The “Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs” list serves to elevate awareness of the innovation, professionalism, competence and tenacity demonstrated by Native entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Native Business is rolling out profiles of these 50 Native entrepreneurs online, in no particular hierarchy, to document and memorialize their innovation and self-determination. The inaugural class of the Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs recognizes leaders across 13 business sectors, demonstrating the diversity of industries where Natives are making an impact. Among the entrepreneurs recognized in our Food sector is Thomas Begay.
Thomas Begay (Navajo, Hopi) had to overcome a series of logistical challenges to launch Chief Burgers, a gourmet burger and picadilly business on wheels, based in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation reservation. “We’re winning the trust of the people with the quality of the food and the quality of our service,” Begay told Native Business.
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.”
Eventually, he turned to microlenders. “The gist of all their statements was ‘no-capital for food truck start-ups,’” Begay said.
Left with little options, Begay turned to banks and credit unions to see if he could obtain a loan as a startup.
“Not being brick and mortar is one thing, but a startup 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 startup history was a common objection I was often confronted with,” Begay shared.
Ultimately, he needed to self-fund.
Grinding it out in the restaurant industry, Begay and his wife Kindra Begay (Navajo, Hopi) saved $15,000 to purchase an old FedEx truck to house Chief Burgers. (Kindra oversees marketing, customer service and sales for Chief Burgers.)
He took a job as a server at Applebee’s. “It was sustainable, earning about $200 per day in tips,” Begay said. 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.”
Begay has 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. They could plug-into an established growing network that allows for location-based alterations and additions, while practicing their sovereignty and independence,” he said.