Spotlight on our Native chefs and restaurateurs: Tocabe’s Ben Jacobs
Native American chefs and restaurateurs, and members of the Indigenous Food Community are claiming their place in the Indigenous business community. As the only American Indian-owned restaurant in the Denver area, Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery has staked its role as a leader in Native cuisine. We recently interviewed Ben Jacobs, Founder and Owner of Tocabe, to learn more about the restaurant, how the business has navigated the pandemic, and what the future holds for Tocabe – including plans to ship food directly to customers, like Tocabe’s delicious bison ribs. Additionally, Tocabe has released a new website that can be found here, which will help keep you updated on everything Tocabe. You can also learn more about Ben and Tocabe in this video produced for RES 2020.
Tell us about yourself and Tocabe.
My name is Ben Jacobs, I am a member of the Osage Nation in northeast Oklahoma, but was raised in Denver, Colorado. Denver is also where my business partner, Matthew Chandra and I started Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery. We opened our first location in December 2008, a second in 2015, and a food truck in 2016. We look at Tocabe as the follow-up to a restaurant my parents developed in 1989 called Gray Horse: An American Indian Eatery. We really consider them the prototype of what we do; we reinvigorated and reinvented what they had originally done in order to make Tocabe, including using some of my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. Gray Horse was in a food court, so we wanted to recreate the restaurant with its own environment and space. Out of the hundreds of thousands of restaurants in America, only a handful are American Indian restaurants. We wanted to create an environment that wasn’t only able to share food but that was able to share experience, culture, and community and to make a space that was open and available for the Native community to congregate and feel like it was our own as well as being open to the public to share who we are with the community.
You started Tocabe nearly 12 years ago. How has the experience of owning a restaurant for that long helped you prepare for the current crisis?
The most interesting part about this whole pandemic is it really made us feel like we were starting a restaurant all over again. We were having to find ways to attract people to the restaurant and get them to experience what we’re doing at a time when people are, especially now, financially strapped as well as staying safe by social distancing. We attempted to not panic, especially after we realized it was like opening a new restaurant again. We had to build business, we had to get Tocabe out there, and we had to communicate with customers. I will say, nothing prepares you for being open for 11 years and feeling like everything crashes in 11 days. Tocabe was about to go into our biggest event of the year when forced to shut down and lay off staff; sales dropped 80 to 90 percent. There was no way to prepare for that, but our decade of experience did help us open back up and come back.
You had to close the restaurant in the Spring due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. You were able to re-open on June 4. What was that experience like? From having to shut down in the first place, to deciding when and how to re-open?
Tocabe closed its doors officially on April 3rd until we opened again on June 4th. Before then, the restaurant had never closed for more than 3 days consecutively; being closed for around 60 days was insanity. We tried everything possible before shutting down, including in-house delivery and working with some delivery companies. It finally reached a point where we decided that for the health and safety of our crew—many of our staff live in multigenerational homes, are parents of young kids, or have similar situations—it would be best to shut down.
The re-opening process took a long time, and when we got the federal Paycheck Protection Program dollars that came through working with Denver-based Native American Bank (another close partner of the National Center), we were able to bring back a few furloughed staff and had the ability to pay them and see about re-establishing our business. Those were the big catalysis for us to be able to open on June 4th, as well as the fact that once the federal funding came through, we had to get moving to get staff back to work.
How has your business model changed since the pandemic started?
Before the pandemic started, only about 10% of Tocabe’s business was from takeout. As a fast-casual restaurant, we have lots of indoor diners because food is ready relatively quick. Right now, though, we’re about 50/50 takeout and dine-in. In the immediate weeks before we had to shut down in mid-March, we were 100% takeout. We’re not a restaurant that is built on delivery like a pizza place, so we’re doing what we can to survive.
Has the recent surge in COVID-19 cases affected your re-opening plans, or how you are operating?
Luckily, Denver has done a fairly good job with the shutdown and people taking social distance and mask wearing seriously. Because of that, I am not fearful as of yet about the increase in cases elsewhere. We aren’t planning any further changes at this moment. The cold months are typically the quietest times of the year, especially in a climate like ours. We might adjust in the coming months, and that might include moving back to a delivery model for at least the restaurants. Tocabe works with Native food producers doing dry-goods packaging that we’re hoping to sell online along with some of our products that we’ll be shipping like our bison ribs and berry barbecue sauce. We’re trying to work on out of store sales and making a big online sales push.
As the only American Indian owned and operated restaurant in Metro-Denver, Tocabe plays a large role in introducing people to Native-American cuisine. How do you fulfill this mission, and have you still been able to do it despite the pandemic?
We’ve been established in the community for over a decade, so we have strong ties to the community and work closely with local and national organizations. Tocabe has a large support system from the Native community that keeps us going and established. This support system has been huge during the pandemic with lots of people coming out to support us. The biggest thing we’ve done to fulfill our mission is to keep doing what we’ve always done and provide the best quality meal and service. People enjoy Tocabe not because we’re Native or because it’s a different experience; they enjoy it because we provide good quality food. We’re going to continue to make a positive influence in our community and the culinary community.
You have a long partnership with the National Center, including being named as the 2018 American Indian Business of the Year. How has this relationship helped you succeed or grow your business?
For us in the culinary world, there hasn’t been a lot of exposure in the quote business community. Now, people are starting to take notice that food is not only impactful on the community and our health but also impactful as a business venture as well. Being able to have a partnership with the National Center and having its support and recognition that we do make a positive impact in the business world was a huge step not only for Tocabe, but for the indigenous food movement. Knowing that we had that support and an outlet to the business world was huge. Tocabe has the support and partnerships in terms of food producers and the food community, but knowing that you have the backing of people ingrained in the business world, who help you excel through mentorship, sharing your message, and broadening your reach has had a huge impact both personally and professionally for Tocabe.
Anything else you’d like to add?
For one thing, keep supporting your native food producers. Keep an eye out for Tocabe’s next evolution, which will be shipping food to people in the not too distant future. We’ve already started research and development with our bison ribs, and we’re going to evolve on top of that and get food into peoples’ hands!
We’re also launching a brand-new website that will keep you updated on what Tocabe is up to. You can check that out at: http://www.tocabe.com/.