For our latest interview in our continuing series with tastemakers, thought leaders and conscious culture innovators, we sat down with Ariel Pasternak of Chaia Tacos. Currently working to help turn Chaia Tacos into a national obsession, Ariel has dedicated her life to doing good. Read our interview below to learn more about one of Washington D.C.'s most innovative food companies and how locally sourced vegetarian tacos are taking the city by storm. Hungry yet? Us too.
Row + Rue (R+R): Let's get right to the good stuff... Tacos! For the past two years you've headed up Chaia Tacos branding and biz development. But this isn't your ordinary taco stand. Chaia serves up farm to table vibrant seasonal vegetarian taco trios. Everything on your tacos is vegetarian, local (nearly) and super healthy. Best of all, they are delicious? Is Chaia the new Sweet Green of Tacos!?
Wow - what a compliment to be compared to Sweetgreen! We love their product and really admire how they’ve built their business and hope to create a company that is just as successful one day.
For all of us at Chaia, our business means more to us than just selling delicious, healthy tacos. 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. Businesses like ours purchase so much food and interact with so many customers that we can really be a platform for customers to understand where their food comes from, what current food labor practices are, how they can be improved, and what they can do to make the food system better.
R+R: How farm to table are Chaia tacos really? Do you know the farmers? Are they all within 100 miles from D.C.?
Yes, we do know our farmers. In fact, our founders Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon recently spent a day at New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania with one of our main vegetable suppliers, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (TOG), and had lunch with many of their producers. Ever since Chaia started in farmers markets, it was our vision to build a company that was rooted in best practices for sourcing vegetables locally and year-round. For example, about six months ago we started ‘hyper-locally’ sourcing all of our microgreens (a signature element of our tacos) from Little Wild Things City Farm, a woman-owned sub-acre urban farm right here in Northwest Washington DC and only 2 miles from our farmers market stands!
R+R: NPR recently wrote an article that while local food is still a niche, a study finds that 90% of America could be fed from farms within 100 miles of them. Do you see this as a possibility?
We definitely see local food becoming more popular in DC whether it's chefs supporting local farms or people shopping farmers markets more and more. Organizations like FreshFarm Markets--DC's largest farmers market network--and Think Local First DC have done an amazing job raising awareness and bringing opportunities to buy local food.
R+R: You now have a home at Union Kitchen in D.C. What's next?
What's next is our first shop on Grace Street in Georgetown! It’s a beautiful, historic carriage house to which we’re adding a kitchen and more restaurant-y features. Otherwise, we are keeping the exposed brick and wooden-beamed ceiling--some of the details that made us fall in love with the property in the first place. What I’m most excited for is our expanded menu--we’ll have 5 tacos at any one time, seasonal, plant-based sides, organic coffee + tea, wine, beer and natural drinks.
R+R: You've always worked in/for progressive socially responsibly companies/fields. Before Chaia you worked for BeeSpace, a nonprofit incubator, helping to identify and launch the next generation of innovation nonprofits. Before that you worked at the White House Council on environmental policy. What got you interested in working on social good and environmental causes?
I’m Jewish and so growing up my parents and community leaders always talked about ‘tikkun olam’--which means ‘repairing the world’ in Hebrew. I was raised with the notion that I had a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. In light of that, I think the real ‘aha moment’ was when I was sitting in my Environmental Science class in high school and we were learning about landfills and how massive and problematic they are, especially as our population keeps getting bigger and we continue consuming more. Humans creating tons of trash seemed like a problem that was solvable, as long as we as people (and governments) decided to do something about it. So from then on I was committed to figuring out how we could ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’
R+R: Chaia is based in D.C., which gets a bad rap as a city for being stodgy and too political. But the reality is that the food scene in D.C. is exploding. When you're not eating locally grown Chaia tacos, where are you going out to eat?
The DC food scene today is unrecognizable from what it was 2 years ago, let alone 10 years ago when I first moved here from San Francisco--and I can't tell you how happy that makes me. There are so many great neighborhood spots opening up across the city. Currently, I love going out to Maketto, a new-ish retail space/restaurant/cafe mash-up that has amazing Cambodian food and legit matcha lattes. I also love this new restaurant across the street from Maketto called Sally’s Middle Name--it was started by a young husband-wife team and their smalls plates are filled with delicious seasonal veggies and fruits that are grilled, pickled, fried etc with all sorts of goodness. Finally, 2 Amy’s Neapolitan Pizzeria is my go-to spot. I have been going there religiously for the last 10 years because they have the best Margherita pizza that I’ve ever had--even better than in Italy!
R+R: You're headed to DuPont farmers market to source ingredients for the week before heading to brunch with friends. What is your go to outfit? And what pieces from Modavanti make that outfit happen?
The farmers market is my ultimate happy place. It’s truly a watering hole for food folks in DC, and I love catching up with friends new and old. When I work our market stand, I’m wearing denim cut-offs, a black tee shirt and comfy sneaks! If I’m not working, I like to throw on a pair of overalls and wear my Cotelac mule sandals.
R+R: Modavanti developed a badge system to codify the various components of sustainability. Which ones are most important to you and how you live your life, how you shop and what you care about most? (They are: Organic, Fair Trade, Artisan Made, Made in USA, Recycled, Eco Friendly, Vegan, Zero Waste)
I definitely look for the Organic label wherever possible (or sometimes I buy from farmers who aren’t technically certified organic but use sustainable practices). I seek out Fair Trade products when I’m buying my coffee, quinoa and other bulk goods that are imported from abroad. I’m becoming much more interested in Zero Waste--the blog Trash is for Tossers totally inspires me and makes me want to be a more resourceful/less wasteful consumer!