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Ambitious Bethel retail makeover changes what it means to shop in rural Alaska

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 5, 2014

BETHEL -- The old Swanson's store here was, as one manager put it, "decrepit." It had a funky charm, with crepe paper decorations hanging from the ceiling, a large display of mosquito nets, a crazy maze of food-packed shelves, and, according to an old sign, an opportunity for free ear piercing (though antiseptic was $5.50).

But the siding was peeling, the ceiling leaked, and shoppers making their way on the uneven flooring had to keep a grip on their carts lest they roll off into an endcap display of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread.

The new Swanson's opened Monday and it's so modern, it's almost as if you've left Bethel. There's in-store grilling and Asian takeout, crisp lettuce and organic eggplant, LED lighting and muted earth tones. There are aisles marked "Costco Costco Costco" loaded with Kirkland bulk items. There's hormone-free beef, gluten-free cake mixes and freshly made seaweed salad. Something here reaches deeper too.

Bethel retail, if not quite upscale, is shifting to be more like Anchorage or even metro Seattle compared to Bush Alaska's rough and rustic norm.

Swanson's main competition, the AC Value Center, just spiffed up and expanded, too. Off-the-road-system prices remain steep compared to urban centers. But for villagers, the revamped Bethel stores present both bounty and bargain.

'This is the new Bethel'

Opening week, some shoppers strolled Swanson's just looking. Others stocked up. Employees seemed to be beside themselves.

"My mouth was wide open," said night manager Barbara Haroldsen, wearing a green kuspuk and taking in the scene not long after getting to work on opening day. "I was stunned and joyful at the same time." Haroldsen said she never expected Swanson's would change so completely.

"I'm just awestruck because it's so beautiful and the variety is so great," said Arvin Dull, 57, who was born and raised in Bethel but travels a lot. Swanson's rivals any store, said Dull, a former bank manager who now manages property. He stopped by to pick up a quick to-go lunch and look around.

Nellie Alexie, 35, and Cheryl Andrew, 25, flew in from Kongiganak, mainly to stock up.

"It feels like Fred Meyer or Walmart," said Andrew, who was hauling home five dozen eggs, a jumbo box of snacks and a shipping box packed full. She saw the store under construction but said she still was surprised at how nice it turned out. Alexie said she liked the organization: "Things are easier to find."

The new Swanson's is part of a new $20 million complex called Kipusvik, Yup'ik for "place to buy things." Inside there's also a movie theater -- Bethel's first since the early 1980s -- called Suurvik Cinema. Suurvik is Yup'ik for "show hall."

Bethel Native Corp. paid for and owns the complex, and a subsidiary, Bethel Services Inc., built it. It teamed up with Omni Enterprises Inc., an Anchorage-based, employee-owned company that runs Swanson's and several other stores in Alaska. Now Swanson's is the Native corporation's anchor tenant. BNC is running the movie theater, which opened July 4. Its first movies: "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "22 Jump Street."

The sentiment that an attractive, shiny new store isn't really that Bethel should change, said Ana Hoffman, Bethel Native Corp. chief executive officer. Bethel, about 400 air miles west of Anchorage near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, has a population of more than 6,000 people. It's the hub community for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

"This is the new Bethel," she said on the store's opening day. "This is our new standard."

Not counting resource development, the complex is one of the most expensive private investments in rural Alaska, she said.

The conventional thinking was that quality construction off the road system is too expensive, she said.

"Well, it's a value system," Hoffman said. "You have to decide: Who is worth this investment?"

She called the Kipusvik complex "transformational."

'Tired old building'

The original Swanson's was started by pioneer brothers David and Keith Swanson back in 1959. It burned down, and its replacement opened in the mid-1960s, said Bill Miller, vice president of Omni Enterprises, who was in Bethel for the store opening.

The familiar red-sided store in the older part of town near Chinese-American restaurants and the small boat harbor was "decrepit," Miller said. "A tired old building," Hoffman said.

The for-profit village corporation first began looking into a retail project five years ago, Hoffman said. The board of directors, now chaired by state Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, gave the go-ahead in 2011.

A third grocery had folded, the AC store dominated the market and Swanson's was struggling in its inferior space.

"They have the knowledge in the industry," Ana Hoffman said. "They have the distribution down. They know how to operate off-road retail. They just needed a quality building for their product."

Many Native corporations focus on government contracts around the country and world. Local investment to sustain and improve the shopping environment made sense to Bethel Native Corp., Hoffman said. More than half of its 1,800 shareholders still live in Bethel or surrounding villages, and when they shop at Swanson's, they'll support that investment, she said. Locals work there too and often grow into management jobs, according to Miller.

Omni couldn't have afforded the new Swanson's without Bethel Native Corp., Miller said. On a recent tour of the store, he repeatedly said how thankful Omni was.

