How the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the first year of business for one Anchorage store

Two women wearing aprons and masks stand in front of shelves in a store
Blue Market AK co-owners Jennifer Gordon and Jessica Johnson have been operating the Spenard retail store since Nov. 2019. Their first year in business has looked a lot different than they imagined it would. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

A small Anchorage grocery store focused on waste reduction and community engagement has spent the better part of its retail life adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Blue Market AK, a farmer’s market cart turned brick-and-mortar store, is built on bulk bins, local foods and package-free products. 

The store’s owners have had to adjust their expectations for the business’s first year. But, they say, they’re doing okay. 

Blue Market AK is tucked away on a side street in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood. The small store is packed with items, and a whiteboard just inside the entrance offers customers the chance to make requests for new products. 

Alaska is on the edge of winter and in the middle of a surge in coronavirus cases. 

And, as Jennifer Gordon walks around her business, she reflects on how the pandemic has changed certain practices at the store.  

Dispensers of bulk food items
Bulk food dispensers at Blue Market AK (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

“This is our food dispensary. Dry foods. Very similar to what you might see other places,” said Gordon, pointing out the bulk food section. 

Some of the food dispenses from the bottom of the containers it is housed in. The store’s owners assist customers with those that need to be scooped from the top.

“This is part of our accommodation to COVID and honestly we’ve decided we kind of like this method,” said Gordon. 

When they’re not scooping for customers, Gordon says they’re sanitizing surfaces frequently. 

The store, which the owners call a ‘refillery,’ is built on the goal of reducing waste. The shelves are stocked with toothpaste tablets, bulk detergents and shampoos, oils and vinegars, and customers are asked to fill reusable containers. They can either bring their own, or use a sanitized container from the store’s “lending library.”

Gordon and her business partner Jessica Johnson used to wheel a cart of these products to farmers markets in the Anchorage area. The retail store has opened in stages, starting last November.

Johnson and Gordon planned to have the full store open in March. But, the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans for them. 

Gordon says, the pandemic pivot was just another challenge in starting their business.

“We have, from the beginning, been really flexible,” said Gordon. “Even when we had this cart that we took around, this crazy cart that we took to the markets, we were changing all the time.”

Since Blue Market is technically a grocery store, it didn’t have to close with non-essential businesses during Anchorage’s “hunker down” order. But they chose to shut their doors for a while anyway. 

They quickly set up an online ordering system, established curbside pickup, and reopened in May, with some changes, says Johnson.  

“We had, literally, a rope up at the door, and we would let people in one or two at a time,” said Johnson. “We’d kind of give them the tour and advise them, basically, don’t touch the bulk bins, we’ll do all the filling for you. So it became more of a personal grocer shopping.”

The shelves at Blue Market AK are packed with bulk items like soaps, shampoos and tooth paste tablets. (Abbey Collins/Alasksa Public Media)

While the store is less strict now, there are certain parts of the original business plan that are still on hold. Mainly, Gordon and Johnson hope the store will one day be a gathering place, with events, workshops, a place to sit. 

“We’re hopeful people will be sitting at this coffee bar in the window someday drinking coffee or espresso —  which you can still get here, but now we give it to you in a mason jar that’s been sanitized, to go,” said Johnson. 

Johnson says she sees this year as a kind of placeholder — the store looks different today than she thought it would. But, she says, that’s okay. 

“I’ve had to give myself permission to slow down a little bit,” said Johnson, a single mom whose first grader is at home participating in virtual school. “All the local products, it’s not quite where I had intended it to be by now.” 

In some ways, Gordon says she considers themselves lucky that the pandemic came so early in their business venture. 

“COVID happened to come in right in the middle of it,” said Gordon. “But at that point, we didn’t have any employees yet. It was only the two of us. And thank goodness it was because I don’t know what we would have done if we were paying salaries at that moment.” 

The store has eight part-time employees now. But, despite that growth, Gordon clarifies that the business is not flourishing. 

“We are open. We are surviving. But to put it out there, that, look at this awesome business, that’s just killing it, it’s not really the truth,” said Gordon. 

Blue Market AK is marking its first birthday the first week in November, with pandemic-friendly celebrations. The owners say in this first year, they’ve sold enough shampoo and conditioner to keep nearly 700 plastic bottles out of the landfill.