Tallchief is more than a brand to Seneca business leader

By James Fink – Reporter, Buffalo Business First

History matters to JC Seneca.

Seneca, 60, owner of such Seneca Nation of Indians businesses as Six Nations Manufacturing and Native Pride Travel Plaza, has rebranded the 56 acres of land he owns along Southwestern Boulevard on the nation’s Cattaraugus Territory as “Tallchief Territory.” The renaming includes the travel plaza’s diner now carrying the Tallchief name.

Other Tallchief brands are forthcoming, Seneca said.

He said the name is a nod to his great, great, great grandfather Tallchief, who was raised on the Cattaraugus Territory and was the Seneca Nation’s peace pipe carrier, a position that led him to meeting with President George Washington in Philadelphia where the two smoked the ceremonial pipe and discussed issues.

Seneca is one of the most successful Seneca Nation businessmen. His various privately held ventures employ 100 people and have annual revenues of more than $20 million.

An Air Force veteran and former Seneca Bingo game caller, Seneca opened his first business in July 1995, selling cigarettes from a battered trailer his family owned.

“I think made $10 my first day,” Seneca said.

Less than one year later, Seneca bought a double-wide trailer to expand his retail sales and added gas pumps. It wasn’t until late 1997 that Seneca had earned enough to build his first bricks-and-mortar building, a 30-foot by 60-foot structure.

Seneca’s business grew when he contracted with a Peru firm to supply him tobacco for his Buffalobranded cigarettes. The cigarettes are now made in a U.S. Customs-bonded warehouse just behind Seneca’s Native Pride Travel Plaza, where he sells 4,000 cases annually.

Even with health concerns and restrictions, cigarettes accounted for 30% of revenues generated by Seneca’s companies. Fuel sales account for 50%, while his convenience store and diner make up the remaining 20%.

Seneca sat down with Buffalo Business First for a nearly three-hour interview. Among the highlights:

Q: Tallchief is such an important name in Seneca Nation history. Why wait until now to use the brand, especially because it is part of your family’s roots?

A: It was last summer, and I was standing by the road looking at Native Pride (Travel Plaza). And out of nowhere, I thought of Tallchief and how I should honor that part of our history. Sometimes you get those inner voices and you end up paying attention to them. It was really as simple as that.

Q: Did it bother you that as generations came along, the legacy of Tallchief was being overlooked?

A: Absolutely, Tallchief is an important of our history. His legacy and our family legacy should be taught. We have to protect the Seneca Nation history, so it doesn’t get lost.

Q: You’ve been making cigarettes since the late 1990s. Have you ventured into hemp and CBD, and will you venture into marijuana production?

A: We actually created a Tallchief brand of hemp and CBD products last year. They are just starting to catch on. I consider hemp to be “Mother Nature’s medicine.” Pot, I have mixed feelings. It could be a huge revenue generator, but I have concerns about the impact it could have on the Seneca Nation community. We are already fighting things like alcoholism. I’m not sure I want to add pot into that mix.

Q: You have 100 people working for you, most of them are enrolled in the Seneca Nation. It seems that giving people a job and a chance matters to you.

A: If I can be a role model and employer, then that’s really all I can ask for. If I can do all this, then hopefully others will see what it takes to have that inner entrepreneurial drive to believe in your own abilities and meet every challenge head on.

Q: Any one word motivate you?

A: If someone says no to me, all it does is drive me more. I will always find a way to get things done.

Q: There’s a Seneca Nation presidential election coming up this fall and the president has to come from the Cattaraugus Territory. Are you interested? (Seneca is a three-term nation councillor, oneterm treasurer and ran for the presidency three previous times.)

A: It is something I am considering. People talk to me about almost everyday. I won’t make a decision until this fall.

Q: How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact you?

A: I used the shutdown to fix up and rebrand the diner, but I kept my employees on as we delivered more than 5,000 meals to Seneca elders and donated PPE items to the Seneca marshals, fire department and health centers. This was not the time to lay people off. This was the time to help the Seneca people,
not hurt them.

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