On March 15, Tocabe, An American Indian Eatery laid off its entire staff of 40 when both its Berkeley and Greenwood Village locations temporarily closed. But there has been a silver lining for owners Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra, who say that the coronavirus pandemic gave them push they needed to develop a new project: a prepared meal and pantry item delivery program that will support American Indian tribes and producers.

“You work for 11 years and then everything just deteriorates in 10 days,” says Jacobs, a member of the Osage Nation. “It felt like a set back, but it was a reboot. It put us in entrepreneur-survivor mode again.” 

Jacobs and Chandra hope to launch Tocabe’s delivery initiative by the end of the year. Then, customers in Colorado and beyond will be able to order pantry boxes packed with shelf-stable items like rice, beans, wheat berries, and spice blends sourced from the Indigenous producers that supply the ingredients for Tocabe’s beloved fry-bread taco plates and posu (Osage for rice) bowls. Minnesota’s Red Lake Nation Foods, Arizona’s Ramona Farms, and Bow & Arrow Brand (part of southwest Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprise) are some of the partner businesses that Tocabe aims to support.

A posu bowl from Tocabe. Photo by Rachel Greiman

For those diners who love the fast-casual restaurant’s bison ribs, braised bison plates, and array of from-scratch toppings, Jacobs says that the prepared meal aspect of the delivery initiative will likely feature frozen, ready-to-heat iterations of Tocabe’s classic dishes, as well as new breakfast items (think: a blue corn and mushroom scramble with elk or bison sausage). “We want to get Indigenous ingredients and meals back into people’s homes,” he says.

Perhaps the best part of the program is that for every pantry box sold, Tocabe will donate another to a Tribal community; Jacobs and Chandra hope to execute a similar donation model for the prepared meals. It’s their way of perpetuating the restaurant’s mission to educate customers about Indigenous culinary traditions and give back to American Indian communities.

Jacob also hopes the initiative will allow them to rehire more of their employees. During the dine-in closures, Tocabe secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan and multiple grants, as well as raising $33,410 through a GoFundMe fundraiser; both locations reopened in early June. “What happens six months from now if this happens again?” Jacobs says.

Tocabe will begin trial deliveries of its meals and pantry boxes soon, catering to regional customers first before expanding nationally. Jacobs and Chandra recently attempted the ultimate test run when they shipped bison ribs to celebrity chef Guy Fieri for a special takeout episode of Diners, Dine-Ins, and Dives. The verdict? “He said it was one of the best things he’s ever eaten on the show,” Jacobs says.

Tocabe, An American Indian Eatery in Berkeley is open Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. (3536 W. 44th Ave.), and Sunday, 12–8 p.m.; the Greenwood Village location is open Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.–7 p.m. (8181 E. Arapahoe Rd., Unit C, Greenwood Village).

Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.