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Westchester Lagoon snack shack offers jobs to those in need

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 26, 2015

The mint-colored shack near Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage has reopened this summer as a snack-selling offspring of the Busy Beans coffee shop tucked in Government Hill. But there's more to the business model than just selling confections and drinks to park and trail users.

The opening of "Busy Beans By the Lagoon" marks the first time a business has operated out of the lagoon-side spot since the Covey Cafe stopped selling coffee there in 2010. But Busy Beans has kept a big part of that former business alive by way of how it handles employment.

"The Covenant House kind of knocked on our door and said, 'Hey, we have help, if you have the space,' " said Jill Johnston, a quick-to-laugh mother of two who owns both Busy Beans locations. "And I said, 'Oh my gosh, yes we have the space.' "

Through a Nine Star Education and Employment Services program, Johnston hired John Bonilla, 20, and two others, one age 18 and another age 20, who stay at Covenant House, a youth shelter about 2 miles from the lagoon.

"They're all reliable and trustworthy and sweet and ready to learn and work," Johnston said.

Roger Hamacher, Nine Star's director of youth employment services, said that about 30 youths currently work in these types of internships facilitated through the youth employment program. The program, he said, is "for the ones that have fallen through the cracks and fallen into the Covenant House or MYHouse facility," a Wasilla-based center for homeless youth.

"The idea is give them the opportunities and the financial backing to move forward," he said. "We've got to get this ball moving -- get them out of this poverty."

Through the internship side of the employment program, Nine Star identifies needy youth in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough who may not have the resume or communication skills to land a job. The program helps connect them with employers in the area, Hamacher said.

After an interview and hiring process, Nine Star pays the youths' salaries through a grant for a specified number of weeks. After that time, the idea is that the employers will hopefully hire them permanently, Hamacher said.

"The goal is train them up so they're basically good enough for you to hire as a permanent employee," he said.

On a rainy afternoon, Bonilla stood behind the cash register at Busy Beans By the Lagoon. He sold packaged snacks and drinks to those who stopped by. Some took a break from a walk or a bicycle ride on the nearby trail. Some of the children running around a nearby playground stopped long enough to eat ice cream.

It's the ice cream and popsicles that go quick, said Bonilla, a University of Alaska Anchorage student who lives at Covenant House and is working to pay off student loans.

"I'm trying to hit 40 hours a week each week. I try to work each day of the week," said Bonilla, who plans to major in civil engineering.

Bonilla hopes to move into the UAA dorms this fall. Covenant House once operated the Covey Cafe at the lagoon shack as a job-training program for the youths they housed, said Carlette Mack, chief operating officer of Covenant House.

But, Mack said, Covenant House specializes more in serving youth than running a business, so it shuttered the doors of the Covey Cafe after the summer of 2010.

"Managing a business is not our area of expertise," she said. "So to be able to partner with Busy Beans … it was just a great connection."

One of the three employees Johnston hired through the Nine Star program this summer works exclusively at the Busy Beans in Government Hill. That location opened in 2013. Johnston said the idea for the shop percolated after her first son, Nikko, turned 4 months old and didn't like sitting at a coffee shop with his mother anymore.

Johnston, born in Anchorage, said she was looking for a family-friendly coffee shop where kids could scurry around the floor and occasionally cry and it wouldn't create a major disruption for business. She realized that if that's what she wanted, she had to build it herself, she said.

"I envisioned people sitting in our big, comfy couches with their shoes off," she said.

Johnston and a business partner decided to open Busy Beans. They found an affordable space that needed some fixing up in a strip mall off East Loop Road, near an entrance to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, she said. They opened in 2013 and the customers came, many with their children, Johnston said.

But when summer arrived and school routines stopped, she noticed that business slowed down.

"I knew we were not going to make money up there this summer, but I thought, 'We have to make money somehow,' " Johnston said. "We failed last summer, but this summer, we're not failing."

Johnston said her husband, Yll Vrlaku, who owns a hot dog stand, suggested she call the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department and ask about the colorful shack by Westchester Lagoon. So she did. Other people did too, the department told her.

C. B. Stewart, a permit coordinator for Parks and Recreation, said the proliferation of food trucks and mobile food stands in Anchorage, in part, prompted the department to remodel the Westchester Lagoon shack and open it back up this summer.

It has no running water and no heat, limiting what the business can sell there, Stewart said. They put the space out for bid, and it went to Busy Beans.

"I think it's a good match," Stewart said of Busy Beans By the Lagoon. "When I don't get any calls, that's a good sign."

Stewart said it's unclear what will happen to the tiny building next year.

Johnston, 36, quipped last week that Busy Beans is "summering on the lagoon" this year. Her permit for the shop, through Parks and Recreation, stretches from May to roughly the end of August. The shop typically opens around noon each day and closes before nightfall -- sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., she said.

Johnston said she didn't know yet if her three employees through Nine Star would stick around once fall came -- one had talked about moving, the other had an interest in construction and the third would start classes at UAA. But if they did want to stay, she said she had hours for them at the Government Hill shop.

In the meantime, there may be more to come for the mint-colored shack near Westchester Lagoon, Johnston said. Covenant House is working to get its espresso machine from the shack's previous iteration working again. Some day, Johnston said, her husband hopes they'll rent kayaks there. But mostly it's one step at a time at the location that Johnston said has allowed her family to see just a bit more of Anchorage.

"We've met so many families and heard so many stories and, just, they know us and we know them and you know it's been really -- it's been so neat to be able to get to know so much more of the city," Johnston said. "I'm just glad they like us because we like them."

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