Co-owners Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra met in college at the University of Denver. Some time after graduation, the two visited Jacobs’ Osage Nation family in Oklahoma, where they chatted about native food and how it wasn’t available on a daily basis. This was the spark that led the two college buds—both then 25 years old—to open Tocabe, a native food fast casual, in Denver in December 2008. Today, the pair serves up dishes like bison ribs with a rotating berry barbecue sauce, wild rice bowls, and Indian tacos topped with Osage hominy sauce at two locations and a food truck.

Jacobs spoke with QSR about the challenges of introducing customers to native food, the benefits of the fast-casual model for new cuisine, and the brand’s future plans.

Native first, local second / We do things slightly different. Where most restaurants do local food first, we do native first, local second. If we can get food like wild rice, blue corn, or wheatberries from a native food vendor, we can put money back into their communities. Now we’re to a point where we can source from native tribal food producers. That’s part of our mission that has evolved: How can we all grow together as one in a community?

When we originated, all of our recipes were based off family recipes. Now, we’re ingredient based. We’re traveling and working with a lot of tribal communities with different tribal cooks. When we bring in new ingredients, we try to keep true to what different tribal regions do, but with our own spin.

Anyone can search Native American food on the internet and get a recipe, but how much meaning does that have? There are so many different tribal regions and tribes to represent—it’s impossible to cover them all—but we want to begin the conversation.

A successful model / In 1989, my parents created a restaurant called Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery. We say they were our prototype for the restaurant. We decided we were going to try and reinvigorate, re-establish, and re-create what they had originally started. Our style and approach are similar to theirs, except they were in a food court and we wanted brick and mortar.

You approach the counter and all the toppings are right in front of you. It works well for us. If you say hominy salsa or braised bison or green chile stew, customers might understand what you’re saying, but what does it look like? What does it taste like? We like to have that interaction.

You can walk up and get our bison ribs within five minutes, but it’s a 24-hour, dry-cure process, and then we slow-braise them, make our own bison sauce. We’re cooking all day, and then we put meat in overnight. That’s something that I think a lot of good fast casuals are doing now; just because the food is quick doesn’t mean it’s not of high quality.

The burden of new cuisine / Over the years, the restaurant has grown and developed. I always say, “We’re not a burger place; we’re not a pizza place.” Those are foods that are easily understood, but, for us, it’s taken time because you have to educate people and get them excited. You have to find not only the foodies, but also the people who are interested in expanding their food horizons. Once we do that, people are won over by the food and the quality we present on a daily basis.

There are no other native restaurants in our community. We are representing a large group of people who are not always represented on a large scale. I take that very seriously. We always have to make sure that we’re a positive reflection of not only our company, but also of the native community. That’s what creates success. We don’t necessarily look into the past, but we’re talking about who we are now and where we’re going as a people.

Designed to grow / Our restaurant is designed to focus on the food and people but has different elements that we think are important to native communities. People will ask why we don’t have dreamcatchers, feathers, moccasins, or buffalo heads on the wall. And I always say, “That’s great and there’s a time and place for that, but we’re not trying to be a gift shop. We’re trying to be a restaurant.”

Our wall paint colors are based on buckskin, drum leathers, and sagebrush. We have a lot of earth elements like wood and rock. We want people to walk in and feel impressed.

We are in growth mode. We decided that we would start our evolution beyond the borders of Colorado. A lot of the food we secure is traditionally kept: Wild rice and corn have been dried; maple syrup will last forever. It gives us the ability to have the food that we source be easier to access in different places.

Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Story, Tocabe