Since opening in 2008, the popular fast-casual Denver restaurant Tocabe has helped elevate Native American food culture and made Native grown and produced foods more widely available, all the while strengthening Indigenous food supply chains in the U.S.
In order to bring Native ingredients and recipes to more people and to better support producers during the pandemic, Tocabe co-owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs have expanded operations to the Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace. The platform aims “to create a robust ecosystem for Native and Indigenous food traditions to thrive,” writes The New York Times.
Launching June 14, 2021, the virtual pantry offers staples and ingredients from Native and Indigenous producers, farmers, ranchers and suppliers throughout the contiguous United States. The site will launch with some 40 products from 9 producers, including:
Fred DuBray (Cheyenne River Lakota bison producer) and Osage Nation Bison Processing: bison steaks, bison ribs
Bow & Arrow: Indian corn, blue corn
Muckleshoot Indian Tribe: huckleberries
Navajo Pride Foods: Navajo blue cornmeal, pinto beans, juniper ash
Ramona Farms: tepary beans, wheat berries
Red Lake Nation: wild rice
Seka Hills: Olive Oil and Elderberry Balsamic Vinegar, honey
Ziibimijwang Farm: maple products including maple sugar
In addition, the Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace will carry exclusive Tocabe-made items, such as dry rubs, a blue corn mush mix and a blue cornbread mix. Over the course of 2021, Tocabe will expand product availability and featured suppliers, and will eventually offer exclusive ready to eat frozen meals. Recipes and information about each product will share stories of the ingredients’ origins and the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of those who are producing and growing it.
For Jacobs, a citizen of the Osage Nation, and Chandra, the transition from local restaurateurs to national Native food entrepreneurs was a longtime goal, expedited by the global pandemic. After lockdown orders in March 2020, Jacobs and Chandra put franchise plans on hold to stabilize their local businesses and prioritize building an online delivery mechanism to more widely cultivate interest in Native American food culture nationally, and to expand Tocabe’s capacity to more consistently and robustly support Native food producers and Native economies over time.
“We are committed to purchasing from Native and Indigenous producers as much as possible to help support business and infrastructure development,” the co-founders say. “Customer support keeps Native and Indigenous producers in business, which helps to further build health and accessibility to high quality foods throughout the country.”
Drawing from the “You Thrive, I Thrive, We Thrive” company ethos, the Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace features an innovative donations program to help address food access, food disparity and food sovereignty issues facing many Tribes and Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. – situations made worse in many places by the pandemic.
The two-for-one-and-more model creates accessibility to wholesome and nutritious traditional foods in several ways: 1) for every two items purchased, Tocabe donates one item to Native and Indigenous community-based organizations; 2) when customers buy an assorted twelve pack, Tocabe donates an assorted six pack; and 3) Tocabe will also match bulk and wholesale purchases with a 50% donation (for example, for a 500 pound purchase, Tocabe will donate 250 pounds of food.)
At present, recipients of the donations will include tribal communities on- or off-reservation facing challenges to food access, Urban Indian organizations serving Native families, community centers, advocacy organizations, and schools.
“Through the incredible support of our customers, friends, families and the community at large, we have been able to make this leap with the online marketplace and realize a possible solution to persistent challenges,” say Jacobs and Chandra. “We designed the Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace to create a cyclical pattern of community support. Progress and change takes many hands from growers and ranchers to pantries and stoves. Every purchase from the marketplace completes this circle, and we are humbled to move this community-based, reparative and reciprocal model forward.”