‘You’ve got to grind the beans’: Sisters ‘stay grounded’ with coffee truck business
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
ŁICHÍI’II-MUTTON CURVE, Ariz.
The Stay Grounded caffeine turtle truck travels up to 55 mph downhill, but its speed decreases uphill.
“Our staff, they drive the truck,” said Calista Tsinnijinnie, co-owner of the coffee truck business. “It doesn’t go fast.”
To keep the essential espresso and coffee equipment from slipping or sliding inside the truck during a trip, Tsinnijinnie and her team tie them down until they arrive at a location for business.
Calista co-owns the business with her two sisters, Selina Tsinnijinnie and Shannon Black. The young entrepreneurs are from LeChee and they all went to school within the Page Unified School District, just a few miles down the road.
Calista, Selina and Shannon all have full-time jobs. Running their caffeine turtle truck is a “weekend warrior thing” to serve not only residents but also people from neighboring communities and passersby who see the black caffeine turtle truck parked at Mutton Curve.
Pre-pandemic, the sisters opened their business at nearby events such as the Western Navajo Fair, the Page-Lake Powell Balloon Regatta, and at events in Kanab, Utah.
“Caffeine!” exclaimed Shannon. “Seeing the look – not only elders but also kids in high school and in middle school – on their faces when they say, ‘Oh, this is cool. I’m glad you guys are doing a business.’
“Right there, that’s 90 percent of the motivation,” she said.
“And they always ask us, ‘Are you going to be establishing a business (location) or a café?’ I say, ‘Yes. Yes, we are. As soon as we keep going with this. We’ll get there,’” she said. “That’s part of the 90-percent motivation. The other 10 percent is, ‘Yes! We’re doing a business! We got to keep pushing.’
“It’s self-motivation on that 10 percent,” she said. “But a lot of it is derived from our customers.”
The sisters say running a mobile coffee truck is no stroll in the park. But dreams don’t work unless hard work is put into dreams, said the sisters.
“One thing about us is we all enjoy challenges and (running a coffee truck) is definitely a challenge,” Calista said.
Running a business in the Nation
The sisters say they’ve always wanted to run a business in their small community, which is home to several tour companies such as Ken’s Tours, Antelope Canyon Tours, and Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours.
“We like drinks,” Calista said. “Drinks are always good. Sometimes when you’re having a rough day, you just want something nice to drink –– coffee, a pick-me-up.
“We used to stand in line at Starbucks or at another coffee shop,” she said. “Sometimes (waiting) took a while. We figured we can probably figure this out and see what happens.”
That’s when the sisters started making their own coffee and cold drinks, coming up with different flavors.
“And we had to learn about coffee because we didn’t know anything about coffee,” Calista explained.
The sisters traveled to Seattle, the U.S. coffee capital, where they took barista courses to understand the specialty coffee industry.
“Coffee’s a science in itself,” Calista said. “We learned about all that and of course the different coffee profiles of dark roast, medium roast and light roast. And then we got the truck.”
Using some of their savings, the sisters bought the coffee truck from a man who had tried to run a coffee truck business in Oregon. The truck was delivered to them by a towing company.
The truck’s former owner said he tried to run a mobile business, but because he didn’t have enough manpower, he had to shut down.
“He wanted to sell it to somebody with as much passion as he (had),” Shannon said.
The truck came with equipment like a refrigerator, countertops, and a three-bin sink. But the truck needed modifications and maintenance, which the sisters did themselves, along with their families.
Other equipment they hauled back from the Pacific Northwest because they didn’t want to pay for shipping costs. When the sisters arrived home, they installed all of the equipment with the help of their family.
“The espresso machine, we had to go out and find one that we wanted to use,” Calista said. “That took a chunk out of our savings. So anyone who’s using the espresso machine has actually taken a barista course.”
The Stay Grounded truck officially opened for business in nearby Dá’deestł’in Hótsaa on July 4, 2019.
The sisters are open for business only in the Navajo Nation nowadays. Business was booming until the coronavirus entered the U.S. and the sisters had to shut down for 10 months last year.
“We stayed in the Navajo Nation since the beginning of 2021,” Calista said. “We never went back to Page with the truck. People ask us, and we get invited to several events and stuff, but we haven’t crossed the border yet. We stay in (the Nation).”
Traveling takes a lot of pre-planning, said the sisters, including an additional truck to haul a generator and two barrels of extra water – one barrel of fresh water and one for greywater. Also pumps, hoses and additional equipment.
“That’s something we do in Tuba City (during employee appreciation days at Tuba City Regional Health Care),” Calista explained. “We have to take two generators too just to stay going. We actually test the water in Tuba, too. We have a filtration system.
“We run the water through three filters before the water goes through the espresso machine because water is a big factor in the taste of coffee,” she said.
And there are other challenges such as blowing a fuse on a coffee grinder, said the sisters. That’s when they have to take out their backup equipment and use their tools.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Calista said. “But the more you do it, the more you become familiar with your equipment. As far as everything else, we try to do everything on our own.”
Even if that means changing the truck’s oil. For more difficult work, like doing a transmission flush, they need the help of their fathers or nearby Diné auto technicians they trust.
The sisters often do business at Mutton Curve, just a few miles from their family’s homestead.
It is a drive-thru service and vehicles line up to their window where Shannon takes orders and talks with the customers.
“What would you like?” she’ll ask.
The No. 1 drink on their menu, which Selina created, is the Navajo Rose (iced tea). Second, third and fourth are Caramel macchiato, the “Sand Devil,” a house energy drink, and a strawberry lemonade spritzer.
“It’s funny because we’re a coffee truck,” Shannon said. “The teas happen to be the No. 1 seller and then after that is the energy drinks. Then comes the coffees, but the caramel macchiato keeps us up there.”
“And that’s one thing we learned about our area is that there are a lot more tea drinkers than coffee drinkers,” Calista added. “Teas and carbonated drinks like the strawberry lemonade spritzer — there’s no caffeine in it but it’s club soda mixed in it. People love it and the kids love it.”
The sisters say “stay grounded” is a daily reminder for them to simply remember where they come from and to represent who they are as Diné women.
“And who your family is,” Shannon explained. “That’s what we were taught when we were younger. And on top of that, coffee grounds? Come on!”
As for the turtle mascot, turtles stay low to the ground, said Shannon.
“Turtles know where they came from,” she said. “They have a hard shell, they persevere – even in harsh desert environments. Being (Native), we all have our own little turtle stories that have been passed down to us. I thought that was a good integration of what we’re doing.”
The sisters said even though they have water and power issues, maintenance and business challenges, and the fact that it gets hot in the caffeine turtle truck during the summertime, it is worth it.
“I see people’s expressions when they see somebody that looks like them, who went to school just down the road,” Shannon added. “Just that, right there, it’s like we got to keep going, we got to keep pushing. And my business partners and I in general, we push each other. We tolerate each other very, very well.”
A customer on Friday pulled up to the caffeine turtle truck, ordered a drink, and left a tip.
“We got a tip!” shouted Shannon.
The Stay Grounded team clapped and cheered.
“We’re going to get a cowbell,” Calista said. “But we haven’t gotten that far yet. We want to put up a cowbell so we can ring it (when we get tips). You’ve got to grind the beans to make coffee.”