Naatani Nez Restaurant Owner Simon Cai works with waitress Courtney Yazzie at the restaurant in Shiprock.
Naatani Nez Restaurant Owner Simon Cai works with waitress Courtney Yazzie at the restaurant in Shiprock. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

SHIPROCK — Naatani Nez Restaurant is approaching its third year of serving customers a wide variety of foods.

When Jethro Begay was hired two and half years ago as the restaurant's kitchen manager, he says he thought one thing: keep Shiprock customers in Shiprock.

"I wanted to make people not go to Farmington," said Begay, who is originally from Shiprock. "They can have the same quality food and hospitality here as in Farmington."

When Begay assumed the role of the eatery's primary manager, he first scrutinized the menu, which, at the time, included many items common at other Navajo Nation restaurants. Naatani Nez, which is located at 101 Ayanni Neez Bay, opened in August 2011 with a menu that listed an assortment of Navajo foods like lamb stew, Navajo burgers and Navajo tacos.

Begay said he wanted to add variety to the menu but also keep the foods simple.

"I strived for meat and potatoes. That's what they like around here," he said.

Begay has since revamped the menu to include Mexican, American and Chinese food, as well as the Navajo staples.

The Chinese food is made by the restaurant's owner, Simon Cai. Cai deferred all comments to Begay because he said he doesn't speak English well.

"We use hand gestures," Begay said about most of the communication that takes place between the pair.

But when complicated subjects arise, Cai relies on his phone to translate words from Chinese to English.

"We rely on each other a lot," Begay said.

Cai worked in construction in Los Angeles when the housing market crashed. Though he waited two years for the market to pick back up, he eventually ended up in Shiprock because he knew the owners of Shiprock's Bamboo Chinese Restaurant, and they convinced him to open a restaurant.

Since he hired Begay, business has grown about 7 percent in each of the last two years.

"I try to hit 10 percent, that's my goal," Begay said.

The restaurant employs about 12 workers.

Naatani Nez Restaurant, which will celebrate three years in business in August, is located at 101 Ayanni Neez Bay in Shiprock.
Naatani Nez Restaurant, which will celebrate three years in business in August, is located at 101 Ayanni Neez Bay in Shiprock. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

Though the restaurant is doing well and is looking to expand into catering, other businesses have faced barriers as they have tried to open on the Navajo Nation.

Because Navajo Nation land is federal trust land, it can only be leased, and, often, businesses run into financing issues, said Randolph Sell, program manger for the Navajo Regional Business Development Office in Shiprock.

When it comes to restaurants in Shiprock, Sell said, local street vendors can hinder established eateries.

He said street vendors, for the most part, are free from regulations. They don't have to pay the 5 percent Navajo Nation sales tax, and, in Shiprock, there aren't zoning laws to prevent them from setting up and selling wherever they want.

"I know it does hurt the restaurants," Sells said.

Begay said his customers want variety local vendors don't have, and he strives to keep up with demands.

Although the restaurant sells everything from lo mien to fettuccine Alfredo, many of its clients are elderly and tend to order stew, Navajo burgers and Navajo tacos, he said.

"You can't get that in Farmington," Begay said.

Erny Zah is The Daily Times business editor. He can be reached at 505-564-4638. and ezah@daily-times.com. Follow him @ernyzah on Twitter.