Chaia stands out among the plethora of trendy Georgetown restaurants with its welcoming atmosphere, charming decor, and plant-based tacos that will convince you that meatless meals are worth a try (and worth repeating)! The brand started as a farmers’ market stand before setting up their first store in Georgetown in 2015. To celebrate Earth Day, Chaia returned to their roots by handing out tacos at Georgetown University’s own farmers’ market to spread the word about plant-based food. Among those bringing Chaia from Grace Street to Georgetown was Suzanne Simon, one of the brand’s co-founders. Suzanne sat down with Spoon Georgetown to chat about turning Chaia from a stand to a store, running a sustainable business, and prioritizing a love for food and farmers. 

Samantha Kim

Can you tell me how you got the idea for Chaia in the first place?

The idea for Chaia started from a personal desire for a product that was really playing off of what farmers were bringing to farmers' markets. At the time, my business partner Bettina Stern and I felt that there were a lot of people that were looking for ways to eat less meat and there were many people putting things on their menu just taking the meat off and making something without the meat. It was kind of boring. At the farmers' markets we were working with them doing some writing and some cooking, kind of how to shop and cook. We realized that there were all of these vegetables that farmers were bringing to the markets and people didn't know what to do with them, or they had never had a rainbow carrot or a golden beet. And so we thought we could play off of what the farmers are bringing to the market and have a product that supported all these different types of vegetables and tied it to broaden the landscape of eating, moving from just broccoli and carrots or something to just some more interesting options and interesting preparations.

I love that! I feel like as you said, a lot of people don't know what to do with all of the other vegetables that are out there. 

Or they haven't tried anything. For example, at the restaurant right now we have a sautéed cabbage taco and it's delicious and someone just came up to me and they said “Oh my god that cabbage taco was so good.” But I feel like cabbage is an inexpensive ingredient, it’s often available for many many months throughout the year, but in restaurants very few people put it on their menu. So, that was the idea behind it was we felt like we could really create a product that was economical for us and utilize a lot of these vegetables that have incredible shelf lives. I mean, cabbage doesn't go bad in your fridge so you can have it for a long time as opposed to seafood or chicken or something like that. To bring it full circle, that was part of our mission from a sustainability standpoint too. We really focus on not wasting food, how do we utilize everything in the kitchen, how do we use stems, how do we use leaves off of things. Focusing on this idea that having a variety of foods and a variety of crops that farmers are growing as opposed to just one particular item. And that's really important for soil health and farming health because if you're just putting one product in all of the time and then your soil lays dormant where there's no roots in it, there's no planting in it, then you’re not really capturing carbon that could actually be captured by the soil and it's a full cycle process. We were really looking at the business from that perspective of how do we create this relationship between food the environment and what we’re eating and try to get people to love the food and then bring on the messaging and get them then to learn the story.

What was it like going from being at the farmers’ market to becoming your own brand and full store?

It was exciting I have to say! When we started at the farmers' market we didn't know if we were going to have any customers. It was a niche, new, inventive product for sure but it was really exciting to watch the customer base grow. And then moving into Georgetown was such a great fit for us, we didn't realize how much the students were going to embrace it and love it and we didn't realize that students were looking for it. We thought we were coming in more for the residents and to bring something unique to Georgetown that often was thought of as not a cool and hip neighborhood, so we wanted to bring something cool and hip here. But it was the students really that kind of made it take off for us because we're right in the middle of Georgetown and GW and you guys are mindful eaters, you’re looking for healthy clean food so it really worked out well and I think that’s what’s exciting is to see this younger group of people really embracing the product and being excited about the product. 

Did you ever worry that it would be difficult to access people who might be skeptical about eating vegan or vegetarian food?

Yes, and that is why when we talk to our staff and we talk to our kitchen and we develop recipes, we always put forth before we put forward anything else related to the environment, or the fact that we’re women business owners, or any of that stuff, we always put forth the idea that the food has to be delicious and people have to not come in and miss the meat. Otherwise they don't come back, so the rest doesn't matter. We’re a restaurant first and foremost so we’re about serving delicious food and giving people a hospitable experience first. And then all of the rest of the environment, the sustainability portion, the women-owned, all of that comes after. But it's the food that really has to be important. I feel like people are willing to try it and they’re willing to come again as long as it tastes delicious and they feel full, they’re not feeling like they had a vegetarian meal that had no substance to it or something.

Can you talk a little bit about the process for developing recipes?

We typically start with a seasonality calendar and we look at what’s available and then we kind of map out what we think we’ll be able to do for the year. We tried to create a calendar based on vegetables and then from there what we did at the farmers' market was we developed recipes around that. Then we tested those recipes with our customers and then decided whether they were going to be part of our permanent menu or not, so that permanent rotation. It’s kind of that same process today. We’ll look at the seasonality of items, we’ll look at the vegetables people love and people would like to see more of on our menu, and then we try to create something that tastes delicious and is on brand, again that feels like you're full, that you don’t just have to be a vegetarian to eat it. We also do some testing within our restaurant and we also have some ambassadors who work for us so often we’ll call them in and ask them to give us feedback on things before we put them on the menu. 

Do you have ambassadors at Georgetown, GW, local schools?

Yes we have ambassadors at Georgetown, we have ambassadors at GW, and then we have some ambassadors at our third location over in Bethesda. Those are high school students because there’s no college there so it's like they’re responsible, they're our eyes and ears within the high school crowd and trying to entice their families into the restaurant and trying it.

Starting the business, were you and your business partner were already friends?

