Turning up the heat

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Savvy marketing and quality products mean growth for Native food companies

BERNALILLO, N.M. -- 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; 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 one thing in common, though: Among
their outlets is Santa Ana Pueblo's The Cooking Post ((888) 867-5198;
www.cookingpost.com) in Bernalillo. 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. 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 it 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 now 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; www.nativeamericantea.com), run
by Richard Vallie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in Aberdeen, S.D. The
Cooking Post had placed Vallie's tea -- along with other products -- in the
"gourmet foods" category of Amazon.com.

The Cooking Post has varied relationships with its suppliers. Some, like
Joseph Hesbrook, Lakota, owner of American Indian Tea Co. ((505) 424-6611;
www.americanindiantea.com) in Santa Fe, 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; www.pueblosalsa.com) in Albuquerque, 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 Chippewa's Soaring Eagle
Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich., 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, N.Y., on
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, Conn., 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 Web site.

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 panels he's installing to
power 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, 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 United States and 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;
www.umpquaindianfoods.com), a 19-employee Canyonville, Ore., venture of the
Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, purchased a meat processing plant 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 -- all
available on its Web site. 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 Bedre Fine Chocolate ((800) 367-5390;
www.bedrechocolates.com), a company it purchased in Pauls Valley, Okla.
Working out of a 25,000-square-foot facility, Bedre'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 in
upscale department stores such as Neiman Marcus. A new, less expensive line
is being marketed to giant retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.

By the way, the original owner of the firm dubbed it "Bedre," 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.

Other Native food products available through Santa Ana's Cooking Post

* Venison from Potawatami Red Deer Ranch, a tribal venture of the Forest
County Potawatomi Community in Laona, Wis. Meat from the only Native
venison farm in the United States 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;
www.reddeerranch.com.

* Traditional Osage red corn hominy and fry bread mixes from the Red Corn
family in Pawhuska, Okla. (800) 280-9745; www.redcorn.com.

* Alder-smoked wild sockeye salmon, canned seafood and fresh seafood
shipped overnight from the Elwah Fish Co. in Port Angeles, Wash. Also look
for an unusual salmon jerky. "It's very flavorful, but soft, unlike the
typical jerky," reported Jerry Kinsman. (800) 435-FISH; www.elwhafish.com.

* Locally grown and processed wild rice, maple syrup, hominy and jams from
Native Harvest on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in Ogema, Minn. The
venture supports community-oriented projects such as repurchasing tribal
lands, healthy food for tribal members and language preservation. (888)
274-8318; www.nativeharvest.com.

* Fry bread, made with timpsila and wheat flours, is available as a mix or
frozen dough from Wooden Knife Co. in Interior, S.D. (800) 303-2773;
www.woodenknife.com.