It started with a welfare check and a dream.
In the late 1980s Willie Parry was pumping gas when he had a revelation.
“I was on welfare,” said Parry, founder of Wolf’s Run, a restaurant, smoke shop, gas station and grocery on the Seneca reservation in western New York State. “I worked for this one business down the road and I figured out while working there that I could do it myself and make a living.”
He convinced a company by the name of Shorts Oil to front him a load of gas, scraped together enough money to buy two 5,000-gallon tanks and a dispenser tank, and started pumping.
“I used to have to take my records to welfare every month to show them that I wasn’t making any money,” Parry, now 57, told Native Business. “All the profits I dumped back into the business.”
Seven months later, he was making enough to get off welfare, and “I haven’t had to be on it since,” he said.
That was in 1988, when Parry was 27. Three years later, Sally Snow entered his life — and the business. Since then, it has grown to a 50-seat restaurant, a grocery store, a fuel station, store selling Native crafts, and a trucking operation. They put on events and an annual customer appreciation day, awarding prizes as lavish as trips to Hawaii and featuring motorcycle stunt shows. The couple has also expanded to other locations, and is building a new, replacement restaurant on the current property.
A Day in the Life
A typical day will see workers from the Seneca Nation administrative offices next door, which employs 400 people; frequenters of the nearby community center, where people work out, swim, play lacrosse and skate; and elders from the old-age facility down the street. People buying gas pop in for home-cooked sandwiches, pizza or the daily special. Native dishes such as traditional corn soup — made with corn grown by Willy himself, as part of a Seneca Nation program — and fry bread are also on the menu.
The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., though it can go as late as 11 on summer weekends. One of the 25 employees will open up, then Parry heads over at around 7. Breakfast is relatively slow, especially now that there’s a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, a McDonald’s and a Burger King each 10 minutes away.
“Lunch hours are our best time of the day,” said Snow, adding that customers have become friends.
“We go and we’ll sit and have lunch or breakfast or supper with a customer when they come in,” she said. “We’ve got our own little crew that comes in and eats every day. We used to get a lot of the elders in; they would ride their wheelchairs to the restaurant.”
As the business evolved, each phase revealed what the next one could be.
Both were divorced. Parry was raising two children, and Snow, a heavy-equipment operator, had three. They glued the families together, a la the Brady Bunch, and moved in together. She continued to work at her construction job at first, but eventually the constantly dirty fingernails and greasy pants got to Parry.
“I came home from work one day and he said, ‘Quit that job. I don’t want you working,’ ” Snow said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘But I like it.’ ” She capitulated on one condition. “I said, ‘Well, build me a store then.’ ”
Snow had moved in with her kitchen equipment as well as her children. So she began to cook.
“I used my stove for the pizza, and my toaster, my blender, anything I had in my house,” Snow said. “We were the only place to eat in town. Back in the day when we first opened the restaurant, it was packed all the time. People used to get mad because they had to wait in line to get something to eat.”
It didn’t hurt that Snow’s mother was known for her homemade pies — and had just lost her job.
“We put her to work with us,” said Snow. “We worked long, hard hours every day feeding people — our own people. It was basically Native customers.”
From there, the business seemed to grow of its own volition.
“Every time we made more money we made it bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Snow. “One day I said, ‘Let’s start selling some groceries in here.’ ”
They would load the children — aged 2, 4, 6, 9 and 11 — into the family van, drive to BJ’s Club, and fill up with toilet paper, dish soap, paper towels and diapers. It was bootstrapping all the way.
“We had them on a milk crate and used a bungee cord for the seatbelt,” said Snow of the children. “I look back on it now and think, I had to have been nuts. We worked all the time. We were always at the store. The kids would come home from school, they’d come to the store, and we’d feed them at the store.”
The children are grown now, ranging in age from 28 to 38, and have kids of their own. The Snow-Parrys have 17 grandchildren.
Once the Wolf’s Run restaurant was launched, customers arrived asking to sell their handmade wares.
“We’d get people from all over the country that would be traveling through, and they’d be looking for somewhere to sell their dream catchers, their moccasins, their beaded work — so we started putting some of that stuff in, and now we have just a regular gift shop,” said Snow. “I’d get women on the reservation who would be learning how to make a traditional basket, and they’d come and say ‘I made this basket, I want to sell it.’ Or earrings, or cornhusk dolls — we have a whole assortment of Native things in there.”
