Summer is typically the money-making season for many Alaska businesses, as tourists flock to the state. But this summer, the COVID-19 pandemic made that a lot harder.
On a September evening at Cynosure Brewing, customers are scattered between the taproom and a makeshift outdoor patio, where a food truck serves up dinner.
This outdoor scene, though welcome, is not exactly what the brewery’s owners envisioned for their space when they opened four years ago.
The season is changing now, and some businesses didn’t survive the summer. The ones that did are preparing for the long winter ahead.
“We wanted to create a comfortable space for people to come in, have a beer, converse, read, relax,” said Cindy Drinkwater, one of the brewery’s owners. “which now, during the pandemic obviously is sort of the antithesis of social distancing.”
Cynosure does some distribution, but its business model is mostly built around in-store sales. Drinkwater said that’s been tough this summer, with fewer tourists, and changing regulations to keep up with.
The silver lining, she said, has been the introduction of the patio space, which customers have loved. Drinkwater says have seen fewer customers taking advantage of that space, as the weather changes. But, she said, they plan on keeping it open as long as they can, while creating the safest environment possible for customers who choose to drink indoors.
Drinkwater says they’re guardedly optimistic about the future. Winter is coming, and that typically means slower sales. Usually, Drinkwater says, events help offset that. But they’re not counting on that boost this year.
“Knowing that it’s going to be a long, kind of, cold, dark winter, it’s always been on our mind. So we’ve been trying to be very conservative about spending money,” said Drinkwater.
In an August survey, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation found nearly 70% of responding businesses experienced a decline in revenue during the pandemic. Seventeen businesses of the 139 who responded said they are at risk of closing permanently.
Outdoor spaces like the one at Cynosure have helped keep a steady flow of customers at many Anchorage businesses this summer. But not all businesses are positioned to create those spaces.
“It has been crazy with COVID,” said Waffles and Whatnot owner Derrick Green.
Green says the parking situation at his business has prevented him from establishing outdoor seating. And dine-in customers have not been coming in like they used to. The business also has a food truck, which has helped keep sales up. And, Green says he’s putting a lot of work into making the restaurant even safer. He’s poured money into installing new air filtration systems.
“It emptied everything I had in my bank account,” said Green. “Because I completely remodeled the restaurant to allow the air to flow better.”
Green says, despite a slew of challenges and revenue loss, he feels confident heading into the winter.
“This is going to sound crazy,” said Green, “but I’m actually a little excited for where we are right now. Because, if a business can survive, if a restaurant — specifically a food service business — can survive, in this COVID environment, then once the economy comes back, we’re going to be in an absolutely amazing position and we show that we have a viable business that can last through really tough times.”
The impacts of the pandemic on Anchorage’s business community go beyond the food and beverage industry.
Pandemic precautions have led to people congregating and browsing less, a trend that is a big deal for an art gallery. Georgia Blue owns a gallery in Midtown Anchorage. Blue said just this month, she started to see the return of browsers.
“I feel like there’s more people coming in, just to browse, enjoy the art, see what’s new,” said Blue. “Otherwise, that had really ended.”
Blue says she’s been developing her online space, and leaning more heavily on those sales. But one thing she’s really missing is the gallery’s First Friday events, which used to bring hundreds of people to the business once a month. Blue said they tried holding a First Friday partly outdoors in July, but only saw around 30 guests.
Blue said she doesn’t fear the winter, but she does have concerns about the coming months.
“I don’t see winter, or the darkness, or anything like that really affecting us,” said Blue. “I think what’s going to affect us in the winter months will be what the virus is doing.”
Recently, Anchorage has seen a new surge in COVID-19 cases, highlighting the uncertainty that still exists around the trajectory of this virus.
But so far, these business owners say one thing has been constant and reliable: local, community support.