A Denver Restaurant Brings Nationwide Access and Attention to Native American Cuisine
The restaurant Tocabe may appear to be a humble affair—it operates just two locations, plus a food truck, in the metropolitan Denver area—but since launching an online platform last summer, this small business has been booming, and is in turn raising the profile of Native American cuisine and Indigenous ingredients nationally. Owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs, the latter a member of the Osage Nation of Northeast Oklahoma, started the business in 2008, taking the name Tocabe, which means “blue” in the Osage language. (Before founding the company, the two met and became friends while attending the University of Denver, where Chandra majored in digital media and Jacobs in history.) At first glance, Tocabe’s two brick-and-mortar outlets look like any inviting fast-casual café, with a serving line of freshly made ingredients on full display. A closer look, though, reveals menu items like glazed bison ribs with berry barbecue sauce, Red Lake Nation wild rice, and Osage hominy mixed with cranberries, red onions, and jalapenos. Its “Indian tacos” feature a signature fluffy fry bread topped with braised shredded bison, ground beef, or grilled chicken, as well as lettuce, pinto beans or black beans, sweet corn salsa, mild or hot salsa, and a drizzle of sour cream. The tacos, like the restaurant itself, deftly balance heritage while broadening accessibility. “We serve food, of course,” Chandra says. “But we also aim to show the relevance of American Indian culture in a twenty-first century context.”
Using food to raise awareness of Native communities—the United States counts 573 sovereign tribal nations within its borders—has been core to Tocabe’s business model from the start. As has purchasing from Native food suppliers and setting up distribution channels that support Native businesses. Fred DuBray, a Cheyenne River Lakota rancher in South Dakota, supplies their grass-fed bison, which gets transported to a processing facility in the Osage Nation, Oklahoma, en route to Denver. Even before Covid-19, Jacobs says, “we kept asking ourselves, how can we get this food into more peoples hands and stomachs, to elevate Native communities and further contribute to their self-determination?”
Forced to temporarily close both restaurants and furlough all employees in March 2020, the two spent the early days of the pandemic strategizing on an online platform. Their motivation, Chandra says, was not only the desire to “reclaim ingredients” for Native producers and Tocabe menu items, but also to “help keep more money within the Native American economy, fight growing food insecurity in these communities, and”—something that’s common on Native American reservations and in Native communities—“address long-standing barriers to distribution due to lack of access to high-speed internet.”
Since it launched last summer, Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace has, through increased sales, “added another platform for raising up many Native Americans,” Jacobs says. Equally important, both Chandra and Jacobs emphasize, is the vast potential for Native storytelling. “We’re here to feed you really good, really fresh food,” Jacobs says. “If you want more, here are our stories.”
The website offers some 35 pantry staples and ingredients. Images and accompanying information tell the stories of some of Tocabe’s Native producers, including Ramona Farms, on the Gila River Reservation in southern Arizona, which produces mesquite parched and stone-milled corn pinole, wheat berries, and tepary beans, an Indigenous superfood. Also on offer: maple syrup from Michigan’s Ziibimijwang Farm, a party pack of DuBray’s bison steaks and ribs, plus Tocabe’s blue corn pancake mix, Navajo roasted blue corn mush mix, and dry rubs. Beyond supporting Tocabe’s mission to keep money in Native economies, Tocabe donates one item for every two sold on the site.
Next up? Prepared meals, such as a wild rice bowl and elk sausage dish, all made with Tocabe marketplace ingredients, and packaged in individual and family sizes, frozen and available to ship nationwide. “Just think about it,” Chandra says. “A meal in five minutes that tells generations of stories.”