If you go to the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sunday, you’ll see a line going all the way down the street. Once you get to the front of the line, a well oiled operation of handmade corn tortillas being pressed, filled with seasonal and local vegetables, and topped with homemade sauces and cheeses will overwhelm your senses.
You landed at Chaia, DC’s most celebrated and talked about taco. Finally, you can get your local, vegetarian taco any day- Chaia is set to have a brick and mortar home in Georgetown opening this month.
Spoon GW spoke to co-founder Suzanne Simon about her experience raising Chaia from a passion for cooking and the environment into a real restaurant operation.
Spoon: Were people doubtful of the tacos being solely vegetarian?
My daughter was very skeptical of the idea. She was certainly not the only one, because when we were opening 2 years ago, it was at a time people when people were starting to think about vegetarian food, but never exclusively vegetarian.
We committed to totally only offering a vegetarian version to something thats usually focused on meat. People were skeptical because they didn’t think that we would have the customer base beyond the vegetarians.
S: Where do you get your inspiration for your tacos from?
This weekend I was at the farmers market and one of our farmers stopped by and told me about this really cool green pole bean, and when I tried it, it actually reminded me of eating a cactus taco while traveling around Mexico.
We take some of our inspiration from our travels in Mexico, but that cactus taco didn’t make it into our shops, because cactus is not something we can get locally here. Trying that green pole bean was really interesting though, and I think we might experiment with that in our menu next. It would be a great local substitution for Mexican cactus.
S: What was the biggest challenge getting Chaia started?
I think one of the biggest challenges we had was trying to wrap our head around the idea of how and what kind of funding to procure. In the end after a lot of thought and consideration, we decided to do a hybrid of personal and outside investors. If you can find the right people to invest with who can bring something to the table, it can be a real life benefit, and not just be a negative impact of giving your business away.
S: What is your advice to entrepreneurs wanting to start their own restaurant?
I think that my advice is to follow your instincts and to take your time with what you’re developing. Don’t rush through the process, and don’t feel like you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. Since the food business is so high risk, testing your product and understanding your customer base is really key. We’ve learned so much from starting out at the farmers market.
Without understanding our customers it would have been a lot harder for us. There are so many demands in a brick and mortar space, and starting out on a pop-up scale is awesome because you get to test your product and aren’t tied to the financials.
S: What is your favorite restaurant in the DC area?
Probably the new restaurant over in Petworth, Crane and Turtle. I can’t decide on an all time favorite, but that’s definitely the best meal that I had recently. I also just love the restaurant, it’s super charming. It feels something a little bit more akin to a gem in New York rather than just a small restaurant. We are hoping the Chaia store will have a similar feel, that it’s cozy, and will feel crowded in a good way.
S: What are you most excited about for your store opening?
Not having to pack up all my stuff, and having everything in my own kitchen. We’ve been working out of a community kitchen for 2 years, and it’s not just our space. There is constant juggle in the kitchen. It’ll be really nice to be able to lock in and have all our deliveries at one place, and have everything coming in at one time. Right now I feel like I’m a college kid sharing a communal kitchen, and it’s just not the same like having your own space.
Chaia is set to open any day now, on 3207 Grace Street NW in Georgetown, D.C. and plans to serve lunch Tuesday-Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Spoon GW couldn’t be more excited to be able to eat a Chaia taco everyday, and not feel guilty at all about it.