In 2011, Tocabe, an American Indian eatery in Colorado, was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Co-owner Ben Jacobs said that episode put the only native-owned and operated restaurant in Denver on the map.
“It changed our business overnight,” said 31-year-old Jacobs, Osage, who started the restaurant with his college buddy, Matt Chandra. In 2012, they were named “Entrepreneurs of the Year” by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). “People still come in and say they saw us on the show and couldn’t wait to come in. It’s aired many times since and [it ’s] on Netflix now.”
The history-major-turned-restaurateur has already beaten the odds. According to the National Restaurant Association, 30 percent of new restaurants fail the first year, and of those that survive, another 30 percent close in the next two years. This year, Tocabe (an old Osage word that means “blue”) will mark seven years in business in the most celebratory way possible — with the opening of a second, 2,500-square-foot restaurant, which opened in Denver March 7.
Jacobs said he and Chandra share a vision of becoming a national chain, but they are being very methodical about their growth. “We don’t think every town could have a ton of these. But we think a lot of towns could have one or two.”
The interior of Tocabe restaurant in Denver, Colorado.
Tocabe provides jobs for 41 people, including 18 Natives from the Apache, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Ojibwe and Mandan tribes, to name a few. They serve up homemade Native-inspired dishes such as bison ribs with blueberry BBQ sauce, green-chili stew, corn soup and Osage hominy.
Jacobs spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about his restaurant concept and the growth of Native American cuisine:
How popular is Native American food?
We are definitely on to something, and so are a lot of people. Although we are one of the oldest cultures in America, we have the youngest cuisine, because it’s not clearly defined. The food varies so much because there are so many tribes and different regions. About 80 percent of our customers are non-native, and that speaks volumes. We want to give voice to American Indian cuisine and culture, and make sure native foods are in the conversation of all foods.
What differentiates Native American cuisine?
Our ingredients and recipes. But many of the foods in this country have their origins in Native food. Clam chowder, for instance. Everyone thinks it’s from New England, but it was originally a Wampanoag-style soup. And Cajun and Creole gumbo uses file powder, which is dried sassafras leaves, and that’s something the Houma Nation always used in their foods.
How do you get around the perception that Native food is unhealthy?
Native food is inherently healthy. But far too often, fry-bread is the only discussion of what our food is and that’s the frustration I have because Native food is so much more. Dried corn is a traditional, healthy food that we serve. Wild rice is healthy. All our veggies our cut fresh; all our proteins are lean, marinated meats. We serve fry-bread, but it’s only one dish, and it isn’t what makes us unhealthy. It’s all the other foods we eat: cheeseburgers, fries, pizza and soda pop. When people say frybread is a food that was forced upon us and we shouldn’t be eating it, it’s degrading to the women in our lives. Women had to do something to sustain their families and frybread is something they came up with. It was a survival food. We shouldn’t forget that or discredit women for what they did for us as a people.
Where do you get your recipes?
We learn from family and friends, and work with the USDA and food distribution programs on reservations. We travel around to different tribal communities and learn about their traditional foods, what’s important to them, and bring those experiences back into our restaurant. For our jambalaya, for instance, we use wild rice from Canada and cook it using a technique we learned from the Houmas in Louisiana.
Do you prefer to use Native suppliers?
We look at native-or tribal-owned companies first, and if we can’t do that, we go to other suppliers. To make our salad dressings, we use Seka Hills olive oil and vinegar from the Yocha Dehe tribe in California. We get our tepary beans and wheat berries from Ramona Farms in Arizona, and wild rice from Red Lake Nation Foods in Minnesota.
Ribs and frybread with blueberry sauce
I think the farm-to-fork movement is cool and we do get tomatoes, onions, squash and other things locally. But at the same time, people should be open to using products that they can’t get within 100 miles. We don’t limit our suppliers to the continental U.S. And just because some of our products are coming from a great distance, doesn’t make them any less high quality.
Contributing business writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin … and very hungry at the moment.