Juneau food businesses look to new markets to ride out pandemic

Tracy’s King Crab Shack normally employees more than 100 people in the summer. Now, its staffed with six employees. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Restaurants and local food producers in Juneau were gearing up for what was supposed to be a record breaking tourism season this summer. Of course, those prospects are dashed now as coronavirus cases across the country continue to swell. But businesses are finding ways to sell their inventory.  

There’s no one around on the boardwalk that’s normally bustling with cruise ship passengers this time of year. Still, it’s not exactly quiet. An 80s pop song pulses through the outdoor speakers at Tracy’s King Crab Shack. The restaurant is surrounded by darkened storefronts, but it is open. A giant metal pot in the kitchen billows steam. 

Tracy LaBarge, the owner, says she didn’t consider keeping the business closed through the summer. 

“No, that wasn’t an option,” LaBarge said. “There’s bills to pay so we’ll do what we can do.”

LaBarge has added items to the menu that are more cost effective for local diners than her signature dish — king crab legs. 

Even so, she estimates sales are down by about 95%. And with revenue to make up, LaBarge is looking for other ways to diversify the business. 

“So we have definitely gone to more online sales,” she said.

In the corner of the restaurant is something new: a shipping station stacked with boxes and tape. LaBarge says they’ve sold crab online before, but it was never a focus. Now, it’s something they’re going to do more of because of business necessity and customer demand. She says recently limited online orders featuring a frozen crab leg bisque kit did especially well. It sold to customers from across the country. People who’ve visited Juneau on a cruise regularly stay in touch via Facebook or through her newsletter. 

“Surprisingly, we do get a lot of orders [from] Arizona … Unfortunately, it’s so hot [there] we have a lot of issues. We have to put extra ice packs in there,” LaBarge said.

It’s not just restaurants that are having to rapidly adjust their business model. Local food producers who normally sell to seasonal restaurants are having to pivot, too. 

Basil growing hydroponically at Juneau Greens. (Photo courtesy of John Krapek)

“It was almost like perfectly horrible timing,” said John Krapek, one of the owners of Juneau Greens.

He runs a hydroponic farm inside a garage big enough to fit a large boat. Before COVID-19 stuck, Krapek had planted plenty of butter lettuce and arugula, anticipating summer sales to restaurants and possibly a small cruise ship. 

“When the restaurants first closed, we had like kind of a week of panic, thinking about what we were going to do,” he said. “because I’d say about 30% of our business was selling to restaurants.”

But that panic didn’t last long. Krapek had amassed a waitlist for a popular Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, where customers pay in advance for a weekly greens box. He says he was able to fill most of that gap selling directly to customers through the CSA in addition to increasing sales to Panhandle Produce’s brick and mortar shop in Juneau and Salt & Soil Marketplace, an online farmer’s market, which has reported tripling  its sales during the pandemic. 

This experience could be seen as a setback. But Krapek thinks, so far, it’s been a positive story. 

“I think we’re cultivating an even larger customer base now by going direct to consumer,” Krapek said.

Back at the crab shack, Tracy LaBarge says there’s also some benefits to having a slower year. She actually had a difficult time amassing large quantities of king crab from Kodiak in the fall when she normally buys her crab. 

“I’m actually glad it’s a little bit slower because I need to hold on to it,” she said.

In the meantime, LaBarge will sell some of that product locally and in online orders for people nostalgic for their Alaska cruise. For now, a box of crab legs will have to do — invoking the taste of the ocean and the past summer energy of downtown Juneau, even in the heat of Arizona. 

“I think being here is just special in itself. You’re in Alaska. You’re having crab in Alaska,” LaBarge said. “It’s hard to beat that. But the feedback we’re getting is people are really happy that we sent it there, but they miss being here.”