Chief Burgers: Tribes Need to Support Original Concepts

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.

Thomas Begay (Navajo, Hopi) 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. Ultimately, he needed to self-fund. 

Grinding it out in the restaurant industry, Begay 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 spoke with Thomas Begay (pre-pandemic) about overcoming logistical challenges to bring his original vision to life. We asked him 10 questions about funding his business. 

READ MORE: Meet Thomas Begay, Founder of Chief Burgers & a Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs Honoree 

1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it?  

The initial budget was written considering that more than likely it was going to be fully-funded with a small business loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration. (SBA). It turns out that food truck start-up isn’t on their list.

 2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business?

I turned to crowd sourcing on Kickstarter, because I thought everyone would be like “oh yeah, a native-themed branded gourmet burger truck would be really cool,” but I failed to get any support. 

The initial budget had to be re-written for a lesser amount, possibly increasing the likelihood of getting funded by the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development (NNDED) Fort Defiance Business Development Office. 

At this point I turned to supposed micro-lenders online like: Kiva, Kabbage, Finance Factory, etcetera. The gist of all their statements was “no-capital for food truck start-ups.”

Left with little options I turned to Banks and Credit Unions to see if there were any “yes’s available” for start-up brands. So, I re-write the budget again, for functionality this time, and an entirely different pitch. 

I did make a few more runs at NNDED after we opened to see if we could upgrade from functionality. I had some exchanges with the CEO, which ended with a soft handoff to a Navajo Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) loan officer. 

Not being brick & mortar is one thing, but a start-up that most envision as a taco truck, let alone trying to sell the idea of getting a slice of the burger industry; people think it’s crazy or disruptive. Lack of business start-up history was a common objection I was often confronted with.

READ MORE: Chief Burgers Founder on Perseverance and ‘Winning the Trust of the People

3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs? 

I was aware of the some Native CDFIs for the Hopi and other tribes in southern Arizona, which I learned of in school. I looked up some online, but couldn’t get any momentum, exchanged a few emails. Other than the promising lead from the NNDED, I felt that CDFI’s weren’t accessible to me. 

4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your tribe? 

Nothing like mentorships or incubator programs exist in the Window Rock area, other than Indigehub, which is a nonprofit organization that provides basic business infrastructural needs.

5) Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital? 

Yes, I feel that I have had adequate training and experience to equip me with an understanding on how to access capital. Like pitching to investors is one thing I’ve considered; but forming a board or emplacing the right management team is an entirely different set of questions that I wouldn’t have the answers to.

6) What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding path would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs?

Self-funded was the only option we were left with. I would recommend taking advantage of every opportunity to help with your business. What’s the worst that could happen? They say “no.” But you will never know unless you ask the question. No answer is ever set in stone, breathe outside the box and make impossible possible. Knowing what I know now, I should’ve asked for a little more; because if I knew I was going to be broke the first few months, it would’ve cushioned the blow. 

7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur?

It gives you not only an opportunity to exchange ideas, and to refine and align your brand to be truly unique. It re-enforces your beliefs in the possibilities that could be, or [perhaps the] market research is invalid, and the business consultant is right that it’s pointless to burn money. 

Like John Heywood says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I am patiently working on building a brand that says we the Indigenous people have game in the food industry too. For the Chief Burgers brand, I envision it empowering others. They could plug-into an established growing network that allows for location-based alterations and additions, while practicing their sovereignty and independence.  

8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business? 

Gaining access to capital is still an option that’s been recently discussed; I’ve been looking into grants for incubator programs, and am not up for the idea of digging the debt pit deeper. Other than working side jobs to sustain our business, we’ve put profits aside to make some upgrades. We’re considering selling branded clothing on our days off to help with other necessary equipment upgrades and repair costs. If we sell it right, we’ll be able to scale up to new key markets we believe should bring brand awareness to new levels, and possibly growth and expansion. I am cautious on growing and expanding too quickly, I am aware of the potential of brand equity and proprietary secrets the can be replicated. I have some ideas on how to set it up, but lack the experience on what would be the best option worth capital. 

9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses? 

Have everything in order, an executable plan, realistic projections, entrant/exit and competitive strategies; remember you’re making a deal and not just pitching. If you find yourself asking for startup capital, do submit everything they ask for and be quick to resolve any issues that may arise. If all else fails, get creative if you’re determined try to find your way. 

10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs? 

Rather than creating barriers and resisting changes that are different, we should embrace those that are challenging the norms and creating new original concepts. I see a supporting trend for the new big name franchises establishing and monopolizing across the rez; like a new dollar store every 30 miles, or how one town has a McDonald’s and no competition, and in another town there is a BK, but no competition. After a while, your taste turns sour from having the same thing and same service; it gets old fast. I moved back in the spring of 2016 and by mid-summer wasn’t satisfied with the eating options, let alone the freshness of the foods. In conclusion, we should not forget about those who are creating and shaping inspiration in the world around us, but help and support them.

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