Meet The Indigenous Chef Who Wants To Take Native American Food Nationwide

Tocabe is America’s first Indigenous fast casual restaurant chain. With two brick and mortar restaurants and a roving food truck around the Denver area, co-owners and chefs Ben Jacobs and Matthew Chandra have been changing the game when it comes to Native food. Their vision of a nationwide chain of indigenous-inspired menus brings a measure of hope and positivity to one of America’s most forgotten and depressed communities. Natives across America are in a desperate need of a win and Tocabe gives them a place to find it.

We sat down with Ben Jacobs to talk about what it’s like spending the better part of your twenties struggling against entrenched cultural stereotypes while opening up two restaurants starring a food culture with little connective tissue to the mainstream American culinary scene. Spoiler alert, it’s not easy. But Jacobs and Chandra are making their dreams a reality while shedding much-needed light on Indigenous culture.

Jacobs lives according to an ethos of positivity and making sure his life and work represent a net positive in his community, culture, and food. And that’s something we can all learn from, with the added bonus of a delicious rack of bison ribs on the side. Let’s dive in.

Tell us a little bit about the history of Tocabe.

My business partner (Matthew Chandra) and I, built our concept off of a concept our parents had opened in 1989 in downtown Denver called Grayhorse: American Indian Eatery. That opened when I was six years old. It was a very similar presentation as ours, except for they were in a food court so it didn’t really have its own space. It was just a walk-up counter. Then Matt and I decided to develop it further and incorporate it into its own space that had its own feel, its own décor, design, voice, but also to expand upon the menu.

When did you launch the new concept?

That opened in December of 2008, so we’re almost nine years in now. It’s evolved into two brick and mortar units, a food truck, and now we’re working on another expansion.

Nine years is a long road.

It’s funny, man. I was 25 when we started and if you asked me then, I was like, “dude, in like two years we’ll have like 10 restaurants.” I was just so naïve to the complexity of opening your own restaurant. Besides being young, working with a genre of food that most people aren’t familiar with just made it that much more complicated.

Yeah, I hear you, man. It’s a hell of a game out there when it comes to restaurants.

Oh, dude, it’s crazy.

There are almost two personalities to indigenous cuisine in America at the moment. There’s the reservation food — so fry bread, Indian tacos, stuff like that. More recently indigenous ingredients, or pre-reservation food if you will, is coming into the mix with chefs like Sean Sherman over in Minnesota and Richard Francis up in Canada. I noticed you guys have rabbit on the menu and you’re using local herbs. Can you walk us through how you are developing your menu in those two psyches?

It’s a very complex situation. I feel like most native chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, we’re all kind of all scratching at the surface. The food is not clearly defined … yet. The ingredients in many ways are, but the genre of food, the style of presentation — all those kind of things — aren’t there yet. Which puts us all in this beautiful cultural moment in food where we’re developing and redeveloping ideas around what our food is, what and who it represents, and where it’s going.

It feels like the future of American food is in its past.

I think that’s really exciting. What you’re asking is really important to all of us right now. We are so culturally driven through food. As Natives, we’re also different tribally and regionally. We all have our own identities from our indigenous backgrounds or our regional backgrounds, but that’s why I think it’s important because I don’t think that any of us are necessarily wrong in what we’re doing or what our approach is.

What’s a good approach?

As long as you’re doing it for the positivity of the food and the people, then that’s the benefit of where we’re going. If you want to be very traditional and very specific to your tribe and your food, I think that’s amazing. If you want to be very regional specific in your food, then I think that’s also amazing.

At the same time, if you’re in a situation like we are in an urban setting in a relocation city — that’s where people from a number of different tribes were relocated into nearby cities [known as the Indian termination policy] — making sure all those voices are involved is very important.

I like the point we’re at in this food because we can do things. We can do fry bread. But we can also go back and we can do heirloom corns. We can do rabbit. We can do game meats and things like that.

What’s driving you to follow this path?

