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MAKING IT: Where everything tastes like Alaska

In September 2013 the city of Juneau welcomed Coppa, its first handmade ice cream and coffee shop.  Husband and wife co-owners Marc Wheeler and Jessica Paris snapped up a prime location on Glacier Avenue, next to the Federal Building. Just two years later it was named Juneau's Best Business and Best Ice Cream Shop by Juneau Empire readers. Since then, their popularity and penchant for producing award-winning products has only grown. Most recently, Coppa took the grand prize at the Alaska Symphony of Seafood for their Candied Salmon Ice Cream.

"We make these tiny little bits of candied salmon that are smoked and cured, and then we spin those in a really light vanilla ice cream with a salted caramel ribbon and people seem to really like it," said Wheeler. They source top-quality sockeye salmon from another local business, Taku River Reds. Their innovative salmon processing technique, Wheeler added, makes for an "amazingly clean and pure product."

Wheeler and Paris are focused on local partnerships and Alaska ingredients—from Alaska beer to birch syrup—as they grow their business.

Another door opens

Wheeler and Paris didn't always dream of Coppa. But the idea emerged when Wheeler was faced with a layoff from the youth-mentoring field. They learned of the available storefront and saw potential.

"I've had a pretty diverse career," Wheeler said. "I've been in nonprofit work and local government and I think I've learned something from all those experiences."

Paris has a full-time job working for the State of Alaska while also acting as a partner in Coppa. The stability of Paris's career has allowed the couple to take chances with the cafe and continue to try new things with their business.

"I think we complement each other with our decision-making. She's maybe more cautious and I'm a little more aggressive at making decisions so that's a nice check and balance. We work well together that way," Wheeler said. "She's super creative as well and has a lot of good sense with public relations and marketing that helps the business."

Local flavors

Wild Alaska blueberries, spruce tips, devil's club and rhubarb join the more traditional chocolate and vanilla offerings on the ice cream menu at Coppa. "We really try to have seasonal flavors and try to use as many local ingredients as we can," Wheeler said. In the past, Coppa has sourced blueberries from Hoonah and spruce tips from Gustavus. Wheeler is constantly experimenting with flavors.

"We've been working with birch syrup from Kahiltna Birchworks up in Talkeetna and we make a birch butter pecan that's really good. We use Alaskan Brewing beer in a lot of our ice creams. So we're always searching for ways to use Alaskan ingredients and highlight the wild and pure ingredients we have in Alaska," Wheeler said.

Wheeler and Paris have even tapped into the community for suggestions. Several recommendations came in from Coppa's customers for lavender flavors.

"We finally arrived at a winning recipe for a honey lavender that's been really popular," Wheeler said. "We're the only place in town that has a lavender syrup for lattes and we make it ourselves." Find a video of the lavender syrup-making process on Coppa's website.

More than just ice cream

With the traffic from nearby government offices, Wheeler quickly realized the need for a tailored, seasonal menu that was more than just sweet treats. As the menu grew, he maintained his commitment to use quality, local ingredients for their lunch offerings, something that appeals to the growing population of locavores in Juneau.

"We make our own focaccia bread for sandwiches and we roast our own meats," he said. "So we're trying to do as much as we can in-house."

In just four years, Coppa has created a recognizable brand in Juneau. "We're definitely part of the neighborhood. People like to meet there and see friends."

When Wheeler imagines the future of Coppa, he wants to make sure the cafe is solid. But he also wants to find a way to scale up and share their flavors with a wider audience. As much as he loves making ice cream, he sees the challenge in having it as the core product of a large-scale venture. There are no local dairies; all the milk they use has to be imported.

Wheeler's solution is to access one of Southeast Alaska's most plentiful resources: fresh water. "Soda is something we could make in Southeast Alaska because the main ingredient in soda is water and we have the best water around."

And it seems to be a natural progression. "A lot of the same ingredients we use in ice cream make great soda," Wheeler said. "So we have one flavor on tap now at all times." The next step will be working out the logistics of bottling soda. Keep an eye out for Coppa's spruce tip soda in the future.

The flavor extracted from the tips, said Wheeler, is complex and refreshing.

Finding new fans

The cafe's location, in Juneau's business district, is a little too far off the beaten path for summer tourists who spend much of their time in the historic downtown area. Wheeler and Paris's solution to getting in front of the steady stream of visitors looking to taste the flavors of Alaska was to add the Coppa Cart.  Located at Steamship Landing on South Franklin Street during the summer, the Coppa Cart stands ready to provide handmade ice cream to the thousands of cruise ship passengers that pass through Juneau each summer.

"Our ice cream [production] goes way up in the summertime," said Wheeler, "but unlike some tourist businesses, we can't just take off in the winter because we have a cafe to operate year-round."

The cart is also mobile, and travels for selected special events around Juneau, like the Slush Cup at Eaglecrest, a season-ending celebration at the local ski resort.

Dishing out advice

Now that he has been through this journey from concept to award-winning business, Wheeler is able to offer advice to other budding entrepreneurs. For those interested in starting their own business, Wheeler said, "I'd recommend pooling whatever resources you can from your personal finances, family and friends. Once you're in business and have a good track record, then you'll be better able to secure bank financing to help grow your business."

Wheeler added, "Do your research. Location is really important. And just don't be afraid to dive into the community. If kids come to us and ask us to support their sports team, or their youth activity, we always say yes, and I think it's really important to give back."

And the community is the foundation of Coppa's success. Even when you're starting out and not making a lot of money, Wheeler said, "you still have to support the community, because they're going to be there for you if you support them."

Read additional MAKING IT success stories here, here and here.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.