Date: June 21, 2019
Partner: Sarah Ballew, Headwater People
Interviewee: Benjamin Jacobs (Osage Nation), Co-Owner and Co-Founder
Quick Stats about Tocabe:
Tocabe is a business that currently owns and operates two restaurant locations and a food truck in Denver, Colorado specializing in serving Native-specific foods for a broad audience. The whole Tocabe system currently employees 40 crew members and since opening in 2008 has received multiple accolades and awards.
Tocabe provides access to Native foods for a large audience, promotes health cooking and eating, and models how to incorporate community-centered foods and culture in a viable business.
Tocabe’s origin story begins with Benjamin’s parent's restaurant, Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery established in 1989 in downtown Denver. Grayhorse continues to inspire the mission and menu of Tocabe.
Metro Denver has a large Native population, and while Native foods are always available at ceremonies, powwows and other community gathering spaces, there were no other Native restaurants in the area when Tocabe opened.
Tocabe’s purchasing priorities focus on putting resources back into Native communities and they have been committed to buying Native grown first and locally grown second.
Strengths, Keys for Success:
Tocabe has a vision of growing more restaurants in the region, but makes business decisions largely driven by culture and community. This approach requires the time to be extra critical in choosing a path forward that reflects on the Native community in a good way. From strategy to cooking, the Tocabe team is very focused on how they represent themselves and take that responsibility seriously.
Innovation, for Tocabe, involves using the restaurant business as a generative engine to build new economies for Native producers. They prioritize growing larger systems to celebrate and share foods from Native communities as well as to highlight the Native growers. Their business structure includes sharing who they work with and the ways they make those partnerships work for the sake of growing their partners’ businesses alongside their own.
Tocabe is specifically focused as an American Indian eatery, however they also are big believers of building allies from all cultures within the community.
Besides food, Tocabe spaces are also innovative settings to visually and audibly affirm and introduce people to indigenous identity through art. Modern Native art is displayed on the wall and Native music plays throughout their restaurants. These are created as purposeful avenues for surrounding guests with Native identity. Dialogue with staff to learn more is encouraged, but in any case, culture is prominently celebrated.
Barriers and Challenges:
Designing an accessible experience for everyone to reflect historical feasting sensibilities has been a challenge. Making decisions according cultural and community values impact the profit margins.
Tocabe’s goal is to support all tribes and not just reflect one specifically. Learning about the food and stories from other communities and procuring regional foods can be a challenge.
Many non-Native guests, when coming into the restaurant, expect an introduction to the way people ate hundreds of years ago, before contact. Tocabe’s perspective is to tell a modern story of Native people living today, and not only a historical one.
Having a relationship with funders who did business in real estate and in restaurants has been an essential and fortunate part of the Tocabe story. That partnership, along with family experience in the restaurant business helped to set Tocabe’s trajectory for success. Additonally, the business has enjoyed strong Native support from the Metro Denver area as well as regional communities.
Insights for others:
To really look at who you are investing in, your time/resources/finances. If you’re going to do this, find what you believe in and find the people who are working on that already. You have to believe in the people and let them create it, so make sure when bringing in new people, they already understand and believe in the concept.