It’s finding that balance. A big drive for us is that the food has to be accessible to everybody. Yeah, sure, we could sell bison ribs on our menu for 30 bucks, but what good would that do? I feel like that cuts out not only people from my own community but from all communities. I want someone to be able to come in here and get an amazing plate of food — like our bison ribs that take 36 hours — for 12 bucks. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we braise down whole rabbits and give someone something special for $12.50?

Sure we can do all those things in fine dining and that’s fine and there is a place for that. But for me it’s finding that balance of how do we speak to our community and how do we also engage with our community and make sure that they can all come and eat? Our friend coined our motto a while back based on that. “We’re a community-driven experience.” We think about the people that are around us and then we allow the voices of people within our restaurant and our crew to help build the culture of what we are as an establishment.

I absolutely agree, embracing the community means accessibility. Let’s talk about accessibility from a product standpoint. You said you want to be able to serve buffalo or rabbit for 12 bucks so everybody can come in and eat at your place. Are you finding any difficulties in your sourcing your pantry?

It was really hard to get things early on, just based on our volume. We were little. We wanted to work with a certain bison company and they were like, “Well, you need to get 500 pounds.” I’m like, “Yeah right, dude. I can’t get through 500 pounds of bison.” It would’ve taken us forever to sell that much.

With where we’re at now, we fly right through 500 pounds no problem. Another benefit of where we’re at now — compared to just nine years ago — is that a lot of the native food producers have been able to grow on a larger scale as well. It’s easier for us to get what we need even if it’s coming from a great distance.

How important is local to you?

We do native first, local second. If we can get a food from a native producer, then that’s where we go first. The beauty of that is that a lot of those ingredients are, in many ways, traditionally presented. Like wild rice is dried. Corns are dried. That means they have a shelf life. It’s easier to ship them long distances. You can’t ship bushels of fresh corn and expect them to last. That’s the beauty of our native first movement, for us at least, is that I can get something from 800 miles away and be perfectly happy with the quality. To me, it’s more important that we put that money and that effort into Native communities so we can build ourselves back as one group of people.

It sort of feels like your menu is a pan-indigenous set of dishes. How important do you feel regionalities are to what Tocabe is doing?

We’re ingredient-driven in what we do. A lot of that is because I want to be able to draw in more native food producers and so I don’t personally want to stay specific to any one region. My tribe is based in Oklahoma and I live in Colorado. We definitely started here with a lot of our original recipes, but now we’ve expanded further because of the traveling we’ve been able to do.

What has traveling Indian Country taught you?

People have taught us a lot of new things in terms of ingredient usage and techniques all over the country. We try and draw inspiration from a lot of places and a lot of that’s ingredient-driven. So, if we come across an amazing source for our food, we work with them even if it doesn’t tie in directly to my community or my region. To me, that’s okay. I like to say, “why shouldn’t we try?” Why should we not speak for those native food producers? Why not?

Right now it feels like there’s definitely a sense of oneness bubbling to the surface of Native America that may not have been there before.

Let me say this, we’re all distinctly different, but I feel like nowadays we’re all so closely tied to one another. I want to make sure that we can express and experience everything as one and show the general population that we’re a very positive, forward moving people. In that way, we need to involve all of us. We need to allow the voice for everybody. We need to incorporate as much as we can. Our whole goal is to do what we do and excel our vision of a restaurant into a multi-unit platform to show that we can be just as successful as any other genre of culturally driven food. That’s what we want to do.

How do we, as Natives, do that?

We incorporate people’s identities, ideas, and the movement wherever we go. Let’s incorporate as many people as we can and not shut down anything just because it’s not necessarily within our specific footprint on the ground here in Colorado. Everyone has to do their own thing, but we can all still work together for the movement of this food.

I hear you. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, pre-social media, and tribes were very secluded from each other. Now, there’s more of a collective voice in indigenous America. There’s Red Twitter and people are banding together for the first time from across the continent in ways that we just didn’t before. That’s why I’m interested in what you guys are doing out there because the idea of it being a chain, something that could link Boston to Seattle to Denver to Tallahassee to wherever else in the country, makes this a fascinating experiment in what’s representative of who we are today.

