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Anchorage alcohol and pot businesses see spike in sales as residents hunker down

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Salesman Dan Piper stocks product at the Wine House on Minnesota Boulevard on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As Anchorage residents hole up in their homes to weather the coronavirus outbreak, many are preparing to do so with their favorite cocktail, wine or joint.

Several Anchorage alcohol and marijuana retailers reported a spike in sales this week, particularly on Monday and Tuesday, as officials prohibited dine-in service at bars and restaurants.

“Monday had a very hectic feeling to it,” said La Bodega owner Pamela Hatzis.

Hatzis said since then, sales have been up a “significant” degree, and people have been buying more at one time than normal. La Bodega sells high-end and harder-to-find spirits, wine and beer.

But as emergency orders continue to be issued by the city and state in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, the retailers aren’t sure how long they can remain open. For now, to stay in operation, many are adjusting their business practices on the fly.

Hatzis said customers can call ahead and tell La Bodega workers what they want. The employees will take it off the shelf, sanitize the bottles and have the items waiting at the counter.

Instead of refilling people’s growlers with beer, they are giving sanitized growlers to them for free.

Hatzis has also implemented a senior citizen hour, from 10 to 11 a.m. on Mondays. The store will open to the general public at 11:15 a.m., after employees have cleaned the surfaces.

“We’ve had to adjust, and that’s immediately felt by the customer, because they’re so used to how we’ve done it all these years,” she said. “But it’s been well-received.”

Dan Piper, wine manager for Wine House on Minnesota Drive, said he saw sales double this week.

Piper said he’s seen customers buying larger amounts — several bottles when before, one would be enough. Some are worried the state or city will close non-essential businesses.

A bottle of Everclear for sale at the Wine House on Minnesota Blvd on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The 75.5% alcohol spirit has been in short supply recently as people buy it to make homemade hand sanitizer. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Piper said Wine House also has instituted new sterilization practices. He said the virus is a frequent topic of conversation with customers.

“Some of them think it’s a joke, some of them are pretty worried,” Piper said. “I don’t know what to think.”

Kim Kole, owner of the Raspberry Roots marijuana dispensary in Midtown, said her sales surge started last Thursday. Mostly, people have been buying larger amounts.

While the situation has increased business, Kole has implemented measures to control sales.

Cannabis sales associate Justin Benner helps Ashley Straight with her order at Raspberry Roots, a cannabis retail store, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The store is limiting the number of people it allows inside at the same time so that everyone can maintain a safe distance apart. Straight purchased 1/8 oz of Lemonade bud and 1 gram of Fruity Pebbles sugar wax. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

She eliminated her daily deals, such as 25% off joints on Saturdays.

And usually, the shop has six registers in operation, eight on the weekends. Now, Kole only has three in use. Only three customers are allowed on the retail floor at a time, and three are allowed in the waiting area. Overflow customers can check in and then wait outside of the store. They get a text message when they can come in.

“We would have 25 people stacked in this waiting room,” Kole said of the days before the virus arrived. “While I know we are taking a hit financially, we want to lead the industry in what is most appropriate for the health of Anchorage and Alaska.”

“If (dispensaries) continue to run daily deals and they continue to stack people in 20 deep, we’re going to get shut down.”

Her workers also sanitize surfaces and doors every hour. Mostly, Kole said, customers have responded well.

An employee sanitizes a couch in a waiting room at Raspberry Roots, a cannabis retail store, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The store is limiting the number of people it allows inside at the same time so that everyone can maintain a safe distance apart. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A couple of blocks away at Uncle Herb’s, workers have taped spots on the floor for customers to stand 6 feet apart from each other. Owner Lloyd Stiassny cut his hours back and is only allowing five customers in the store at a time.

“We’re just going to keep doing our best, and hopefully we can stay open," Stiassny said. "Too much disruption all at once to a community isn’t good.”

Kole said she and her employees are nervous that at any time, government officials could shut down dispensaries.

Still, Kole said, “I will absolutely respect that decision."

Hatzis is also nervous.

“Everybody is worried about money and hours,” she said.

Hatzis said she hasn’t cut employee hours yet, but said that’s likely coming. She said she wants the government — city, state and federal — to announce how they plan to address job losses. Once business owners know the government’s plans, they can adjust accordingly.

For now, Hatzis said she thinks the initial sales increase seen this week won’t last. Eventually, everyone will have plenty of whatever they like on hand.

“This is not Christmas, so this is probably not going to continue at this level,” she said. “We’ll see a slowdown. I expect that.”

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