American Indian Cuisine Goes Fast Casual

Bison ribs in fast casual? You will find them at Tocabe.
Bison ribs in fast casual? You will find them at Tocabe.
Adam Larkey

When Tocabe rolled out its food truck in the spring of 2016, it became the largest American Indian restaurant chain in the country. The fact it was only the brand’s third outpost, however, says a lot about the market Denver-based Tocabe suddenly reigned over.

Despite the U.S. featuring more than 400 indigenous flavor profiles, Native American cuisine is a stranger to the common American palate. Ask 10 people what defines it and you would be lucky to hear an answer that doesn’t involve the word “corn.”

But, as Tocabe cofounder Ben Jacobs says, Native American cuisine might just be the industry’s best-kept secret. What are diners looking for? Responsibly sourced. Fresh. Produce-forward. Bold flavors. Clean label. Lean proteins. “This is what native food is in general, and it just fits into the mold of what new restaurants are,” he says.

This reality speaks not just to Tocabe’s ability to penetrate its home state—a third brick-and-mortar location is on the way—but also its potential to accelerate throughout the country. If customers are looking for something unique in fast casual, there isn’t a comparable model in sight.

Where else, Jacobs says, can you find bison ribs cured for 24 hours, braised in house-made bison stock, and then grilled and glazed with a rotating seasonal berry barbecue sauce? And for $12.85 nonetheless.

There are full-service restaurants and food trucks out there promoting Native American flavors. One example, the upcoming The Sioux Chef concept, claims to be the most backed restaurant in Kickstarter history. The restaurant, which runs the Tatanka Truck, cleared its $100,000 goal by nearly 50 percent.

As The Sioux Chef's Sean Sherman proves, there is an undeniable love and demand for the food. The issue, though, lies in educating the masses.

Tocabe knows a thing or two about that particular challenge. Jacobs was 25 when he started the concept with his partner, Matt Chandra, in December 2008. It was inspired by Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery, which was established in 1989 in Denver by Jacobs’ family, members of the Osage Nation.

Downtown patrons instantly revered the family restaurant, which was also presented in an assembly line format.

Jacobs says he recognized the potential and saw an unbridled arena to grow in. The goal from day one was to open multiple units. “I’ll tell you, when you start at 25, you’re naïve and you think it’s going to happen quickly. Especially for us,” he says. “We were doing a cuisine and we had an idea that hadn’t been done necessarily in a fast-casual, quick-service model. And also, there are just not a lot of Native American focused restaurants out there. But it definitely didn’t happen right away.”

The main problem was exposure. Tocabe enjoyed a hardcore following early on, but it wasn’t enough to propel growth. Jacobs’ strategy was simple: In those early days, he stopped saying no.

Whether the restaurant was asked to cater an event to eight or 80 people, the team did it. It didn’t matter if they even made money. If it was Sunday morning or late Thursday night, if it was at a food event, elementary school,or senior home. Jacobs once even packed up and took the brand to a Chicago Cubs spring training game in Arizona.

“It was so crazy, because it wasn’t going to affect our business locally,” he says. “But this was what we needed to do to get our brand out there. We needed to show people that we’re willing to go the extra mile. Not just for our concept, but the idea of what we’re trying to do will reach and expand.”

Then suddenly, at the end of 2010, Food Network came calling. Guy Fieri and "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" visited the restaurant and filmed a segment. It took nearly a full year to air, but once it did, Tocabe was forced to nearly double its staff. “We never stopped from there,” Jacobs says.

The TV show was just fire starter for the next act. Tocabe built its notoriety through word-of-mouth marketing and social media, and a second unit opened March 8, 2014, in Greenwood Village. Some of the presentation and menu was adjusted a bit to fit the business-heavy audience.

“It’s been going really well. We still find ourselves on the rise constantly,” he says. “Sales continue to grow at both locations, and you can’t beat that.”

It helps that the fast-casual model is well suited to Native American cuisine. “When you say hominy salsa or shredded bison or butternut squash relish, people have no idea what that is, and we didn’t want to have pictures of food on the menus or anything like that,” Jacobs says. “We wanted to have the food visible up front so you could see the quality. You could see the freshness. You could see that everything prepared in front of you.”

Tocabe is also introducing a new term into the foodservice lexicon: Tribally sourced. Where some operators go local first, Tocabe looks for native outlets. This includes wild rice and maple syrup from Red Lake Nation Foods, a company dedicated to producing specialty products that represent the cultural heritage of the 10,000-plus members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. There’s also olive oil and elderberry balsamic vinegar from Seka Hills, sourced from the Yocha Dehe tribe; bison from Rock River Ranches; chicken from Red Bird Farms; and so on.

“We’ve been working on that diligently for the last two years and really building partnerships with people,” he says. “That’s another part of the native community: supporting and stabilizing one another.”

Jacobs isn’t worried about maintaining these sourcing bonds in the future. As the company strategically places itself in different communities, it can broaden its scope and buying power. “We've barely touched the surface of what we do, because it is so regional and so cultural,” he says. “The thing for us is we’re not all that concerned with sourcing, because a lot of our native products are, in many ways, shelf stable since they’re dried ingredients. They also travel great.”

At the same time, Tocabe will remain a tight-knit operation. Jacobs says he wants to grow the chain as large as he can but in “a very methodical fashion.”

“Like any business, you don’t open just to open,” he says. “But we find ourselves, again, since we’re not just a regular burger or pizza joint, understanding that we have to be very specific in where we want to go and how we want to approach our concept, and make sure each one is reaching the potential and peak sales we know can happen. We feel like if we continue to grow and strategically place ourselves and do it in a methodical fashion, then there’s nothing that really keeps us from success.”