Exactly. That’s the thing a restaurant can do. We can get people in because they want to eat delicious food. But, at the same time, we can subtly get points across about what’s happening. I’m a huge believer in Steven Paul Judd. I’m a huge fan of what he does. I’m putting up his artwork in my restaurant. I hope he’s cool with that…? So people can come in for good food, but at the same time, since this is our space, we can also push things that we believe in. We can show what else is going on not only in the food community but in our community. That ties us all together.

It feels like you’re really focusing on doing something bigger than just a restaurant.

I think it’s really important. I have a big belief which I’ve always pushed in my life and with my crew in the restaurants: we are representing something much larger than ourselves, much larger than this restaurant even. We are here representing a whole community of people and so we better make sure that when someone comes in as a guest that we treat them as a guest.

Almost everyone walking into a Native restaurant is going to be carrying a lot of gross stereotypes and baggage with them. How do you fight that?

Remember, people don’t really have another restaurant they can walk into in Denver or in Colorado and have an Indigenous experience. We need to make sure that everyone has a good experience. Because, whether it’s true or not, if anyone has a negative experience at Tocabe it may affect their opinion on us as a group of native people. I’m just not about that. When people come in, they made that choice to come in and spend money and spend their time with us. We’re going to make sure that we are a positive reflection of our community. That’s why we show off what’s going on not only in food but what’s going on from now in our community.

I can’t change what happened 50 or 100 years ago. I can be upset by it and I can learn from it. What we can make an impact on now is how we represent ourselves, what we’re doing, and where we’re going in the future. I think that goes back to what you’re saying with the social media aspect — which is a beautiful thing for us to be a part of now — is that we can truly have an impact on creating and sharing our identity as native people. For the first time, our identity is not being decided by others because we’re doing it ourselves through social media and our representation online.

That’s beautiful. I agree with you 100%, man. Let’s talk a little bit about your menu. What’s the most popular dish right now?

Bison ribs are by far the most popular item.

Yeah, those look mouthwatering.

Yeah, dude, it’s crazy how popular it is. It’s so funny because we’re fast casual. That’s a very distinct style of presentation. Bison ribs weren’t something you could do in a fast casual because you’re not supposed to come in and wait. We figured out how to get bison ribs out to you within five minutes. Again, it’s a long process to get to five minutes, you know what I mean?

Yeah, low and slow is tough in the fast casual world.

We were like, “Let’s just try it. Let’s see what happens.” So we did it as a special on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday nights we would have family meals here because there’d be so many bison ribs left over because it just wasn’t popular. Then it took off. Now everyone is so bummed if they miss those two days. They’re just always gone fast. We still run everything on one little six-burner range and one oven underneath. There are times where people come in and they’re like, “how are you out of ribs at two in the afternoon?!” It’s like, “We don’t have tons of space!”

How does your customer demographic look? Is there much interest from the non-native community?

I would say it’s a fine balance. We have a strong native presence in Denver and so we native people that come in here. We also have a lot of non-natives. We’ve had people in the restaurant world come in, and they’ll ask, “what’s your target demographic for this fast casual? Is it 18 to 30 males?” We’re like, “No…” That’s the cool thing about what our restaurant does is we have kids that come in here that are like 16 and 17 after high school and grab something real quick, but then we have — I’m not even kidding — nursing homes pull up their vans and unload like 40 elderly people into the restaurant. That happens on a consistent basis. We don’t have a specific group of people that come in here. I think it’s because the identity is exciting to people and they want to experience it. People come in and then they really enjoy the food and the environment and they come back.

It’s the old axiom, ‘if you make good food, the people will show up.’

Yeah, man, that’s the thing. If you can make good food, anyone will come eat it. I love going and eating Ethiopian food. You know why? Because it’s delicious. I think food is a great way to build unity among people. It’s not just natives. It’s around the world. You make good food, people will come.

The thing that’s cool about our restaurant is it creates engagement. I don’t want to say it’s something we built. It’s something that just happens naturally. I hate to say organically because that’s a fad word. It’s something that just happens here. You’ll have native families sitting there next to a white family sitting next to a Latino family sitting next to a black family. There’s engagement there. There’s dialogue. People say, “What’s up,” and, “Hello,” and you have this blending of people, which is awesome.

