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For better health, Diné sisters open ‘Desert Nutrition’

DÁ’DEESTŁ’IN HÓTSAA

When the owners of the Native fitness center ousted their tearoom, the sisters didn’t give up and stayed motivated to grow their business.

Navajo Times | Krista Allen

Sisters Morissa and Melissa Addakai pose inside their Desert Nutrition store in the Elm Street Mall in Page, Ariz. Their backlit business sign reads, “Hozho Vibes.” Its bright color corresponds to the business logo that represents a Navajo rug with turquoise and coral necklace/bracelet.

“It was a mess,” said Melissa Addakai, co-owner of Desert Nutrition. “And now we got this new location, and we just moved in this year.”

Melissa and her younger sister, Morissa Addakai, her business partner, spent nearly half a year scouting commercial spaces for their health-food business in the Page-Lake Powell area.

The sisters say commercial real estate can be expensive because the high cost of doing business is driven in part by tourism. Most spaces have an average price per square foot.

“We kept asking and asking,” Morissa said.

In the meantime, the sisters started a home-based tearoom business at the request of their customers.

They said their loyal customers, those trying to improve their health, claimed they couldn’t go throughout the day without a Desert Nutrition smoothie, drink or one of its “good eats.”

Back in business

The sisters went back into business after obtaining a permit from the city. They would make an order and deliver it directly to the customer from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“We continued Desert Nutrition from home with deliveries until we actually found a location,” Melissa said. “Our customers were really supportive.

“Some (customers) started coming over to the house,” she said. “We would be like, ‘OK, sit down, but don’t get us into trouble.’

“Remember the Johnny Depp (and Amber Heard defamation) trial?” she said. “A lot of ladies watched TV with us and drank tea, and it was funny.”

When she and Melissa started working at home, Morissa said customers often asked them if they could make a do-it-yourself smoothie and tea kit that people could follow on social media.

One day they came across a space nestled in the Elm Street Mall and decided to take it. The space was once occupied by the Philadelphia Baking Experiment, a made-from-scratch bakery that permanently closed.

Desert Nutrition

Melissa’s and Morissa’s tearoom derived from their trips as traveling welders across the country, seeing new places and gaining experience at construction sites.

Melissa worked in the industry for 15 years, and Morissa worked for 11 years.

The sisters are former high-pressure pipe welders who were members of a boilermakers union.

“I learned from my father (Elroy Addakai),” Melissa said. “We were working together for a while, and then I taught my sister how to weld. We were partners and ran all over the country.

“With all that experience, we learned a lot of reading blueprints and building, and everything,” she said. “We ran into a location in Salt Lake City, (where) I went to a nutrition club and saw how its products were really healthy for people.

“So, I got hooked on their product and decided to (open) a location close to home,” she said.

Two years before Melissa decided to hang up her hat, she started saving money for her startup’s seed funding.

She opened a shop next to Page Lumber on Lake Powell Boulevard, where Morissa joined her a year later. The sisters were there for another year until the owners of Fitness Odyssey invited them to open the business at their property.

“We had Zumba, weight loss challenges – it went very well,” Melissa said of the first location. “The ladies that were there with us are like family now.”

The sisters said they moved to the new location, signed a lease over the summer, and began remodeling the space using what they learned in construction.

“We got help with the walls, and we ended up building the bar, the built-in seating, and the flooring,” Melissa said. “We did pretty much everything, but we hired a plumber and an electrician because we couldn’t do the electrical work.

“We did it ourselves,” she said. “All while my sister is pregnant.”

The sisters changed the structure of the old bakery, giving it a great aesthetic pleasure, in two-and-a-half months.

Health scare

Morissa said when she was 26 years old, she went to the hospital for a checkup because she was experiencing some health issues. She was diagnosed with hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and swollen lymph nodes.

Morissa told herself that she was too young to have health issues and committed herself to make sweeping lifestyle changes and improving her health.

At the same time, her nutritionists and dieticians told her that good nutrition is one of the keys to a healthy life.

She said Desert Nutrition’s smoothies and drinks – which contain powerful superfoods, nutrients, and plant-based ingredients – dramatically impacted her waistline within one month.

