Suzanne Simon, along with friend and business partner Bettina Stern, has co-founded one of the most popular stands at Washington, D.C. farmers markets, including Georgetown’s own, and is currently in the process of opening up an inaugural restaurant in Georgetown.
Chaia’s fresh, farm-to-table vegetarian tacos have become so popular with the community that a transition from temporary market stand to permanent restaurant is not surprising.
Can you talk about how everything got started? How did you and Bettina meet and then get to the point where you decided to start Chaia?
Bettina and I met at a cocktail party, having a conversation about the food on the table, of course. We both were home cooks, and were in a cookbook club together. We had an idea for a blog where we worked with farmers markets and we did food writing for the markets. We became very interested in farmers and what they were growing locally. We also just started to notice that the quality of the vegetables that we could get at these markets was just so superior compared to grocery stores. We found that it was easier to cook with these fresh ingredients than it was to try to create something out of a vegetable that’s not in season because then you have to work harder to make it taste good.
We worked with the farmers markets as bloggers and writers for a while. I went to cooking school in Mexico and learned how to make corn tortillas from scratch and just thought they were the best thing. We just had this idea for combining fresh vegetables we love with the tortillas and creating tacos. We first did this through cooking classes that we taught, and all the students loved them so much, we decided to try it as a business model.
Where does the name Chaia come from?
Chaia is a mix between the word chaya, which is a Mayan leafy green, and the name chaia, which is a word that means “life.” So, we tried to blend these two concepts together because we wanted something that represented the vegetables we use, but also something that means life and good health.
Why is having good vegetarian alternatives important?
I think having a vegetarian option is important because I think people are actually very interested in eating more vegetables, and there are a lot of people out there who are not even necessarily vegetarian or vegan, but they just don’t want to eat meat for every single meal. So it’s an option that certainly fills a void in the food landscape, where it’s either you eat something with meat or you have a salad. And so, we’ve come up with something else.
What would you say to people who think vegetables or vegetarian options aren’t flavorful?
If the food is boring, or it’s not flavorful, I would say that they’re doing it wrong. If you’re using fresh vegetables, you can’t go wrong. Of course, olive oil, salt, herbs, our sauces — they’re all key ingredients in our products. But the other thing with vegetarian food is a lot of it depends on soy or fake meat products, and our concept isn’t that.
Can you talk about exactly what farm-to-table is, and why it’s important in your food?
Farm-to-table is definitely a growing trend, and I think what people are realizing is that it’s so much easier to buy something when it’s fresh, when it’s at its peak, and cook with it because you have to do so little to it. So, there’s a flavor component to farm-to-table, and also a push for local farming, rather than industrial farms where they’re only producing one crop. This has enabled small famers to grow their businesses. As part of farm-to-table, the importance of it is working with your local farmers to build up your community and to build up your economy because that’s what it does. The big farms that grow only one crop do not help with building the community or local economy like small farmers do.
Which is your favorite taco that you’ve created?
I’m really liking the taco that we just created with a local blogger. It’s a five-green taco, so it has turnip greens, spinach, kale, collards and mustard greens. And then we mix that with a smoky paprika and red pepper, so it’s kind of spicy and just delicious.
How did you make the decision to actually start your own restaurant and what advice would you give to others in your position?
Actually, the transition between farmers markets and restaurant was not a difficult transition for us. We started at the farmers market and we really have outgrown our operation, so we wanted our own space. To us it seems like a very natural progression.
I would say to people who are interested in doing a food concept — find a way to test your market, and not just as a pop-up here and there because you won’t really get a sense of it, but really as an ongoing business as much as you can on a daily basis because then you really start to understand just how much work it is. You learn how to source ingredients, who your customers are and how you want to treat your customers, what attention to details you want to make — so, by giving yourself a fair amount of time to test that, the easier and less risky your transition will be to a more permanent business.
When will your new restaurant be opening and what can Georgetown students in particular have to look forward to?
Our new store is opening summer 2015, so ready for when all of the students come back in the fall. We’ll give our students the same happy hour special, so we hope everyone will come!
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