Turning Veggies from Sidekick to Star: Talking Tacos with Chaia DC

Turning Veggies from Sidekick to Star: Talking Tacos with Chaia DC
From foodtank.com, by Morgan McKean

Washington, D.C. taco entrepreneurs, Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon, are using their farm-to-taco culinary experience to spread the word on local, sustainable, plant-based food. Chaia, their seasonally-inspired vegetarian taco stand, has been popping up at D.C. farmers markets since 2013 and the duo will soon be opening their first storefront in Georgetown. The two women, who for many years blogged about their experiences cooking with seasonal foods in their home kitchens, are committed to supporting a more environmentally and socially responsible food system by sourcing local vegetables and encouraging their customers to be engaged in sustainable food production. 

Food Tank spoke with Chaia’s Branding and Business Development lead, Ariel Pasternak, to learn more about how vegetable tacos have the power to build a better food system.

Food Tank (FT): Tell us what you mean when you say the food at Chaia is part of a “farm-to-taco” culinary experience?

Ariel Pasternak (AP): The founders of Chaia, Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon, have worked together for over 10 years to promote seasonal cooking both as writers and food educators. They developed Chaia after identifying a niche market for the seasonal flavorful food that they love to cook for their families and friends. They were very inspired by their personal experiences - Bettina is from New York City and Suzanne is originally from rural Ohio. As they worked together, they created this unique relationship between farmers and urban street style food to present what is now a new culinary experience that we’re calling “farm-to-taco.”

FT: Where did the name Chaia come from? 

AP: Suzanne has spent years traveling to Tulum, Mexico and cooking with local chefs there. Chaya, which means “life giving,” is the name of the tree spinach that is native to the Yucatan peninsula, where Tulum is, that is used as ubiquitously as we would use kale or spinach. Suzanne and Bettina loved the energy of the word, the taste of the plant, and moreover, the name sort of just encompasses what they hoped to accomplish with Chaia, which is making people feel good with healthy and delicious food that is satiating and inspiring.

FT: Why did Bettina and Suzanne choose to focus on plant-based tacos? 

AP: Bettina and Suzanne firmly believe in the notion that the food choices we make significantly impact our environment, not just our health and that one of the beauties of a vegetable is that it’s usually possible to use and eat the entire plant. At Chaia, we try to use every inch of the vegetables - from the stems to the leafy tops. Sometimes that means working them into our product or maybe even selling a vegetable ‘compost’ broth one day.

It’s been really awesome to show a customer base, 80 percent of whom are not vegetarians, what you can do with vegetables and how they taste just as good or even better than meat in tacos. 

FT: By planning Chaia’s menu based on seasonal ingredients, your tacos must be constantly changing. How do Bettina and Suzanne stay inspired to create new combinations especially when the farmers market selection may be limited? 

AP: Bettina and Suzanne have extensive experience working with seasonal vegetables so for them it’s taking a lot of what they knew already about kabocha squash, or corn, or string beans and then formulating them with the flavor profiles of cheese and the difference salsas and spices and herbs to make it exciting.

I think what’s interesting is that they knew they could create a plant-based menu, but until they did it, there wasn’t proof. People always asked them “can you source vegetables year round for a product? locally? seasonally?” and their answer was “of course!” To show them Chaia has worked with a local organic farmers co-op, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, who grow a variety of beautiful organic vegetables year round, to create a menu. Working with the farmers co-op, Chaia gets a much broader selection of product than we might working with only one or two farmers individually.

Now that we’ve done this for an entire calendar year, we’ve realized that in our particular region it’s not that hard to create a menu around a growing schedule, especially since farmers today are constantly looking for ways to extend their growing seasons.

FT: Why did Bettina and Suzanne decide to start their taco business by setting up in the local farmers market circuit? 

AP: There are a couple of reasons the farmers market was a great starting point. One, there are barriers to starting a food business and many restaurants fail. And one of the ways to test the concept before you sign a lease, before you hire people, is to pop-up somewhere and see what people say about your product. 

The farmers market was the perfect place to do that. Our local organization that runs the biggest network of farmers markets here, called the FRESHFARM Markets, approached Bettina and Suzanne because of their blog and asked them to start doing seasonal vegetable cooking classes. So, they made veggie tacos and they were such a hit during these cooking classes that the following summer, in 2013, they decided to sell them.

I’d give it much more credit than a launching pad, but it has been a fantastic launching pad. To be part of a community that values fresh seasonal vegetables produced from local farmers means everything to us at Chaia and is definitely a customer base that would love our product - just a natural alignment. 

More than that, we’ve been able to get to know the farmers as well. The guy who we get our eggs from on Sunday markets, he’s in the stand right next to us. It’s great because we want them to be excited about our product and taste our food. That helps them better understand our needs and helps them support our business. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship being next to each other at markets. 

FT: It seems like Chaia has a great support system in D.C. 

AP: Yes, definitely. FRESHFARM Markets has been incredibly supportive and they have done whatever they can to support us and promote us.

Another great launching pad was being part of Union Kitchen, which is D.C.’s kitchen incubator. The concept of a kitchen incubator is providing affordable kitchen space plus some technical and assistance programming to help culinary entrepreneurs either launch or scale their businesses. The combination of having relatively affordable commercial kitchen space and then a community of like-minded culinary entrepreneurs I think has been super helpful.

What we love about the way that we started is that we’ve been a part of all different parts of our community. If you think about what is a local food economy today, kitchen incubators play a role, farmers markets play a role, local farmers play a role, and I would be curious to know how well we could do all of this without their presence and support. 

FT: What’s the deal with the microgreens that come on every taco?

AP: The microgreens started because Bettina and Suzanne wanted each taco trio to include a personal and hyper-local (we source our microgreens from Little Wild Things City Farm, an innovative sub-acre urban farm in Washington, DC) touch that they didn’t really see anywhere else and that reflected their home cooking - something that was natural, grows in the wild, and represents the beginning of the plant life cycle. They love how beautiful and nutrient dense they are, and believe they really enhance our tacos.

FT: As Chaia plans for the opening of its first shop later this summer are you hoping to incorporate any sustainable and/or green practices into the kitchen?

AP: We are hoping to continue to expand our sourcing practices and work with farmers to continue to improve their distribution and help meet our needs. So keeping very much a two-way communication with the organic farmers co-op about how we can best support each other.

We also have a very strict composting policy and we are working on a waste flow chart to even further minimize our waste. 

Chaia wants to be a part of transforming our food system by identifying ways within our business to make food healthier and more sustainable. Many of the leading public health issues today including climate change, environmental contamination, resource depletion and obesity have strong roots in largely industrialized food practices. We believe that offering a good food choice to people is the start to creating a better food system and changing, not only consumer, but business behavior. We’re trying to be intentional about a lot of the decisions we are making because we believe that there needs to be a better food system out there, and food businesses play a huge role. They’re the ones sourcing the food and interacting with customers. They can really be a platform for customers to understand where their food comes from, what are food labor practices, and what you can do to make the food system better - this gets to the inspired part of Chaia’s mission. Does that mean that you are inspired to cook more at home? Does that mean you now want to support Food Tank or local farmers or go to the farmers market more often? Does that mean you want to eat more plants? Great!

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