Back when Tocabe, An American Indian Eatery was a one-shop operation in Denver, Colorado, Ben Jacobs would begin his mornings sipping coffee, donning an apron and prepping the Tocabe kitchen for service.
“Now, 10 years in, we have the two brick-and-mortar locations, plus a food truck. I am a man of many hats,” said the Osage co-founder of Tocabe, which means “blue” in Osage.
These days, Jacobs, 35, often starts his days meeting with Tocabe area or store managers, food suppliers, or event partners — and he’s generally the one operating the food truck.
Meanwhile, he’s knee-deep in plans to expand Tocabe beyond Colorado’s borders, bringing exquisite ingredients sourced from Native vendors and the unique flavors of regional American Indian cuisine to urban Natives and the masses across the nation.
He’s got his eye on a few new locations in unnamed states — Tocabe insider information. Jacobs is holding his cards close until it’s time to unveil the brand’s next moves, one by one. But he did shed light on his grand vision for strategic expansion during an interview with Native Business Magazine.
“We’re hoping to have two new locations open in 2019 or 2020. We’re currently in negotiations on one location and in conversation about a few other sites,” Jacobs said.
Don’t underestimate this Osage businessman. That’s just the cusp of his vision. “The plan from the beginning was to become a regional if not national brand. I think within the next five years, we should be in multiple states; my goal is for six to eight additional restaurants,” said Jacobs, adding that he hopes to roll out one or two per year, and then pick up the pace.
With a boutique-hotel approach to the restaurant industry, each Tocabe eatery is connected yet unique, reflecting the region’s Indigenous foods and local Native arts. “Our goal is to constantly evolve on our concept as each new store opens. We’re evolving the approach, the interior identity and where we source ingredients,” Jacobs said.
First and foremost, Tocabe stands by its philosophy: “Native first and local second.” Jacobs has watched as the entire indigenous food movement has taken off. Native food purveyors have increased in presence and capacity over the last 10 years. When Tocabe launched in 2008, they often encountered one of two problems — either a Native vendor didn’t have the volume to meet the restaurant’s needs, or Tocabe couldn’t meet minimum order requirements. “I couldn’t bring in 400 pounds of wild rice. One, I couldn’t afford it, and two, I couldn’t store it or ship it,” Jacobs said. “Now we’re ordering that [amount] every two weeks. It’s a real symbiotic relationship, where we’re all sort of thriving as one and growing together.”
Native food producers are prospering, increasing in number and capacity, Jacobs said. Tocabe, likewise, has increased its economies of scale. Today, Tocabe sources indigenous ingredients consistently from at least five Native producers: wild rice and pure maple syrup from Red Lake Nation Foods as well as Spirit Lake Native Products; olive oil and elderberry balsamic vinegar from Séka Hills, a Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation brand; wheat berries and tepary beans from Ramona Farms; and Indian corn and blue corn from Bow & Arrow.
As Tocabe multiplies across the country, loyal team members are committed to growing with the company. “They are yearning for more for themselves,” Jacobs said. “It’s kind of pushing us to go beyond. People who have been working with us for several years are willing to relocate to operate a store.”
Tocabe will additionally offer job training and development, Jacobs said. He takes a personal approach to cultivating brand representatives, because to patrons, front-of-house staff are the faces and voices of Tocabe. New visitors often pepper the Tocabe team with questions. “That was our goal. We want people to come in and engage with us. We want people to question our interiors. We always have people who come in and expect to see dreamcatchers or moccasins, and I always say that I love and appreciate those things, but we focus on food. What we want is for people to come in and question and engage and conversate with us about why we do what we do. I always go to staff meetings and drive home my point that there are not a lot of Native restaurants in our community. What we need to understand is that we represent a community and a culture,” Jacobs emphasized.
While staff members are representing a brand, Tocabe also encourages individual personalities to shine. “We’ve seen multiple people flourish, because they are in an environment where they can openly share who they are and be proud of that,” Jacobs said.
