It’s been a hard year for many restaurants in Alaska, but low prices and customers’ expanding palates have helped Anchorage’s small, family-owned eateries fare better than others during the pandemic.
Three-quarters of the new restaurants that opened in Anchorage in 2020 serve cuisines from countries across the globe, including the Philippines, the Caribbean, Greece and India, according to the city’s food permit records. Anchorage Daily News restaurant critic Mara Severin said it makes sense that smaller, family-owned eateries have done better than established fine-dining restaurants. Many have adapted quickly to social media marketing and online ordering for take-out.
She’s watch the expansion over a number of years.
“It used to be ‘Have you tried this new Indian restaurant?’ Now it’s ‘What’s your favorite Indian restaurant in town?’” she said.
And there’s the food itself. Many businesses did lots of take-out before the pandemic and their customers were already used to purchasing food that way. Businesses with large dining rooms that did less take-out had to help customers see their food as take-out food. In some cases that can be a challenge.
“I don’t particularly want to eat a filet mignon out of a cardboard box,” said Severin
Severin said many of the restaurants that really excelled during the pandemic found creative ways to reach their customers. That often meant harnessing social media, using ordering apps, and encouraging outdoor dining or even tailgating.
Hawaiian-Filipino fusion restaurant Jeepney’s, located in South Anchorage, is in the middle of an expansion. A decade ago, owner Donna Manalo and her husband decided to open the restaurant on little more than a love of the food of her youth.
Now she has two food trucks, owns a store in a strip mall across from the Dimond mall, just opened a new storefront on JBER, and has plans to take over the former location of Arctic Roadrunner.
“We have big plans for it,” Manalo said.
Their restaurant has evolved since her husband suggested the idea of opening a restaurant 10 years ago.
“He had no experience of cooking, or nothing, but he saw the lack of Filipino food in Alaska. And I was like, ‘Okay, sure, let’s do it,’” she said.
Through the pandemic, their customer base has grown, thanks to a quick pivot to online ordering. There is a broader demand for some of the food they serve, like dinuguan, a pork blood stew, or lumpia, deep-fried Filipino-style egg rolls.
“I’m gonna say about 95% of our customers are not Polynesian or Filipino,” said Manalo.
Manalo has been adapting her menu over the past years, astutely catering to local tastebuds, such as her take on adobo burritos.
“Burrito is not a thing in the Philippines, but it is in America. So when they tasted that, we were like ‘Okay, this works, now let’s kind of try to introduce other dishes that we love from home and maybe they’ll like it too,’” she said.
They also just introduced poke nachos, and have low-carb Keto options on their menu. Their entrees are also affordable, with most around $15.
Manalo said her biggest challenge right now is finding enough employees to staff the new restaurants.
This story has been updated.