It’s hard to miss the flags and signs of the Native Grill, a family-owned business along Route 89, nestled on Navajo Nation’s western side. It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday and the food truck, with the caption “Navajo Soul Food,” is busy with customers wanting to taste the authentic Navajo cuisine of frybread taco, dumpling stew and grilled local lamb. The kitchen is busy, as the family’s grandmother cooks frybreads for the pending G Adventures group of 12 who are about to arrive.
Her daughter Alfreida, who’s from the area, started the family food truck in 2013 by attending the Tuba City Fair, and operated in that town until a Burger King opened and forced them out some time later. Undeterred, Alfreida and her family carried on.
“There were days where we made no sales, but we stuck it out,” says Alfreida. “I’d be up prepping at 4:30 in the morning, but as time went along I figured things out.” Eventually, she gained her business license in 2016 and set up just south of the town of Cameron.
This area of Navajo Nation is in particular need of entrepreneurs like Alfreida, as it was under the Bennett Freeze between 1966 and 2009, which outlawed any infrastructure development. This meant houses couldn’t be built, water and gas lines couldn’t be laid, and roads couldn’t be mended, to name just a few of the ways the area’s development was stifled. Still today, it’s estimated that almost 60% of houses in the area do not have electricity, and the majority do not have potable water.
Planeterra partnered with Indigenous business incubator DineHozho, who have helped oversee a grant earmarked for improvements to the Native Grill. Today’s visitors are enjoying new picnic tables, a hand-washing station, and a brand new shade structure which will be especially handy during the hot desert summers. Native Grill’s operations have also been assisted by upgrades to their solar and generator systems.
As the group of G Adventures travellers arrive, they line up at the window to confirm their order for Navajo Tacos, and decide which toppings they’d like on their frybread, as three generations of Alfreida’s family work together in unison in the kitchen.
It may be these four running the Native Grill this afternoon, but to them, the entire community is considered family, and they assist as many people as they can.
“We do what we can at a local level to help the elderly, and during Christmas and Thanksgiving we do turkey baskets and deliver it to people that live off the main road like 15-20 miles away, all the way at the base of the mountain,” explains Alfreida.
With more income from regular G Adventures groups (somewhere between 15-24 customers will be visiting twice a week during the summer months), Native Grill will be able to assist the community even more, not to mention grow the business. Although the food is delicious and the group enjoys their meal under the shade, the highlight of the afternoon is the family coming out to introduce themselves to the travellers, who eagerly ask questions in an effort to learn more about what it’s like to live on Navajo Nation. In the end, this is so much more of a meal stop – it’s an opportunity to learn about the resilience and entrepreneurship of the Diné (more commonly known as the Navajo) and how travellers should make an effort to stop at the small businesses that dot the roadsides if they’d like to learn more and give back to this community.