On a growth track

A recent acquisition puts Tribe 9 Foods into the national limelight.
0821 Editorialcontent Startup

Area residents may be familiar with RP’s Pasta, Yumbutter (nut butters), and Ona (healthy bars and cookies), but it wasn’t until 2017 that the three entrepreneurial food companies joined under one umbrella known as Tribe 9 Foods LLC.

Since then, the Madison-based company — with about 125 workers in Dane County — has quietly established itself as a player in the healthier food manufacturing space. “We’ve been inwardly focused on executing our plans,” explains CEO Brian Durst, but after the company’s recent acquisition of Connecticut-based Carla’s Pasta for $26.3 million, there’s no denying that Tribe 9 Foods is a growing force.

Durst has a long history in the food industry. While at UW–Madison, he interned with the breakfast division of Pillsbury. After graduating, he joined Goldman Sachs’ consumer retail group (e.g., Nestle, Sara Lee, Campbell’s Soup). He’s also worked for a private equity firm and a hedge fund.

The grocery marketplace was shifting, Durst observed. Larger food companies seemed unaware of how quickly consumer’s preferences were changing and they weren’t prepared to meet those changing consumer demands.

While smaller food companies were growing in numbers and providing healthier food options, grocery operators and retailers were increasingly competing with their own private-label products, Durst explains.

His goal was to create a more impactful food manufacturing company, so he approached the three stakeholders who not only agreed to partner, but they also agreed to contribute equity. Durst then raised a 20-year private equity fund to purchase the companies and form Tribe 9.

The company is on a three-pronged mission: Tribe 1.0, which represents about 75% of the business currently, focuses on nonbranded food production for others through contract manufacturing, private-label manufacturing, and industrial manufacturing (making ingredients for others).

“We are in the early stages of Tribe 2.0 now,” Durst says, “to demonstrate that we know how to grow a brand.” It’s had early success, particularly with its gluten- and grain-free Taste Republic brand, now available across the U.S. and Canada with Whole Foods, select Target and Kroger locations, and a planned national launch at Walmart this fall. All foods, except for Carla’s Pasta, are manufactured in Madison.

Equally important to Durst is the company’s certified B-corporation status. “As we grow, we can increase our impact on our community stakeholders, employees, the environmental footprint, and the social causes we support. If companies can look to their supplier-partners and say, ‘This vendor is aligned with the things that are important to us and our consumers,’ that’s impactful.”

Tribe 3.0 sets the company on an acquisition path, something that actually occurred more quickly than Durst ever anticipated. The 43-year-old Carla’s Pasta had been on his radar for about 18 months before he acquired it in a bankruptcy auction earlier this year, doubling the size of Tribe 9 Foods and saving about 140 Connecticut-based jobs to boot.

“We’re four years into the formation of Tribe 9. Technically, I’ve got 16 years left,” Durst states. “At some point, I have to return capital to the investors who had the courage to support us.”

Tribe 9 Foods LLC
(608) 257-7216

Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.