It's in the water: Hopi Marine veteran takes a chance and opens his dream coffee shop
SECOND MESA — Hopi councilman Mervin Yoyetewa walked into Gary Tso’s Hopi Grounds coffee shop on a cold March afternoon on Hopi Nation.
He greets Tso, but doesn’t initially order coffee or any of the food items on the menu. Instead, Yoyetewa asks Tso if he is selling the popular “Don't Worry Be Hopi” t-shirt.
Before Hopi Grounds was turned into a coffee shop it was Tsakurshovi Gallery. When the pandemic hit, the former owners, Janice and Joseph Day, retired and allowed Tso to turn the small building into the coffee shop he had always dreamed of opening.
Like the building, the t-shirt is also a remnant of the gallery, which had been there for a couple of decades. The retired couple gave Tso the rights to continue selling the shirt, an item Tso said built the couple's business.
“The shirt is really successful,” said Tso. At the entrance of Hopi Grounds, there are photos of people from all over the world wearing the shirt, photos sent to the Days when it was Tsakurshovi Gallery.
Since the closure of the Kayenta Mine and Navajo Generating Station, Hopi and Navajo tribal governments have been feeling the drop in revenue from their budgets. Although the budget issue is discouraging, Yoyetewa said the initiative of local business owners like Tso is impressive.
“We are not making income and we had several committees trying to get businesses out here but it’s not been very successful,” said Yoyetewa, who got a whiff of Tso's coffee and decided to buy a cup. “But I’m impressed with some of the people who dive in and take that chance and start a business of their own.”
He wanted his kids to be involved
Tso didn’t necessarily dive into opening Hopi Grounds. The Marine veteran had been thinking for years about opening a coffee shop and finally saw the opportunity to do so in 2021, after the Days decided to retire. Tso had worked for the couple at the Tsakurshovi Gallery after he returned from the military. From there, he opened Left Handed Tour Company, but COVID-19 forced him to close the tourism business.
“COVID came for all of us,” said Tso. “It didn't just come for me and my business, it came for all of us. I had to close my business. I had no choice.”
The Days were already contemplating retirement and the pandemic solidified their decision. The Tsakurshovi Gallery sat empty for a year, until Tso told them about his idea of turning the gallery into what is now Hopi Grounds. For a long time, he would tell his kids that he would one day open such a venture, and they could all take part in it.
“I wanted all of them to be a part of this,” said Tso. He would tell them, "We are going to do this. We are going to do that."
"It breaks my heart that I didn't follow through when they were children.”
Tso said his daughter, Storm Tso, brought Hopi Grounds into the 21st century by keeping up with social media among other tasks. Storm said for the first year, she wasn't very involved aside from making an occasional post on the Facebook page or doing a supply run. But after a year she came on full time, and now her dad calls her his manager.
“Opening a coffee shop was something my dad had talked about for years,” said Storm. “I run the front of the shop, I help the customers, prepare the cold brew, order our supplies, run the social media pages, order our merchandise and do what I can just to help the shop grow.”
The coffee was never as good away from home
Tso, who is half Hopi and half Navajo, graduated from the private boarding school Orme High School in Mayer and was set to run cross country at Lewis and Clark College. Instead, he decided to enlist in the military.
He said it was his mom’s love for the Swedish coffee Gevalia that got him interested in coffee. Underneath Second Mesa is the N-aquifer, the most pristine and crucial water source for Hopi, which Peabody Coal pumped millions of gallons of to use for its coal slurry. It was this water that made the coffee taste so perfect for Tso.
“When I was a kid my mother got Gevalia and you could only get it mail ordered,” said Tso. “It would come in these big gold, vacuum-sealed bricks. It looked like adult Wonka Bars, it was beautiful. With our water, it made the best coffee in the world.”
Tso searched for good-tasting coffee even while in the Marines. He spent a lot of time aboard ships, but he could never get the same taste as he did when he was home in Second Mesa. He said while in the military he would tell his squad that once he was out and moved home, he was going to open his own coffee shop at his great-grandfather's closed Malco gas station just down the street from what's now Hopi Grounds. The station was featured in the rock band P.O.D.’s 2001 music video for the song, "Youth of a Nation."
“Navy coffee is horrible,” said Tso. “Wherever I was deployed, the coffee was nasty. I was the guy, in addition to carrying my gear, I was the guy carrying a coffee maker. My mother would mail me Gevalia wherever I went but the water was really bad and the coffee was never the same.”
'If you don't see it, build it'
Making good coffee didn't come easy even back home. The Hopi Grounds store lacks running water, but Storm said it hasn't been as big of an issue as she thought it would be. The nearby houses also don't have running water.
"We have buckets that my dad fills and brings to the shop," she said. "Our coffee maker doesn't require a water line so that helps significantly. I don't think we see it as an issue because it's what we are used to, if we get running water in the shop I think that will take getting used to."
Tso lost his wife when his children were young. He said he takes pride in knowing he has always been his own boss and was able to support his children without any assistance. When it came to making out the items on the menu, he said he chose the comfort food he would cook for his children as they grieved the loss of their mother, and he put effort into making sure the price for the food isn't too high so everyone can enjoy a good meal. He said his sons enjoyed his sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches every day for breakfast, and he would cook his daughter chorizo every morning.
"My kids all ate the same thing and because they were sad, I would try to make them comfort food and stuff," said Tso. "Because they liked it, I figured anyone is going to like it. My menu is real simple stuff, things you can't live without, like a good burger. I tell people we have the lowest price and we have as good as food as anyone. A lot of people around here don't have a lot of money, and everyone wants something good to eat now and then."
Storm said her favorite food item on the menu is the Chori-Tso Burrito, and her second favorite would be a Spicy Breakfast Sausage. They recently purchased a kitchen hood and deep fryer so they can add to the menu, and are experimenting with new drink items. New merchandise will also be coming out.
Tso said he never wanted to cook, but now he sells more food than coffee. Outside the Hopi Grounds, Tso plans to offer live music once the weather clears up and gets warmer.
"I tell the kids if you don't see it, build it," said Tso. "We have so much opportunity here. This place excites me. I love being here."
This story was originally published by the Arizona Republic and was reprinted with permission of the editor.