|August 22, 2013
A life-long journey in food culminates in Willie Burger
By Alyssa Nenemay
Willie Caye of the Ktunaxa nation has spent his life working on his culinary craft. Caye is the founder and owner of Willie Burger. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
ELMO — It was a sunny day on the bay as another Standing Arrow Powwow reached its end. Although most guests had already hit the road home, the burgers were grilling and the stir-fry was simmering at the “Willie Burger” concession stand and crowds continued to line up for a plate. “I always do good in Elmo. It makes me happy to bring it home,” said stand owner Willie Caye.
Willie Burger has been in operation for 30 years. With a mix of traditional concession items like hot dogs or curly fries and gourmet items like stir-fry or prime rib, Caye’s stand earned recognition as a staple on the northwest powwow trail.
With its fresh ingredients, the ‘Willie Burger’ has become a known staple on the northwest powwow circuit. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Caye said being successful in the food industry takes more than what meets the eye. “There’s a science to it. It’s not just grilling some burgers and making money; it takes a lot of hard work and I watch my business. You have to plan, manage, budget; it’s not easy standing on your feet for 17 hours straight,” he said.
The entrepreneur’s love for cooking began when he was nine-years-old. He was washing dishes at a ranch house in Pleasant Valley for his aunt Elma and uncle Albert. Caye was told liver and onions was on the menu for dinner and he was not pleased. “I told her I didn’t like liver and onions. I was made to eat it once and it took me six hours to finish. She said: ‘you’ll like mine.’”
Willie Burger is a tribally owned concession stand that has traveled throughout the northwest serving at powwows. Although the stand has limited its openings to local Elmo and Arlee Powwows, it continues to attracted travelers near and far. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Caye said he watched his aunt slice the liver and mix it with onion, peppers, spices, and oil in a pan. “She got done and she put the liver on a plate. She put some bacon around it and cut it all up for me and gave it to me. She said: ‘try it.’ I tried it and I loved it. She was the one who got me interested in cooking,” he said.
Inspired by his aunt’s abilities, the young chef volunteered to cook during his time in boarding school and then following high school, he attended a culinary arts school in Oakland, California, where he graduated. Caye has since worked several culinary positions with various Job Corps facilities as an instructor and food manager.
One of the secrets behind Willie’s burger is fresh condiments. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Caye said his appeal as an instructor, was his ability to connect with Native students. “Back then it was hard to get an Indian boy to cook. They would say: ‘That’s for women.’ Then I would say: ‘Ah look at me!’ They would say: ‘You’re different Willie.’”
Education and experience has allowed Caye to provide work opportunities for family and friends through his successful concession stand. During this year’s powwow, his youngest daughter managed the fresh squeezed lemonade stand while his daughter Melinda managed the grill. “When I was younger my dad told me to get an education or I’d be working this stand forever,” said Melinda. “I have a Master’s degree and I’m still here!”
Part of Caye’s success is his ability to provide work for family and friends. Caye’s daughter Melinda aided in managing the grill during Standing Arrow Powwow. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Caye said providing for family was the primary goal behind establishing Willie Burger. “I started the stand because my kids went hungry one day when I was playing stick game. It’s not a good feeling to go broke on stick game and I said: ‘never again. So I spent $5,000 on a truck and now they’ll never go hungry again,’” he said.
Not long after opening its opening 1983, Caye said his concession received its name during its first venture on the powwow trail in Wellpinit Washington. As his “double burger with cheese” was gaining popularity Caye’s friend, the late “Big John” Eneas, came to the window. “(John) said ‘G** D*** it give me another Willie burger!’ The name stuck and that’s who we are today,” said Caye.
Caye’s son-in-law Issac Cordova works the wok cooking stir-fry. “I make sure I pay my workers well because it’s hard work,” said Caye. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Having a first-hand understanding for what it’s like to go hungry, Caye said he does his best to keep menu items reasonably priced. “I try not to let people walk away hungry. It’s expensive to feed a family at a powwow so I try to keep my prices down. I have one-dollar corndogs, burritos and hamburgers. I’m not out to make a million dollars,” he said
Although recession prices and age keep the stand closer to home these days, Caye said his goal is that Willie Burger will continue on to another generation. “It’s getting harder and harder as I get older and some day I plan on giving my stand to someone who wants it. I’ll teach them everything I know,” he said.