It’s great that that is happening in a Native place.

It was a space that was designed for native people to come in and feel like it was their own. You can sit and hang out and feel like it’s your space. We have native people that’ll come in from Oklahoma or from North Dakota or something like that and they’ll hang out for like an hour and a half. You know why? Because it’s theirs. You feel special. There’s a sense of ownership that’s created because this place was built for you.

That’s what’s interesting about the design of the restaurants as well. It’s subtle and meaningful like your logo. Can you tell us why you chose the purple hand and the significance of it?

When we started, the big idea was, ‘Okay, how do we talk about who we are now and how do we break the romanticized image of an Indian that most people have ingrained already?’ Not all of us have braids. Not everyone wore a headdress. How do we break that image or show who we are now as a people? One thing that we specifically wanted to not show was dancers in regalia.. not that I have anything against it, I’m still a traditional southern straight dancer and I go and dance and hit pow wows and things like that. But, we decided let’s not put moccasins up. Let’s not put feathers up. Let’s not put dream catchers up. Let’s not do those things because that’s what people expect.

That must have given you so much more to work with since the non-Native idea of Indigenous life is so, so narrow…

Pretty much. We decided to go with the three hands because the three hands are what Osages’ use to represent their three villages: Pawhuska, Hominy, and Grayhorse. We wanted people to engage and ask, “why do you do that? Why don’t you use moccasins or feathers?”

We felt like that was something that is cross-cultural a lot of cultures around the world use as a hand as a representation of friendship and that’s something that we wanted to extend to people. We dove deeper into that idea. Purple is a strong color in ribbon work, which is a Southern Plains style — also an Osage style. My grandmother was a ribbon worker and so that was something we wanted to tie in with a very strong color to represent us.

At least you didn’t use red…

From a business standpoint, we wanted to have a color that was our own. We wanted to move away from the psychology that you have to use red and yellow because that invokes hunger. For us, it was more like, “no, we want a color that’s strong and we want a color that can be our own. We want a color that’s dynamic.” It’s the food is what’s going to bring them back, not red chairs, you know what I mean?

I dig it. So tell us about the name Tocabe.

Yeah, thank you. No doubt. We wanted to be simple, straightforward with a word that was memorable, but also meaningful. That’s what we found in the word Tocabe. Tocabe was the color blue and that’s my mother’s favorite color. Then people always ask, “Then why is everything purple?” Again, that goes back to a dynamic of a strong color to represent us. I wanted something that’s closely tied to us. I wouldn’t be here without my grandmother or without my mother — obviously my father as well — but my mother and grandmother are really important to me.

But at the same time, the business aspect of it is still important. Your name has to be something that’s memorable, something that people can say. We want it to be like when people say, “Yo, I’m going to hit Subway.” Now, it’s like, “Yo, I’m going to hit Tocabe.” It’s something within itself. It just becomes its own thing.

There’s also a sense of dispelling misconceptions about what a Native aesthetic is or can be that seems to drive people to Tocabe…

If you look at native representation on TV or in the mainstream, it’s very downtrodden. My thought was people were going hear about us and think, “Oh, it’s just going to be like a hole in the wall.” We wanted people to walk in and be like, “Damn, this is nice.” And why can’t we have something nice too? Why can’t we make something that’s very welcoming and open and beautiful? That’s something that we were very driven by.

What have you learned on this path?

We started when we were young. We were 25. My big thing was that I may never have this opportunity again so my thought was, like, ‘shit, we’re going to do it right?’ We’re going to make sure that it’s what we want it to be. If this ever goes away, I want to look back and know, ‘you know what, we did everything we could to create a positive reflection of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our culture.’

I want to look back at that, whether it succeeds or it doesn’t. I want to know that everything that we did when we woke up in the morning to go to work was a positive reflection of the people that are the most important in my life: my family, my community, and my culture. That’s all I care about. That’s why we think so specifically and we’re so driven on who we represent and who we help on a daily basis. That’s what I want to look back and say, “you know what? We worked as hard as we possibly could to represent a group of people in a positive light. And we made so damn good food along the way.”

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