“That’s when I started noticing a difference,” Morissa explained. “My lymph nodes started to decrease, and my energy improved, my weight dropped, and my blood pressure and cholesterol went down.

“Everything started to change,” she said. “I was so grateful I was out of that. From then on, I continued and stayed on my (balanced meal) plan. At the end of 2019, I partnered with Melissa and started helping her promote health and fitness classes.”

The sisters started a fitness/Zumba class three times a week because their customers simply wanted it.

“We started promoting more weight-loss challenges and ended up inspiring more women to improve their health,” Morissa explained. “We ended up rocking and rolling with that at the Page Lumber location.”

The elements

Melissa and Morissa Addakai are the daughters of Elroy and Susie Addakai of Tsé Łigaii Deez’áhí, Arizona.

The sisters are Tódích’íi’nii and born for Tábąąhá. Their maternal grandfather is Tsi’naajínii, and their paternal grandfather is Deeshchii’nii.

Morissa said Desert Nutrition’s menu items and names are credited to Melissa, who created the smoothies, drinks, and eats.

“We named them on the elements around here,” Morissa said. “And just kind of picking out the nature and our culture, and just kind of getting some names together like that.

“The (ingredients), we went through a lot, and there’s still a lot to this day that we’re breaking down, and we want to either enhance or let go,” she said.

Melissa said it’s crucial to reduce visual clutter and make menu navigation easier for customers. Otherwise, it’s confusing.

“Now, we have protein waffles, oatmeal bowls, açai bowls, and we just added the mini bowls and kids’ size,” Melissa explained. “And our customers recommend a lot of things too.”

“We’ve been inspired by other businesses,” Morissa said. “We ask the customers what they would like and kind of incorporate it into one. That’s how a lot of the new stuff was born.”

Melissa said when Desert Nutrition initially opened, the menu comprised basic aloe, shakes and teas they would serve hot or cold. They didn’t use frozen fruits as they do now.

The sisters say summertime is their busiest time of year. The most popular smoothie items on the Desert Nutrition menu are açai berry, followed by chili mango, “desert sky,” “green vibes,” “peanut crunch,” and “straw banana.”

Success stories

The sisters say social media is one of the best ways to strengthen communication with customers and promote a business.

“We got to know other business owners in the area and collaborated and advertised for each other,” Morissa said. “We didn’t charge for (workouts) at first, and it was just kind of like, ‘Come enjoy your tea or a shake, and the workout is free.’ I started to get so tired three days a week (apart) from operating the shop.

“We hired a Zumba instructor (who) helped us out (from) overworking,” she said. “From there, they (customers) came for Zumba, and they would just tip.”

The sisters said many men and women transformed their bodies through Desert Nutrition, healthy eating, and a dedication to fitness.

One of those is a woman with type 1 diabetes who lost over 180 pounds. Another woman, along with her brother, gained lean body weight. And another boosted her fertility by maintaining a healthy weight.

“It’s amazing,” Morissa said. “Once you change your nutrition and replace it for weight loss, you’ll get your results.”

“That was our No. 1 goal, moving here and getting a place like (Desert Nutrition) to help our people who are obese and struggling with diabetes,” Melissa said. “It’s still our No. 1 goal, and we’re still striving to help them.”

“A lot of our elderly, they’re the ones who struggle the most,” Morissa said. “I (believe) that’s where a lot of diabetes are targeted because our grandparents, our nálí, are diabetic, and it goes into the bloodline.

“It just carries on, so some people are stuck with it without even taking a bite of pastry,” she said.

The sisters say they engage with their customers and make them feel welcome as soon as they enter their shop, and that’s why they keep returning.

“And be ourselves,” Melissa said. “Our customers keep coming back because they feel the energy, and it’s completely different. We know each of our customers.”

The sisters say their etiquette derives from their parents’ teachings and their homeland in White Mesa.

“Pretty much using our culture and what we grew up with and putting it into the business,” Melissa added. “We do want to start incorporating blue corn (into the ingredients).”

“We’re wanting to do protein donuts and do one with blue corn waffles,” Morissa said. “Like (people) say, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”


About The Author

Krista Allen

Krista Allen, based in Kaibeto, is editor of the Navajo Times.

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