Simply Native Foods is trying to bring locally sourced, indigenous Wisconsin superfoods into the mainstream.
This Madison-based startup company is run by CEO Juliet Tomkins, COO Prescott Bergh, and their son, Colin Tomkins-Bergh, who co-founded the family company and handles sales and marketing.
The company mission is twofold: break through to the mainstream retail market by selling healthy foods that support an adventurous lifestyle, and educate people about the kinds of foods that can be found off the beaten path here in Wisconsin.
“We use whole food products that are all native to North America, and source from Native American farmers when possible,” Tomkins-Bergh said at a Madison meeting of 1 Million Cups, a national entrepreneurial networking program. “We are making ancient foods for modern times.”
He said the company is in talks with various Native American food producer groups at the moment, and plans to work together with them on future product lines.
This is important, he said, because the growing brand seeks to be “representative of different regions across the country.”
The idea to start this company arose naturally from the family’s connection to the land, which was forged at their 100-acre farm located between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities.
“This is where I grew up, and this is also where my family experimented with growing just about every kind of animal there is,” said Tomkins-Bergh. “Donkeys, horses, cows, pigs–you name it. And also crops as well.”
But it was more than growing crops and raising farm animals that led to the creation of Simply Native Foods.
“More importantly, what we did a lot growing up–and actually my dad’s family has done it for more than five generations–is that we foraged off of our land, within the forest,” said Tomkins-Bergh. “It was a very common activity in the mornings to go out looking for wild mushrooms, wild berries… We also happened to have an abundance of wild plums, and gathered at a number of nut trees as well.”
It was this generations-old tradition, along with Tomkins-Bergh’s father’s professional experience in the organic food industry, that led to a revelation. The family saw a largely untapped market for products combining exotic foods like the acai berry with local ingredients, and decided to move into the retail space.
“We started noticing that for a lot of the food we’ve been foraging for a long time, and that we’ve been finding elsewhere around the area, is that there are a number of extremely nutritious plants that are local to our area that are not on the market,” Tomkins-Bergh said.
The company’s only product on the market right now is a wild rice hot cereal, which comes in two flavors: pumpkin and sunflower. It can be bought in bulk, up to 10 pounds, for adventures that may take days or even weeks.
“It has a very good carb to protein ratio, five-to-one, which is what a lot of athletes or adventurers are looking for,” Tomkins-Bergh said. “Wild rice is naturally low glycemic, which means it breaks down slower in the body and energy stays with you longer.”
The company aims to start by selling to athletes such as kayakers, backpackers and rock-climbers. It will be poised to enter the more mainstream market after building up a following among this crowd, Tomkins-Bergh says.
To achieve this goal, Simply Native Foods is engaging with brand ambassadors to champion its product. A notable example is Lonnie Dupre, an explorer for National Geographic who has achieved many previously unaccomplished feats.
“What a nice change from oatmeal, and it stays with you longer through the morning,” Dupre said about the hot cereal. “The high degree of protein, carbs and iron for its weight is perfect for expeditions.”
Tomkins-Bergh, a 24-year-old UW-Madison grad, works out of the new 100state co-working space in Madison. He said the company is looking into creating the next line of products in the bites/powerbar market, and is “gearing up” to seek investment to support that endeavor.
–By Alex Moe