We were friends correct, but we met over food. We met because my business partner had a cookbook club which was actually very similar to a reading club except you cooked out of a book for a month then you got together and had a meal and everyone made something different and we talked about the recipes, the challenges, and the perspectives of the books and it was actually a really great way to learn to cook lots of types of food because we did a lot of ethnic cookbooks and vegetarian and lots of different stuff. So we met within that club and then we realized that we both had this passion for sustainable eating and vegetables and we came up with the concept by deciding to work together and doing some writing and catering with the farmers' markets.

Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in getting into the food or restaurant business? 

If they're coming at it as an entrepreneur I would definitely say finding a space where you can test your product instead of just opening up something where you're paying rent and you have a lot of overhead. That’s the great thing about a farmers' market or a great thing about festivals or even online, you can try to sell something without the brick and mortar space first and try to find your customer base and then really tapping into them, finding out what they love about your product, what they don't love. You always don't want positive feedback, you do want negative feedback because that's really how you find out ways to develop your product for everyone. That was really an important lesson for us initially when we went into the farmers' market. As great as it was to hear people say "Oh this is so delicious," we really needed that negative feedback because we eventually knew we wanted to move from the farmers' market to a scalable model in different locations and once we left the farmers market, how were we going to get people who didn't love vegetables or maybe didn't know vegetables to come and visit us. And so that negative feedback helped us broaden our product and figure out our messaging. Coming at it from another perspective of hospitality or working in a restaurant and not necessarily being an owner or a founder, I would say that if you have a mission that you're interested in, try to tap into it that way. Hospitality is the same way, if you have a brand that you love and you love what they stand for then try to find like brands like that to work for.

Samantha Kim

Were you inspired by any other brands or restaurants in the area when you started?

We were friends with the Sweetgreen founders, so we knew what they were doing and loved what they were doing, so I will say they were definitely inspiration for us. But again, I feel like our inspiration really came from the farmers at the farmers' market because we cant think of food as this isolated thing we just eat, we really need to think about it how it's all connected. I think when you’re a company like ours and you can actually create a product based on the ingredients that are sitting right next to you at a table from a farmer it really visualizes that connection for people and that is what we were trying to do from that start and that's still what we’re trying to do today. 

Were you ever intimidated by trying to create a sustainable business?

It is hard. That's because oftentimes for businesses, environmental choices are hard and cost more than choices or options that are not sustainable options. But we’re really passionate and feel very strongly about that the more businesses that evolve and can lead the path, the more economical things will become. For example, organic used to be really expensive and thanks to Alice Waters and amazing people within the organic movement, now you see it in Walmart and lots of different places and it just shows you that when you start building things in economies of scale and reaching more people, it actually lowers the cost. So, if more restaurants and more businesses start thinking about sustainability and how they can have sustainable products and pay their employees well, all of this matters. It’s not just the food, it's like the whole culture of the company has to do with sustainability. Then we can all start making adjustments and hopefully it becomes an economical decision that works for a business and not something that has to be a challenge for a business. 

I think that's so important because I think that people see sustainability in the short term and don't think of how the whole movement is for the better in the long term.

Yes, and even thinking about paying employees, if you treat your employees well and you pay them well, you have them for a long time. If you don't treat your employees well and you don't pay them well, they tend to move on and that costs businesses a lot. So maybe in the long run you're paying them more, but in the short term if you always have turnover and you have to rehire and retrain, you actually end up paying more and it's harder on the business than it is to have longevity in your employees. When I think about sustainability I don't just think about it as sourcing from local farmers. I think about it as sourcing from local farmers, how can we maintain a very healthy kitchen and staff, how do we maintain a healthy location and what our businesses feel like when you walk in. All of these things matter and they all are connected and they all relate to sustainability and making investments into your business that last a long time as opposed to not making the investment and trying to do something just to get by. Then you end up actually probably doing more that costs the business more in the long run. 

Speaking of the long run, do you have any plans coming up for the brand?

Yes, we just opened a third location in Bethesda and we’re a scalable model so we have locations for about two more in DC, we feel like maybe one in Virginia, and we’re really excited about maybe continuing to expand our footprint here in this area and then even beyond. And honestly we talk a lot about expanding in an untraditional way. Not just to the coasts or the big cities, but how can we continue this love that we have for the students and the love that they have for our product and maybe take Chaia to more universities to expand as opposed to just to urban centers. 

Were you always plant-based before starting Chaia or was it a journey?

I have been a vegan vegetarian– I mean I eat a lot of vegan food, I eat a lot of vegetarian food, for probably over 15 years so way before I started Chaia. Not for necessarily ethical reasons, I tend to just like eating vegetables and I like to eat less dairy and it’s just the way I like to eat. I was kind of familiar with what was out there when we started Chaia and the options and like I said, I just felt like they were not that exciting and I felt that they could be.

I think it’s inspiring to hear that you can be plant-based for so long because I feel like a lot of people are intimidated by trying to switch lifestyles. But, it’s obviously going well so that’s good to hear!

And again, you don’t even have to switch lifestyles because to make the impact, it's really more about all people learning to eat less meat one or two meatless meals a week. If you ate one meatless meal a day, that’s what makes the huge impact. I think that’s where it becomes really exciting and really good for the planet is just to make those simple modifications. And then again, we’re very much about knowing where your food comes from and meat is one of those products that the more you know about where it comes from, the more you want to make choices that you know where the animals are being raised properly, or organic starts to matter for you, or grass-fed or all of these terms that we see and really understanding them and then making those choices for yourself is where we start to also see real difference. Because it’s not just about not eating meat, it’s really about the industrial side of food and making societal shifts that move away from that and trying to take you back more to farming and vegetables and crop rotation and treating animals kindly, but I think we lost a little bit of that with technology. 

Is there any one message you would want to give to Georgetown students about Chaia to get them interested in the brand?

I think you can change the world one taco at a time right? 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.