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What does it take to start a restaurant that gets recognized by Food Network’s hit show "Diners Drive-ins and Dives"? For entrepreneur Ben Jacobs, two years of advance planning, a serious love for what you’re trying to accomplish, and eighty or more working hours a week. Don’t forget to add a menu of simple, but fresh American Indian favorites. Then you get Tocabe, Jacobs' very successful American Indian eatery located in Denver, Colorado.
Starting a successful restaurant from the ground up is not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Business Week, 60% of new restaurants fail within their first year. In this climate, serious training in business or the culinary arts can be very important to success. However, for Jacobs, serious drive seems to beat out formal training.
“If you’re not one hundred percent sure about it stay away,” Jacobs told us.
Neither Jacobs or his partner Matt Chandra have formal restaurant management training. Rather, both worked their way through every job a restaurant has to offer as they studied at The University of Denver. Jacobs has a B.A. in History with a focus on American Indian studies and Chandra has a B.A. in Digital Media studies, even though The University of Denver has a well-respected restaurant management program.
Fortunately, Jacobs and Chandra’s hands-on training has served Tocabe well. Jacobs has no regrets about passing up a degree in restaurant management program.
“I studied something I was really passionate about,” Jacobs said.
In the long term it worked out well, as his passion for American Indian history ended up helping to inspire Tocabe. Jacobs knew he wanted to bring American Indian culture to the general public through food. Unlike Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern food, until Tocabe there weren’t any American Indian restaurants in the Denver culinary landscape.
Jacobs credits this focused goal, as well as serious planning and hard work for Tocabe's success. Jacobs and Chandra plotted over every detail of their restaurant for two years before the doors opened in 2008. Every detail was considered, from food, to the psychology of how color impacts appetite, to the appropriate comfort level of the chairs. Then came plain old elbow grease. Both Jacobs and Chanda practically lived at Tocabe until the restaurant got off the ground.
“You can never forget that your establishment is a reflection of you,” said Jacobs.
Of course, the excellent food has plenty to do with Tocabe’s success. The menu is simple, with a focus on quality dishes rather than quantity of selection. Indian tacos that are assembled on an absolutely fantastic homemade fry bread, and bison ribs drizzled with a unique blueberry barbecue sauce do not disappoint.
The big reward for all this planning, hard work, and unique food is, of course, that in 2011 "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" found Tocabe. Locals already loved Tocabe before the show, but the episode resulted in a major business bump. Today the restaurant is still going strong and sees new visitors every time their episode of “Triple D” airs. There are plans to expand in the future, but for now Jacobs and Chandra are concentrating on keeping the standards high. Fortunately, things are running smoothly enough that they can take a vacation day now and again and stick to a 60 hour work week.