Navajo barista grandma keeps people caffeinated on Mutton Curve

Navajo coffee truck. (Photo courtesy of Stay Grounded)

Kalle Benallie

This hole-in-the-desert coffeeshop travels on the dirt roads of the Navajo Nation. Some say it takes them off guard when they first order their drink.

The 93-year-old sání wearing a black visor and white apron on top of her purple shirt touches a button on an espresso machine. She laughs gleefully while pointing at the machine as it pours espresso shots into two small glasses in a coffee truck in the Arizona desert.

In the next photo, the informal barista sits in a blue camping chair next to the coffee truck, holding her hot drink.

Pearl Benally, Navajo, sometimes visits the truck in the summertime with her two granddaughters, who co-own the truck with a childhood friend.

“She is one of our biggest supporters,” said her granddaughter Selina Tsinnijinnie. “She always comes over and says, ‘How come you guys aren’t selling? Why is the wagon sitting here?’” 

The company’s Instagram shows their grandma testing out the espresso machine and sipping iced coffee while she weaves a rug, too.

The coffee truck, Stay Grounded, travels on the dirt roads of the Navajo Nation and sits on weeds and “rez dirt” that takes people off guard when they first order a tea or latte.

It’s only been operating for seven months, yet the three Navajo business owners have established themselves as the leading coffee truck business on the Navajo Reservation.

Shannon Black, one of the business owners, said, “Everybody always comments it’s nice to see three female Navajo business owners trying something new, bringing something different and creative.”

From left to right: Shannon Black, Calista Tsinnijinnie and Selina Tsinnijinnie, the Stay Grounded coffee truck owners. (Photo courtesy of Stay Grounded)
From left to right: Shannon Black, Calista Tsinnijinnie and Selina Tsinnijinnie, the Stay Grounded coffee truck owners. (Photo courtesy of Stay Grounded)

She and sisters Selina and Calista Tsinnijinnie, grew up together, attending the same schools in Page, Arizona. After many failed attempts to start a business, they eventually opened up their coffee truck in July 2019. All three of them work full-time jobs, too. Calista and Shannon work in Las Vegas, Nevada and commute every weekend to work on the truck. Selina is an accounts payable supervisor.

“We kind of created our own little monster, a happy monster,” Black said.

And their monster is part of the 1.4 percent of women-owned businesses that are owned by Native women, according to the 2019 State of Women-Owned Business report by American Express.

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Despite being a coffee truck, their best seller is tea — Navajo Tea. It was initially not planned to be on the menu because of its availability on the reservation. But Selina insisted. So she experimented and made her own blend.

“That’s the biggest driving force that we have here,” Black said.

The three women purchased the coffee truck in Oregon and named their business Stay Grounded because of the playful pun and a personal meaning for all of them. Black remembers Calista and Selina recounting a story from their father who said they will always find their way home, no matter how far they traveled.

“Stay grounded is being connected to your origin because that is what allows you to grow,” Black said.

So when they settle in a new place, they pack and repack all the camping chairs and umbrellas. And they make sure their two refrigerators and coffee equipment in the truck that include the espresso machine, grinder, water filtration system and drip coffee maker are all taken care of.

“We’re learning as we go and what our dad’s taught us,” Calista said about operating the truck’s generator, plumbing and electrical work.

They frequently park at Mutton Curve, the location of a local flea market, an area between Navajo Route 20 and Old Route 20, in LeChee, Arizona. It is approximately 70 miles north from Tuba City. (You can’t even find it on Google Maps.)

Since Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are about a 10 miles radius within Mutton Curve, many tourist groups are frequently drawn to Stay Grounded which has generated an interest in the Navajo culture.

“Tourists are looking for that authentic Native experience,” Black said. “We’re teaching them about Navajo tea or teaching them little phrases.”

She said some families come as far from France and Sweden, which they posted an Instagram of a group of nine tourists proudly holding up their Navajo Tea.

Besides the delicious Navajo tea experience, tourists admire the view from Mutton Curve.

“They were just amazed by the view, when you turn around you see the buttes, LeChee Rock, Lake Powell, Navajo Mountain,” Calista said.

And the response they received from the rodeos and small communities they traveled to like LeChee, Page, and Tuba City have all been positive.

“We wanted to create, originally, a business on the reservation. If we were to establish foundation in our area, we would be the first business group,” she said.

Black said Stay Grounded only operates on the weekends and plans to expand one day.

“That’s what makes it so much fun and interesting because we’re mobile and do these unique events...just imagine a Starbucks on wheels or a Dutch Bros on wheels,” Calista said.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com

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