New Diné grill in Farmington swamped with business

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Staff of the newly opened Ashkii's Navajo Grill from left are, Danabah Tsosie, Deanston Tsosie, 4, Dexter Tsosie, Bernice Begay, and Sjilee Tsosie, 14. They took time to proudly pose outside their restaurant recently in Farmington.

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, March 4, 2010

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Three-year-old Cheyenne McDonald picked at her ham and cheese tortilla sandwich as her mother and father finished their inaugural meal at Farmington's newest Navajo-owned restaurant.

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"The food is good," declared Brenda McDonald of Farmington. McDonald said she ordered the soup of the day, which was steamed corn stew.

She was one of dozens of people who lined up at the restaurant during the tail end of Tuesday's lunch hour.

"This was supposed to be a soft opening," said proprietor Bernice Begay, whose family runs the restaurant. The Begays opened for business Feb. 17, and the rush of customers has surprised them, she said.

Ashkii's Navajo Grill is the second place in Farmington to specialize in Navajo foods, but unlike the Farmington Indian Center's grill, Ashkii's is privately owned and was financed without outside help, she said.

Instead, Bernice, her husband Dexter Begay, and son Danabah used their own savings, eventually buying a former office building on Broadway in March 2009 and remodeling it to house a restaurant.

Bernice said the building didn't have the necessary electrical, water and gas lines to the support a full-service kitchen, so they ended up having to make all those upgrades. She estimates that altogether, including the purchase cost and retrofitting, the family spent about $200,000 by the time Ashkii's opened its doors.

They haven't asked for outside help with those costs, she said.

Bernice and Danabah said they came up with the money simply by working overtime and saving all they could. Bernice is a registered nurse at the Kayenta Health Center and Danabah is a licensed practical nurse who also works a second job in retail. Dexter sold cattle to raise money for the enterprise.

"I would work five weeks straight, one week off, then another five weeks," Danabah said, adding that he worked as much as 80 hours a week during a six-month period.

It was good training - in the days after Ashkii's opened Danabah, who serves as restaurant manager, started work as early as 4 a.m. on most days and didn't get to bed until late at night.

The plan was for him to relax after a week of work that didn't seem much like a "soft opening," but as the clock approached noon, the usual opening time on Saturday, he took note that no one was there to run the show.

Bernice later said she and Dexter got a scolding for not being at work on time.

"This might be the only time I get to yell at my parents," Danabah said with a smile.

Adding to the joy of the business venture is being able to take advantage of rare opportunities. A good example is that the restaurant has helped the family grow closer together.

"I used to barely see my mom. Being able to just come to work with her feels great," said Bernice's daughter, Sjilee Tsosie, 14, who cleans the restrooms, waits on customers and does other basic chores.

"I like meeting people. It's fun," she said.

Navajo favorites

The menu at Ashkii's is similar to the food commonly sold at flea markets and fairs around the Navajo Nation, and indeed the family's experience began with selling fresh-cooked meals from a food stand.

A menu favorite is the roast lamb sandwich served on fry bread or tortilla. The soup of the day, which varies among dumpling, vegetable and squash stews, is posted separately from the rest of the menu.

The grill opens at 5 a.m. on weekdays and customers can chose from an assortment of handmade burritos including one with Spam.

The dough is made from scratch using Blue Bird flour and the fry bread is cooked in an iron skillet. The lamb comes from a farm in Utah that can supply it in volume, Danabah said.

"People can tell if the meat isn't local," Bernice noted, adding that the family tries to buy from local vendors as much as possible.

In addition, though Ashkii's may not offer a great variety of dishes, Bernice said the family has traveled throughout the reservation to find the Navajo dishes that are most appealing to Navajo people.

The result is a simple menu that is almost all distinctly Navajo with favorites like roast lamb, stew, and burritos. They also plan to eventually serve mutton ribs and ach'íí.

Upon entering, customers walk to the counter to order and during the afternoon hours, the food is made to order. However, in the morning, Danabah said they prepare some food items ahead of time in order to accommodate commuters who are in a hurry.

After placing their orders, patrons can take a seat at one of 10 booths or on a nearby bench. Dexter made most of the furniture himself, Bernice said.

The seats are upholstered in red fabric with rug designs, and some are trimmed in raw wood. Dark red walls match the décor.

"We researched the color," Bernice explained. "Blue suppresses hunger."

The carpets are blue, but Bernice said they are left over from the old office building and she plans to replace them with a color that doesn't suppress appetites.

Although Ashkii's is designed to provide fast service, it seems the Begays simply underestimated the pent-up demand for Navajo food in Farmington, and as a result, lines were long that first week.

"We waited 39 minutes to order," said Delbert McDonald of Farmington.

Though his family members enjoyed the food at Ashkii's, they said they liked the Farmington Indian Center better because the service is faster.

Danabah and Bernice are aware of the problem, and within a week had expanded their staff from one to seven.

Danabah said Ashkii's takes pride in the quality of both their food and service, and so the owners don't mind sacrificing a few customers in order to maintain a quality experience.

"I prefer people walk out on us now than giving them sloppy service," he said.

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