Open & Shut is an ongoing series looking at the comings and goings of businesses in Southcentral Alaska. If you know of a business opening or closing in the area, send a note to reporter Alex DeMarban at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Open & Shut” in the subject line.
Blackbull Native Store: This small Midtown Anchorage business caters to Alaska Natives and rural residents.
Much of the merchandise invokes a sense of nostalgia among customers, said co-owner Daphne Nicholai, who grew up in a village near Bethel. She and many others fondly remember the striped hard candies that were handed out during Russian Orthodox Christmas in January, she said.
Those candies fill rows of glass jars at the store, beneath old-style chewing gum like Beemans, and soda pop in flavors such as birch beer or black cherry.
“It brings us back to that time,” Nicholai said, smiling.
Other items include enamel steam-bath bowls and collapsible berry buckets. They also sell raw products for handmade chewing tobacco, used especially in the Bethel region in Southwest Alaska and known in Yup’ik as iqmik. It’s sometimes called blackbull.
Spark plugs, first aid kits and other necessities for a rural life close to the land are also available. There’s a seating area where people can swap stories.
For several years, Nicholai has owned an online business, Blackbull Tobacco, selling tobacco-related products. She learned from her rural customers that they wanted other things too, like the enamel wash basins for steamhouse baths.
So she and JD Berry, her longtime business partner and boyfriend — or aipaq, as she calls him in Yup’ik — decided to open a storefront in Anchorage. They also take online orders.
The store doesn’t sell chewing tobacco. But the products it sells to make the chew include the ash made from punk that grows off birch trees, a hard fungus. It’s stored in drawers behind the counter, so it doesn’t attract kids’ eyes.
“It’s a family-friendly environment,” Berry said.
They also sell chaga, harvested from a fungus collected from dead birch trees. It’s used to prepare medicinal tea.
The store at 501 W. International Airport Road, Unit 30, is located in the Geneva Woods strip mall. It’s open daily from noon to 6 p.m.
Meraki Hellenic Grill: This Greek restaurant closed in Eagle River in mid-2020, amid the pandemic slowdown.
But it has opened a pop-up spot early this month in Anchorage. It shares space with That Wing Place at 360 Boniface Parkway.
Meraki Hellenic Grill sells chicken and pork gyros, lamb and beef kebabs and other Greek fare. It opens at 11 a.m. every day but Sunday, and stays open until the meat runs out at night, often until 8 p.m., said owner Fredo Garcia.
Garcia previously owned Sparrow’s in Kodiak before opening Meraki in Eagle River. He hopes to find a permanent spot in downtown Anchorage.
Her Fusion Fitness: Rali Gunzinger arrived in Alaska four years ago with her husband, a cargo pilot.
She said Anchorage lacked fitness options for women, so she decided to start a small, boutique studio. On Sept. 1, she’s opening Her Fusion Fitness.
A Pilates instructor, Gunzinger said the business will have a personal feel, with classes consisting of 10 people or fewer. “I want everyone to feel special,” she said.
Workouts will include the body-sculpting movements of barre, fused with Pilates. There’ll be high-intensity, mini-trampoline routines. A yoga instructor will lead some classes.
The studio comes with showers, lockers and a “mini-club” for children as a way to provide child care while parents exercise. It’s located at 135 W. Dimond Blvd., across from Costco.
Pedal Anchorage: An Anchorage couple wanted to bring people together and spark new life in downtown, especially after the pandemic brought many activities to a halt.
So Bailey and Sewak Landay ordered a party bike that seats up to 14 guests for lively rides along downtown streets. Pedal Anchorage, bookable online, got rolling in June for its first summer season.
Groups have used it for business outings, birthday parties, wedding events and other fun get-togethers. It’s also been a hit with tourists, Bailey Landay said.
The bike can be an electric-powered or human-powered depending on customers want, and tours are customized, she said. There are seats for 10 potential pedalers, and four seats without pedals.
“Almost any ability and age can enjoy it and experience it,” Landay said.
People can bring their own food and drinks, including beer and wine. The canopy-covered bike features microphones, a TV and a Bluetooth-based stereo for personal playlists.
Bailey, who previously worked for a marketing company, and Sewak, a retired U.S. Air Force fireman, drive the bike.
“In reality, people just have a blast being together,” she said. “We’ve had people book back-to-back tours because they are having so much fun. They don’t want to get off the bike.”
The groups often dine out downtown before or after the nearly two-hour ride, which follows a safety briefing. Or they make short stops at bars and shops. That’s helping Pedal Anchorage meet its goal of bringing more business activity to area.
“That makes us feel good,” Bailey said.
Kentucky Fried Chicken: The fast-food chain opened a spot this month at the site of the former Sweet Basil Cafe, at 1021 W. Northern Lights Blvd. in Spenard.
The new building replaces the old KFC that was in the strip mall at Northern Lights Boulevard and C Street.
It comes with drive-thru service, an important business feature that became important during the pandemic, which the previous KFC lacked.
Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, south location: Beset with pandemic-related problems like labor and supply shortages, Fire Island did what other businesses have done in the last couple of years and consolidated operations, shutting down their South Anchorage site last month.
Its owners said the closure off 91st Avenue and King Street will allow the bakery to focus on top-quality service at its two other spots, in Airport Heights and downtown.
Running three locations became too unwieldy without enough bakers and supplies to keep shelves fully stocked, they said. Inflation added to the challenge.
“We loved being in the South Anchorage location on 91st,” said co-owner Janis Fleischman. “But we aren’t really able to do the kind of bakery we dreamed of when we had three. It just got so big.”
The bakery pays well, but the level of employee churn has been unprecedented as people pursue new life goals during the pandemic, and as employees have an array of jobs to choose from this summer, said co-owner Rachel Pennington.
It’s been a scramble keeping shelves fully stocked with bread, they said. Pennington said, “We are baking - ”
“ - Our brains out,” Fleischman said, finishing her daughter’s sentence.
“We’ll be able to run these two bakeries with a lot of intentionality and care and return to these core values that got this bakery to where it’s at,” Pennington said.
229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern: This establishment in the Denali National Park area closed this month after 18 years in business. With its oft-changing menu and focus on fresh Alaska food, it was a must-stop for many Alaskans.
Co-owner Laura Cole said on Facebook that she accepted an offer from Alaska Geographic to purchase the building and property at 229 Parks Highway. Alaska Geographic plans to use the building and build new housing on the property for the company’s seasonal employees, said Andy Hall, executive director of Alaska Geographic, which runs retail operations at the visitor center complex at Denali National Park and Preserve and other national parks in Alaska.
“229 Parks has been so many things to so many people,” Cole wrote on Facebook. “The weddings, first dates, music, concerts, flip cup, knife fights, baby showers, birthdays, memorials, proms (even underground ones), New Years, all hands in, dance parties on the bar, roller skating, all the puns..even dumpster fires.. so so so many moments..”
“Thank you endlessly for all the love, support, and encouragement,” she wrote.