Community interaction, engagement and response has been great. “Our employees get rave reviews, because they believe in the concept; they believe in what we do; and they believe in the approach. It’s not just about serving people and getting them in and out; they are actually serving an idea,” Jacobs said.
Serving a Concept
Jacobs speaks of Tocabe as a “concept” more so than a restaurant. Given that Tocabe is the only indigenous eatery in Denver, and few Native restaurants exist across the country, Tocabe is more than another kitchen serving up culturally distinct food.
“We often say that this is more of an idea than anything,” Jacobs said. “That’s why we don’t have an executive chef in our restaurants. It’s not designed that way. There is no one who is barking orders. It’s about development through community.”
Central to the community-led approach to business, every Tocabe team member tastes each new food item (unless, of course, a dietary restriction or preference prevents them from engaging). “We always say that we are a kitchen by committee. Some of the best dishes that we’ve had have been dishes that the group has provided input on,” Jacobs said.
For instance, one of Tocabe’s most popular sides is wild rice — co-created by four employees. “They suggested de-glazing the pan with our bison stock, and all of a sudden, we have this amazing dish that people love,” Jacobs said.
Sometimes, Jacobs and co-owner Matt Chandra even take a back seat to menu creation. At Tocabe’s south store, Jacobs’ cousin and a Potawatomi team member collaborated to make some incredible blue corn cakes. “We did them for the Denver March Pow Wow and people went crazy over them,” Jacobs said.
When Jacobs and Chandra do take the lead in the kitchen, they’re often inventing ways to defy common notions about a fast-casual restaurant — particularly to differentiate Tocabe among a rising tide of fast-casual concepts burgeoning throughout the Denver market. For example, last year, the duo fully braised a rabbit in a homemade spice rub of powderized Osage corn and New Mexican chilis, among other specialty ingredients. “Fast-casual restaurants are usually lumped in with pizza and burrito places. What we wanted to do is show people that we can develop things and use ingredients that no other fast-casual place would even approach,” Jacobs said.
Tocabe also likes to keep things innovative by replicating the flavors of outdoor cooking in a commercial kitchen. “We made a butternut squash soup, but instead of roasting the butternut squash, we took applewood and smoked it. It tastes like it was cooked outside,” Jacobs explained.
A tip for first-time Tocabe guests: Jacobs recommends ordering the braised bison or bison ribs, served with house-made seasonal berry barbeque sauce—a customer favorite.
In a nutshell, Tocabe’s “concept” balances staying culturally aware, culturally connected and culturally appropriate, while maintaining success in business. “People are supporting our food and our food systems, which I think is incredibly important,” Jacobs said, adding: “We can stay culturally driven, but we have to remember that we are a business.”
Speaking of business, Tocabe, a privately held company, has received support from Small Business Administration loans. And as entrepreneurs, he and Chandra have invested their own money.
“We’ve been willing to take the risk. We’ll continue doing that, because if it is successful, it’ll be beneficial to so many different people in so many different sectors. If it fails, then that’s okay, because we can always start again,” he said. “We have looked at investors, but it would have to be someone who understands what we’re doing and believes in our concept.”
The friends and entrepreneurs got their start at a young age, 25, taking inspiration from Jacobs’ parents, who opened Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery in downtown Denver in 1989. Growing up, Jacobs bussed tables, washed dishes, served customers, and learned the ins and outs of managing a restaurant.
Jacobs mother, an Osage entrepreneur and former Denver Indian Center employee, and his father, a man of Scottish-Norwegian descent who embraced the culinary traditions of his wife and her mother, informed the original Tocabe menu. “They taught us the basics,” Jacobs said, acknowledging that today, Tocabe is “much more of an ingredient-driven restaurant.”
Beyond designing the food menu, Jacobs’ parents were instrumental in guiding the budding entrepreneurs’ introduction to the restaurant business. “We’re not trained to do what we do,” Jacobs noted. “I was a history major in college [at The University of Denver]; my business partner majored in digital media. We don’t have that background, so they both taught us some of the business acumen.”
