we were approved in Switzerland, which has the strictest rules, other European countries followed suit,” Vallie said. “It was like getting FDA approval.” He got help along the way from real-time desktop video-conferencing technology from the U.S. Commerce Department and the South Dakota International Business Institute, which allowed him to communicate cost-effectively with potential overseas clients.
Now Vallie’s company is coming home. “After pioneering all those markets, we’re coming back to Indian country and selling to tribal colleges and businesses,” he said.

Tribal operations
Tribally owned companies, with their relatively deep pockets, are more likely than individually owned ones to have major processing plants and retail stores. For example, Umpqua Indian Foods (866-766-4372; umpquaindianfoods.com), a 19-employee Canyonville, Oregon venture of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, purchased a meat-processing plant in six years ago and is now building a store that is intended to attract both locals and tourists.
Over the past year, the enterprise’s strategy has been to add product lines, including jams, coffee, tabletop items, jewelry, and apparel — available on its website. Items that are not produced on the premises — including a popular huckleberry syrup and a new condiment line — are sourced from local makers. “We have a Northwest focus,” said general manager Don Ohland, Cherokee. “We feature the beautiful products of Oregon, along with a few from Washington State.”
The Chickasaw Nation owns Bedré Chocolates (800-367-5390; bedrechocolates.com), a company it purchased in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma. Working out of a 25,000-square-foot facility, Bedré’s 35-plus employees use hundreds of thousands of pounds of chocolate each year to make top-quality candy bars, nut clusters, and other confections. The firm sells them through an on-site store, a shop at tribal headquarters, the Internet, and upscale department stores, such as Neiman Marcus. A new less-expensive line is being marketed to mass-market stores like Target and Wal-Mart.
By the way, the original owner of the firm dubbed it “Bedré,” a variant on the Norwegian word for “better,” in return for the endorsement of a Norwegian prince. “It’s a fun story,” said Jeff Case, the company’s general manager. And it’s a good description of flourishing Native food businesses and their delectable products.

More Native food products
All are also available through Santa Ana’s Cooking Post. Information was correct in 2006; check for updates.
• Venison from Potawatami Red Deer Ranch, a tribal venture of the Forest County Potawatami Community in Laona, Wisconsin. Meat from the only Native venison farm in the U.S. has garnered raves from food critics and the Mount Olympus of food, the James Beard House in New York City, which called it “supremely flavorful.” (715-674-4502; reddeerranch.com)
• Traditional Osage red-corn hominy and fry bread mixes from the Red Corn Family in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. (800-280-9745; redcorn.com)
• Alder-smoked wild sockeye salmon, canned seafood, and fresh seafood shipped overnight from the Elwah Fish Company in Port Angeles, Washington. Also look for an unusual salmon jerky. “It’s very flavorful, but soft, unlike the typical jerky,” reported Jerry Kinsman, of The Cooking Post. (800-435-FISH; elwhafish.com)
• Locally grown and processed wild rice, maple syrup, hominy, and jams from Native Harvest on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation, in Ogema, Minnesota. The venture supports community-oriented projects such as repurchasing tribal lands, healthy food for tribal members, and language preservation. (888-274-8318; nativeharvest.com)
• Timpsila-and-wheat-flour frybread, available as a mix or frozen dough from WoodenKnife Co., in Interior, South Dakota. (800-303-2773; woodenknife.com)

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy the Cooking Post.

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