But that wasn’t enough either. In 1997 the couple started a trucking company after Parry got the idea to haul his own gas.
“He wanted to drive a semi,” Snow said.
“It took me five months to buy my own truck, buy my own trailer, get the insurance I needed and licenses and permits, and get my account at a refinery,” Parry said. He started it with $20,000 from the store business. Now he delivers to the stations in four surrounding territories. “I got rid of the middleman and became one.”
In 2015 the couple built a truck stop and restaurant right off of I-86 and Route 219, on another Seneca territory.
“We had pretty much tapped out at Wolf’s Run and the trucking company,” said Snow. “We got bored.”
Customer Is King
Each year, Wolf’s Run hosts a customer appreciation day, a daylong party complete with free food, prizes, motorcycle stunt riders, live music and giveaways — and that’s just for the adults. Also on hand were bouncy houses and slides for the kids. This year they gave away 30 prizes — one for each year — including a trip to Hawaii, and Pendleton blankets. One year the top prize was a motorcycle. Vendors contribute things like hot dogs, hamburgers, cases of potato chips.
Artemis Pyle of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd played at the 30th anniversary. There were also motorcycle stunt riders. In yet another resourceful use of assets, the trips the couple give away are to places they have timeshares, accumulated over 24 years.
“We just throw a big party, and everybody has a great time,” said Snow. “That’s what we’ve always been taught by our elders. We’re supposed to give back to the community. Everybody has to enjoy life.”
Indeed, she attributes their success to this ethic.
“I think that’s why we’ve been so lucky, I think you would call it,” Snow said. “There have been a lot of people in business, but they don’t always succeed. Also you have to have that drive — which I know my husband has and I know I have.”
In addition, their skills were complementary.
“We had the right mix for our business because he did all the outside work and I ran the inside — greeting customers,” Snow said. “He and I had the right combination to do what we did.”
The couple is excited about the new restaurant, which is forecasted to open this year. The current space may be converted into something for youth and the community, such as an arcade and banquet house — Chuck E. Cheese’s meets the Rez, is Snow’s vision.
At some point they plan to retire. In fact, that’s what they were initially looking to do once they built the truck stop.
“We thought well, this will be good retirement. We’ll get this truck stop built and we’d retire,” said Snow. “[But] we’re still working, and that was 2015. We’re still young yet. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re gonna do when we grow up.”
Capitalism Is Not King; Enjoy Life
- Grow the business. And don’t borrow.
“We always kept investing our money back into our business and adding on,” said Snow. “We never ever got a drop of money from a bank.”
When it comes to finances, separate bookkeeping from the banking — don’t have one person both spending the money and keeping track of it, said Parry.
“Don’t let anybody have control of your bank account except yourself,” he said. “With us, the only ones who have access to our bank accounts is ourselves. The bookkeepers are just to follow the cash and payments and expenses.”
- Install cameras.
Parry and Snow have 52 cameras on the property, both for customers’ and the businesses’ security.
“With our business, even though we’re closed right now, our pumps are accessible with a credit card,” said Parry. “Because we have a lot of correction officers who go through here.”
This way, people can stop any time and buy gas.
- Customers come first.
Be it a trucking company, convenience store or Laundromat, “you have to take care of your customer, or you’re not selling anything,” Snow emphasized.
“They have to be the first priority,” said Snow. “There’s nothing more important than that person who just walked in that door. If you don’t have your customer walking in the door, you don’t have a business.”
That applies both coming and going, she said.
“Even just saying hello to a customer, and thanking them — thank your customers when they do business with you, because they can pick up and do business anywhere else down the road,” Snow said. “I’d get pretty upset with my cashiers if I didn’t hear a thank you come out of their mouth when a customer walked out the door.”
- Persistence and details are key.
Know that it’s going to take a lot of hard work, said Snow. Be persistent. Pay attention to the small things, such as taking care to stock exactly what your customers want or need, Parry said.
“You have to watch product that’s on your shelves, look and see what’s collecting dust,” he said. “If it’s collecting dust you don’t need that product.”