Fortunately, Jacobs and Chandra are quick to admit what they don’t know — and thus avoid common pitfalls and mistakes of new business owners. “We did have an accountant right off the bat who did payroll. As we’ve expanded, we’ve added two assistant general managers — one at each store — plus an area manager, and a manager of catering and business development,” Jacobs shared.
Beyond that, Jacobs and Chandra work with people “all over the country” on branding, expansion plans and the Tocabe website. “Our website developer Ryan Red Corn is Osage, and we try to incorporate elements of the Osage belief system into our philosophy,” Jacobs added.
A Decade of Growth
The first Tocabe venue, in North Denver, spans 2,100 square feet. Service is streamlined—guests order at the counter and then find a place to sit. In March 2015, Tocabe debuted its second location at 2,500 square feet on the south side of town, featuring a similar set-up with an expanded brand identity. At Tocabe version 2.0, cooks prepare food in large cast iron pots, reflecting the community-driven nature of the brand, and the interior design showcases more indigenous art.
Jacobs and Chandra added a food truck to the mix in spring 2016, which made off-site events more accessible. Tocabe is event-heavy, whether the crew is traveling to pow wows or other Native-specific events, weddings or rehearsal dinners, or community gatherings. “For years, we were doing things out of a van. We would load it up with food, tents, everything. It would take three days to do a four-hour event,” Jacobs said. The food truck has enhanced the quality and efficiency of service.
Tocabe also plays host to many on-site events. “We’re designed and have always been a place to serve food and community. For years, we have opened our doors to people to host fundraisers. We’ve featured musicians and comedians,” said Jacobs, adding that Tocabe is a great event space for organizations, schools or individuals.
Speaking of parties, December 18, 2018, marks Tocabe’s 10-year anniversary. Celebration plans are underway.
With a decade of entrepreneurship behind him, Jacobs’ passion for Tocabe and his hunger to spread the Tocabe concept across the nation has only intensified. The restauranteur is also quick to point out that it’s the business-side of Tocabe and building a brand that feed his desire. “I love cooking, but I really love the interaction with guests and the growth and development,” he told Native Business Magazine. “That’s where I thrive.”
The Osage man of many hats has another role to play, as well. At the end of the day, Jacobs transitions from restauranteur to dad. He said with an audible smile, “I have two little boys and a baby on the way. One is four [years old] and the other is two, Charlie and Jack.”
Want to know a few more interesting facts about Tocabe?
Tocabe hosts Native musicians whenever possible, such as Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota rapper, and Choctaw singer Samantha Crane. “We’re actually going to start creating artist spotlights and putting little things on our tables that say ‘Shazam, our artists! Did you know that we play 100 percent Native artists?’” Jacobs said.
Jacobs added that he loves when the American Indian comedy troupe The 1491s pop into Tocabe for a bite. In addition to Native celebrities, local professional athletes are known to dine at Tocabe, and prominent figures in the food world have visited the eatery, including celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez. In 2012, Guy Fieri filmed an episode of his hit Food Network show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” at Tocabe, in which he raved about the “off-the-hook hominy salsa.”
Sustainability is a core value of Tocabe. The eatery has transitioned to silverware, plates and bowls in-store exclusively, and all lights are LED. Tocabe donates kitchen scraps for compost to Four Winds American Indian Council, which operates an indigenous garden and distributes vegetables to the community. Tocabe also adheres to a strict recycling program—to the point that stores had to schedule an additional pickup per week. “We try to take the right approach to going green. I have a friend who says that going green is going red, because we are the original protectors of the Earth,” Jacobs said.
Beyond sustainability efforts, Tocabe supports Indian Country by regularly collaborating with The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). “That’s really important to me, because sometimes FDPIR has a negative connotation for people. As food professionals, if we don’t advocate for better foods, then who is going to do it?” Jacobs asked.