"We'd still be in that dilapidated old building," Miller said. "If they hadn't partnered up with us, this wouldn't have happened."

The old store will become an outlet for Swanson's to clear out older merchandise, then will become a quick mart, Miller said. Swanson's, which was known around Bethel for its custom-order cakes, will continue to use the old Swanson's oven, he said. Swanson's old hardware, marina and furniture stores will continue to operate, he said.

At the new store, pilot bread still is expected to be a best seller. Swanson's still will offer clothing, fabric and special lines, including funeral wreaths.

'Bulk mushrooms!'

The new Swanson's and food court take up roughly 45,000 square feet within the 60,000-square-foot Kipusvik. A zig-zagging entryway roof was designed to mimic the flow of the Kuskokwim River, said the project architect, Cyndie Freier of Burkhart Croft in Anchorage.

The complex is on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway, about a mile and a half from the old store. The region's biggest employer is the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and the new store is across the road from the YKHC hospital and next door to YKHC's administrative offices.

From big round tables, food court diners have views of the health facility and the tundra beyond. Eventually there will be televisions and, if the pricing can work out, free Wi-Fi, Miller said.

Not everything is perfect. Some parts of the store are a little dark. Miller said managers are going to re-evaluate the lighting in those spots.

Cynthia Ess, 58, and boyfriend Bert Dade, 61, strolled the aisles hand in hand. Both are Bethel transplants who work across the street as lab techs and live on the hospital campus. The new Swanson's spares them each a $5 cab ride each way to the AC store or the old Swanson's. They watch prices and will shop both AC and Swanson's, she said. Other shoppers echoed that they'll shop both.

Later, after taking a longer look, Ess said she was impressed with the fresh produce.

"This will change our shopping habits," she said. She spotted an area she hadn't seen before. "Bulk mushrooms! So excited!"

Produce bins were specially designed and arranged, suppliers said. Apples, lettuce and other fresh items are not stacked as high as is typical, and the modern coolers keep produce at just the right temperature, to reduce spoilage, Miller said. At night, pull-down screens cover produce and dairy sections to save energy.

Swanson's also has new bulk bins, more organic food, more meat selections, more baked goods, more from Costco.

A 3-pound tub of peanut-butter-filled pretzels sold for $19.99. Corn was 99 cents an ear. Steel cut oats from a bulk bin was $2.79 a pound. Silverhook coffee was $18.99 for 2 pounds.

Some shoppers carried their boxes and bags down a dirt road to the river. They loaded up their skiffs and motored away to home villages or fish camp.

Redone AC store, too

For the new store, Omni hired an additional 40 employees, bringing the total to 100 at Swanson's in Bethel, said store manager Casey Dela Cruz.

That matches the staffing at Bethel's AC Value Center, part of the biggest retail chain in rural Alaska, the Alaska Commercial Co.

"We appreciate the competition," said Walter Pickett, general manager and vice president of operations for Alaska Commercial Co. "It's something that makes us better, too."

The company already had planned to renovate its Bethel store. It speeded up the $2 million project when managers learned about the new Swanson's, Pickett said.

The AC store expanded into the old Bethel post office next door and crews spruced up the store interior, adding organic and natural foods, custom-cut meats, more frozen foods, self-serve milkshakes, an expanded deli and dry goods in bulk bins, though those weren't yet stocked the first week of July. To make the store brighter and neater, crews stopped stacking back stock on top of shelves, managers said.

Swanson's needed "an infusion of cash," Pickett said. "They got into a relationship with the Native corporation in Bethel and got that big, beautiful store."

Managers at Omni stress how the Swanson-connected company is employee-owned and based in Alaska. Pickett said although Alaska Commercial Co. is owned by The North West Co., based in Winnipeg, Canada, it is pumping earnings into stores all around Alaska. In the last three years, for instance, Alaska Commercial Co. has built new stores in Hooper Bay, Kotlik and Emmonak, did major remodels of two stores on Prince of Wales Island, and is doing the same in Dillingham and St. Mary's.

In these new and remodeled Bethel stores, will customers get better buys?

"We at this point in time have no desire or really no interest in getting into a price war," Pickett said.

Managers on both sides said they'll be watching each other and running sales, like always. Just before Swanson's opened, AC advertised big deals on produce. Strawberries were $3.88 a pound, cheaper than at Swanson's.

Swanson's grand opening will begin July 31 and run for a week. There will be raffles, giveaways and deals, managers said.

"AC was killing the old Swanson's," said Robert Jacobs-McDonald, the new store's food service manager overseeing the bakery, deli, grill and movie concessions. He was recruited from the competition.

Leading into the Fourth of July weekend, both store parking lots were busy. But the new Swanson's was busier.

"Our heart and soul is in this building," Hoffman said.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.