Blending into a perfect fusion between the local farming community and the urban street food scene, Chaia's farm-to-taco eatery has swept through the streets of DC in a tomatillo-flavored frenzy. Having finally landed at their brick and mortar restaurant in Georgetown, co-owners Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon are excited to be continuing what has been a long and influential journey in the culinary world. Not only have they managed to share the culinary culture of Mexico beyond the scope of their homes, but they have also maintained strong ties to the local farming community even after expanding past the farmer's markets. Bettina took some time to chat with Locals about their company's evolution and some more of their goals as their company continues to gain traction within the DC community. Chaia often chooses to partner with female entrepreneurs and works continually to educate the public about ending food waste. With a strong initiative to support local farmers and teach the community about better eating habits, Chaia has become a champion for the food community in a way that promotes the ideals of local food in the most delicious ways!
Where does the name Chaia come from?
Chaia is a derivation of “Chaya,” a Mayan tree leaf similar to spinach, and means “life-giving”. We love the energy of the word and thus, named the company Chaia after our experiences cooking with ‘chaya’ (the plant) in Tulum, Mexico.
Can you talk a little bit about how you started your "farm-to-taco" stand? How did your background influence your interest in creating a sustainable business model with principles to match?
The company was started by Suzanne Simon and I who were food writers and educators for many years before founding the business at DC’s FRESHFARM markets. Chaia "farm to taco" is a unique relationship between farmers and urban street-style food. Our menus are always changing and based on what is growing locally and within our regional food shed. We founded our company in 2013 as a pop-up farmers market stand to test our concept. As we grow, Chaia continues to attract thousands of new customers, prepare recipes based on ingredients sourced from local and regional farms, support charity and community and create an unprecedented product that is healthy, delicious, beautiful and sustainable.
How did you and Suzanne decide that one of the central focuses for your Farmers Market stand and subsequent restaurant would be incorporating locally sourced ingredients in the food you serve?
Within weeks of our first Farmers Market pop-up, we knew our concept “had legs.” Initially unsure that consumers would be excited about seasonal vegetable tacos, we were delighted to be named “one of DC’s top tastemakers.” When you eat food in season, you’re eating it at the peak of flavor. It’s also more affordable because it’s in abundance. Once we got through an entire year’s worth of serving locally-grown produce outside under our white 10 x 10 tent, we knew we had to begin to build out our business plan and open up the first brick and mortar. We opened our doors in Georgetown in November 2015.
I would like to see a farm bill that better supports the small-scale farmer: those folks growing human-consumption crops, not the commodity crops. Also an ecologically focused Organic Foods Production Act that would help support organic farmers. Chaia sources its ingredients from a variety of local farms. Tuscarora Organic Growers, Keany Produce, Coastal Sunbelt Produce, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and Little Wild Things City Farm provide us a majority of our ingredients. We encourage team members to familiarize themselves with each of the above suppliers. Chaia crafts new menus every few weeks depending on what produce is currently in season.
What has been the most surprising part of your company's evolution?
I’ve been asked before if any of our investors balked at the idea of a socially responsible, triple-bottom line taco shop? Quite the opposite, it actually made several PE advisors more excited about our venture, as they realized the model is attractive to consumers that fit our demographic.
How do you feel that your interest in being a part of a smaller local community of food production has influenced your business practices? Do you hope to expand beyond your current status?
Absolutely our aim is to grow and expand our reach! Chaia is aiming to be on the right side of change by creating a better food system: combining local sourcing with good business practices. We partner with local farms and local producers to source our vegetables, our beverages (alcoholic and non-) and other ingredients. Our goal is to be a triple-bottom line mission (people, planet, profit). At this point, that’s akin to patient capitalism, but we believe - as do our strategic investors - that this model has a far-reach because today’s consumer is hungry and willing to support doing the right thing.
What do you consider the role of restaurants like Chaia is in helping end food insecurity?
To be completely frank, fighting food insecurity is not something we are tackling as a triple-bottom line business. If serving a vegetarian diet can play a role in making seasonal foods more accessible and inviting to people, then that’s our role here.
Instead, Chaia is aiming to help people change their eating habits, if even just when they are in our shop. If you want to save the environment, then eat more plants. Meat is a very carbon-intensive commodity. Ditching meat is more important that buying local. Meat production requires so much water it’s hard to fathom. One pound of potatoes takes 99.6% less water to produce than a pound of beef and 97% less than a pound of chicken. Our restaurant Chaia is 100% plant-based.
About one-third of all food produced around the world is lost or wasted in food production -about $3Trillion dollars worth. In calories worth, that means about 1 in 4 calories intended for human consumption that goes to waste. In the US, organic waste is the second highest component of landfills, which are the largest source of methane emissions. Methane is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Food waste that goes to landfills breaks down anaerobically and produces methane gases. Environmentally, Chaia focuses on local ingredients for sustainability reasons, but everything in our shop - from the food to the plates, cups and forks - is compostable. Anything we hand to our customers is meant to be discarded in our shop’s waste bins where we have it picked up and transported to an industrial composting facility in Prince Georges County.
What do you think the role of the consumer is in enacting more meaningful change in the food industry (in order to create a more sustainable model for the future)?
As eaters and consumers, we can do a LOT to change the situation. Food waste is a solvable problem. Chaia is making every effort to do our part to help save the planet.
As the demand for sustainable food options continues to grow, especially in places like DC, what are some of your goals for Chaia in the near future?
Chaia is a female-powered fast casual. We are a women-owned business and we make an effort to partner with a majority of other female entrepreneurs and business owners. Even our restaurant space and menu boards were designed by a local female architect, and other touches were created by a female graphic design team. This is a choice we will continue to make as we grow our brand.