Ever since Tocabe co-owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs opened their restaurant specializing in Native and Indigenous cuisine in December 2008, they’ve been mulling over how best to get Native-made and Native-grown foods into the hands of more people.
And while the coronavirus pandemic proved challenging for their two Tocabe restaurant locations, one in North Denver and one in Greenwood Village, it also gave them the time—and the push—they needed to finally fulfill that dream and create an online market for Native foods.
The new Tocabe Indigenous Market, which is launching within the next month or so, will feature pantry staples and ingredients from Native producers across the country, including wild rice from Red Lakes Nation; pinto beans, juniper ash, and Navajo blue cornmeal from Navajo Pride Foods; tepary beans and wheat berries from Ramona Farms; yellow and blue cornmeal from Ute Mountain Ute; maple sugar and other maple products from Ziibimijwang Farm; and bison steaks and ribs from buffalo producer Fred DuBray of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation.
In addition to these raw ingredients, the market will also feature prepared pantry items created by the team at Tocabe, such as blue cornbread mix, blue corn mush mix, and dry rubs. “The goal of the restaurant and the work that we do is to help elevate not only Native communities, but also Native foods and Native-produced ingredients,” says Jacobs, a member of the Osage Nation. “We’re slightly different from a normal restaurant, where it’s local first. We’re Native first, local second. We feel that, in our position, the work we do must support Native and Indigenous food producers to keep the economy thriving for everyone.”
Though the market will be born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s long been a goal of Jacobs and Chandra. Through their restaurants, which specialize in Native American tacos, salads, bowls, and other dishes, the two have been slowly and intentionally creating partnerships with Native food producers across the country, with the eventual goal of using that supply chain to redistribute Native products to a wider group of customers. With the market, Tocabe’s owners will work directly with producers—no middlemen involved. “You can’t just go to any food purveyor and get access to these ingredients,” Jacobs says. “We’re very big on doing things properly. We have built the rapport and the relationships over the years, so we’re in this together.”
The website for the online market will feature photos and information about each producer, an important piece of the project for helping consumers understand where their food comes from and who is producing or growing it, Jacobs says. “Food has a story to tell and that’s what we do,” Jacobs says. “We should, as Americans, be supporting our original foods, whether you’re Native or non-Native. These are the original foods of this land. We should be supporting the original foods and, at the same time, that supports the First Peoples.”
In addition, Tocabe plans to donate one item to Native community organizations for every two items sold through the market, a two-for-one giving model that will extend to food Jacobs and Chandra purchase for the restaurants. They’ll also offer assorted packs of eight to 12 pantry items and give customers the option to pay it forward by sending a six-item assorted pack to a person or organization of their choosing (Tocabe will also offer to donate the pack to one of its community partners). “This came about from, ‘How do we get food into more people’s hands, not just those that are fortunate enough to be able to pay for it?’” Jacobs says. “It continues our philosophy of the “you thrive, I thrive, we thrive” mentality, where we’re all supporting and stabilizing one another. You’re feeding others while you’re feeding yourself.”
When the online market launches this spring, Tocabe will offer shipping and local pickup at its two Denver-area restaurant locations. Jacobs and Chandra also plan to expand and update the market’s offerings often, so they recommend checking back regularly for new foods and producers.
If you go: 3536 W. 44th Ave, Denver and 8181 E. Arapahoe Rd. Unit C, Greenwood Village. You can also visit Tocabe’s food truck at various locations throughout the summer.