Chief Burgers Founder on Perseverance and ‘Winning the Trust of the People’

Thomas Begay (Navajo, Hopi) and his wife Kendra Begay (Navajo, Hopi) saved $15,000 to purchase an old FedEx truck to house Chief Burgers, their gourmet burger and picadilly business on wheels, based in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation reservation.

Native Business Magazine spoke with Thomas Begay about overcoming logistical challenges to launch his business. The enterprising 30-year-old isn’t above dancing roadside and waving a sign to draw customers to his food truck. He’s that proud of his product.

“We’re winning the trust of the people with the quality of the food and the quality of our service,” Begay said.

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Begay graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2016 with degrees in management and marketing. Immediately after graduation, he struggled to land a job—so he looked to entrepreneurship. He took his detailed, 80-page business plan for a food truck business and began scouring for funding sources. He turned to the Navajo Nation, his local Veteran’s Affairs office, organizations near Window Rock, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Yet his applications for business loans were denied. “They wanted assets and three years of sales history and also projections. I had the projections, but I wasn’t in business long enough to secure funding,” he said. “I kept working on my budget, doing personal budget cuts.”

Ultimately, he needed to self-fund. “I knew the restaurant industry would take me,” he said.

He took a job as a server at Applebee’s.” It was sustainable, earning about $200 per day in tips.”

The vast majority of that money went toward Chief Burgers—outfitting the FedEx truck with cooking equipment, painting it and buying vendor space.

While high-quality, homemade burgers are the focus, his business actually began to soar when he introduced a novelty food from his youth. “We’re known for our fresh ingredients for our burgers; they’re fresh-pressed every day,” he said.

But Chief Burgers needed an edge. He started selling Picadillies. “Koolaid and pickles is one of my childhood favorites. It really took off and helped revive the Chief Burgers brand. Our picadillies are known for quality and attention to detail. They have to be picture-perfect and it has to look crazy. It never fails, the first thing people do is take a picture,” Begay said.

He added with confidence: “They’re not over-powering flavors. It’s perfectly balanced, and hard to replicate.”

Even in January, Chief Burgers was filling the parking lot with 20 to 30 cars at a time. “The trend was picking up; we were selling snowcones of pickles and Koolaid in 30-degree weather,” Begay said.

If Begay could boil his competitive advantage down to one word, it’s quality. “We provide honest service. Nowhere do we make shortcuts. We give you what you pay for—quality every time. Our cleanliness is unquestionable. We’ve really worked our way into the trust of the locals,” Begay said.

He’s encouraged customer loyalty through a rewards program. “When you earn enough points, you get a free picadilly or burger. The redemption codes are sent directly to customers’ phones,” Begay said.

Ultimately, Chief Burgers is a reflection of self-sovereignty, he emphasized. “It’s a Native brand. Chief Burgers is trademarked, patented and copyrighted by the Navajo Nation.”

But Begay has high-hopes for expansion. He hopes to bring in and set aside enough earnings to travel to pow wows, operating as a vendor across the country. He also envisions Chief Burgers locations across the country, with logos redesigned to reflect the tribe.

“I can tailor Chief Burgers’ logo to any state or to any tribe. My dream is to have a Chief Burgers not just on the western side of the Navajo Nation or one up in New Mexico, or one up in Monument Valley or Chinle or Ship Rock. I want to be in other tribes,” he said.

Begay hopes his commitment to quality and enterprising spirit will attract investors.

Meanwhile, he’s happy earning the loyalty of local customers, one by one.

His advice to hungry new entrepreneurs? 1) You can’t give up, no matter what obstacles you face. Stay with your dream, and hope persistence pays off. 2) Get your capital in order before jump off. Or you can wing it, and hope you make it!