By Carolyn Neff
A new takeout-only restaurant in Oakland, California, opened last month, featuring unique cuisine from Côte d’Ivoire. Bursting with flavors and nutritious grains that are unfamiliar to most Americans, Alloko Garden offers Ivorian comfort food that just happens to be entirely and naturally gluten free. While focusing on local delivery for now, the company is eyeing larger markets.
Owner Gnakouri Tohouri has come to this point in his life from a different angle. Following a rural background farming cocoa, coffee and produce alongside his large family in the south of Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, he obtained an MBA from the University of Chicago and spent the next couple decades as an investment banker and entrepreneur. Tohouri has long been looking to revitalize communities of his youth in Côte d’Ivoire. His solution? Empower African farmers to have a sustainable income by importing naturally gluten-free grains, like the Ivorian staple fonio, into mainstream markets.
The culinary creation that is now Alloko Garden in Oakland has tested Tohouri’s business experience. The restaurant conception phase took nearly three years across several channels, from cooking for Google employees and guest lecturing at Stanford, to tasting events with the celiac community and selling packaged grains on Amazon. The experiences and taste tests brought in valuable community feedback.
This year, perhaps more than ever, has seen people turning to online delivery. ”People don’t cook,” said Tohouri. “Even if they like the product, they want something easy and delicious.” Early Uber Eats reviews laud Alloko Garden’s offerings as fresh, healthy and tasty, of excellent value, with good portions that are nicely presented in sustainable packaging, and delivered quickly and reliably at the perfect temperature.
Move over, quinoa, here come fonio and attiéké
Unique products to the Ivory Coast, the stars of the restaurant are two naturally gluten-free grains, fonio and attiéké, that are rich in fiber, potassium and amino acids. Alloko Garden aims to take these grains mainstream, as they are also “a great choice for people who have constraints in diet,” said Tohouri.
Fonio is a nutty grain featured in Alloko Garden’s main dishes—including warmed fonio with cheese, avocado and chicken, something Tohouri calls “ridiculously good”—as well as a stand-alone side such as fonio pudding mixed with baobab. Alloko Garden features descriptions of lesser-known ingredients like baobab, a fruit, on its website.
Attiéké can take the place of rice or pasta, and pairs well with fish and meat. Made from cassava root (yuca), this fermented couscous-like grain is grated much like cheese, fermented for 72 hours, pressed into a paste, and then sun-dried into rice-like grains and steamed. “This soft process is a learned process,” says Tohouri.
Flavorful fried plantains instead of French fries
The hallmark dish on the restaurant’s menu is Alloko, an Ivorian delicacy of fried plantains served with a spicy sauce. The flavor of plantains, much like a potato, depends on how you cut and prepare it.
“Home fries are different than French fries,” explained Tohouri. For the staple Alloko dish, the sauce makes the difference, starring chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes and additional herbs and spices.
With the Alloko Garden operation just launched, the menu remains heavily meat and fish focused, with a planned “vegan paradise” launch to follow soon, including a vegan bowl. Tohouri is putting the processes in place to achieve rigorous gluten-free certification. The kitchen is not shared and is filled with 100% naturally gluten-free grains, spices and fresh ingredients. Individual products are tested as well to ensure no cross contact.
Local delivery and plans to expand
Tohouri has big ambitions for Alloko Garden, including seeking opportunities to partner with well-established global grab-and-go chains as well as independent supermarkets in the Bay Area. The restaurant will also be giving more demos, providing taste-testing at local Alameda and Oakland farmers markets, and is planning to offer a frozen meal option in the future.
For now, Tohouri is focused on expanding the community reach of Alloko Garden and formalizing the processes to execute in short times. “An Uber Eats order comes in and you have 15 minutes to fulfill it—well,” he said.
As the orange, green and white logo symbolizes, Alloko Garden combines the unique Ivorian aspect of culture and cuisine. With two sticks intertwined, the logo plays with the Ivory Coast tradition of communicating with drums.
“Special sticks are used to beat the drum,” explained Tohouri. “The drumsticks are a signal that we are opening the world to the Ivory Coast food scene.”
Order directly from their menu, available via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats.