Tocabe counts two brick-and-mortar locations, plus a food truck. “Within days of the lockdowns beginning we lost 80% of our sales,” Ben Jacobs, the Osage co-founder of Tocabe, told Native Business. (Photo by Rachel Greiman, Green Chair Stories)
For more than 11 years, Tocabe, an indigenous eatery, has served up culturally distinct food in Colorado.
Counting two locations plus a food truck, Tocabe is grounded by a unique philosophy: “Native first and local second.” That means the restaurant is ingredient-driven and supports Native vendors across the country.
Additionally, Tocabe (“blue” in Osage) favors a boutique-hotel style approach to the restaurant industry, meaning each location is distinct, with local, Native-made art decorating its interiors. Pre-COVID-19, Tocabe also engaged its local community through events and often hired Indigenous musicians to perform.
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When the Coronavirus pandemic hit the nation, Tocabe tried everything to continue providing service to its community and vendors.
“We closed indoor dining mid-March after laying off 85% of the company,” Osage co-founder Ben Jacobs told Native Business.
That’s when Tocabe moved entirely to online ordering, curbside pick-up and in-house contactless delivery. “When this was not fulfilling the missing sales we attempted to partner with Door Dash,” Jacobs continued.
But times were tough. “Once April 1st hit and we were able to work through options with our landlords, we shut the doors on April 3rd, reopening June 4th,” Jacobs said.
Tocabe’s cash-buffer days quickly dwindled amid a partial and then full, temporary closure. “Within days of the lockdowns beginning we lost 80% of our sales,” Jacobs said. “Restaurants use today’s sales to pay yesterday’s bills and with such tight margins, we were completely wiped of funds when we had to close our doors.”
After Tocabe launched in 2008, Jacobs and his business partner Matt Chandra put in the effort to build sustainable relations with Native vendors. Jacbos says they established “symbiotic relationships, where we’re all sort of thriving as one and growing together.”
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.
Naturally, Tocabe was concerned about the impact of its shutdown (April 3rd through June 4th) on Native farmers and producers who deliver the raw ingredients that makeup Tocabe’s menu.
But Tocabe ultimately prioritized covering employee paychecks. “We were able to complete our final March payroll, but other than that, with no revenue coming in, we had no way to stay ahead of required debts,” Jacobs explained.
Fortunately, help came to the Native American-owned business when it was awarded a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
“We were able to secure the PPP which was the catalyst to opening the doors,” Jacobs told Native Business.
The PPP loan enabled Tocabe to cover payroll to its furloughed crew and past-due rent.
“With the PPP we knew we would at a minimum be able to pay the small crew who had been furloughed. As was mandatory at the time for forgiveness, we used 25% of the funds to cut some of the past due rent we had accrued.”
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As Tocabe navigates the added challenges presented by COVID-19, Jabos is staying optimistic and putting values and people first. “Our first priorities are to our customers and crew, our Native and local food suppliers, and our community at large,” Jacobs said, “especially those struggling to access healthy foods.”