In Anchorage’s COVID-19 economy, social media skills are essential for small business — but not everyone has them

Two people stand in front of a pizza oven, smiling.
Heather Cuedek and Jorge Garcia opened Familia in May 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting local businesses. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

In the past year, as Alaskans changed their habits in response to the pandemic, social media became a lifeline for businesses seeing less foot traffic. But access to online resources hasn’t been equal.

During a busy morning in the pre-customer hours at the Anchorage Brewing Company, Heather Cuedek and Jorge Garcia work behind a long counter and in front of a wood-fired pizza oven, preparing to serve steak and eggs to customers in a few days. Cuedek and Garcia own Familia, which is housed at the Brewery. They serve food three days a week.

“It’s just a three-man team, just me and Heather in the kitchen from prepping to cooking to doing the dishes,” said Garcia. 

“And all the social media,” adds Cuedek. 

Familia opened in May 2020. Cuedek and Garcia credit a number of things to helping them get off the ground despite the pandemic, including loyal customers, outdoor seating, fire pits and the effort they’ve put into their social media presence. 

Two people stand behind a counter where they are preparing food.
Jorge Garcia puts on plastic gloves before preparing hot peppers. Garcia and Heather Cuedek own Familia. (Abbey Colllins/Alaska Public Media)

They have a rotating menu, and reveal weekly offerings with photos on Instagram and Facebook, drawing the attention of people around Southcentral. 

“Depending on the menu, people will come from the Valley or all over, driving so far to come get our food,” said Garcia. “To me, that’s so huge.”

Cuedek said it’s been a big part of growing the business. 

“We notice the difference in the times that we post, the days that we post — there’s so many different factors,” said Cuedek. “We would ideally like to post as early as possible but because it’s just the two of us, and depending on the menu, it can be hard to get a picture in a timely fashion.”

A person holds a chili pepper in their hands. There is a bowl of peppers in front of them.
Jorge Garcia prepares peppers that will be part of a steak and eggs dish at Familia. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Familia has seen a huge response from the community and frequently sells out of food before the weekend is over. Cuedek said their business model has been working. They like how it allows them to be spontaneous, responding to the desires of customers each week. 

Across town at the Midtown Mall, a handful of vendors are set up selling local products. Katie Wright stands behind a table of vibrantly colored pastries and breads. 

Wright opened Concoction Breads in 2019, first as a weekly pop-up at Anchorage re:MADE. 

“Moving forward, the pandemic happened,” said Wright. “Everything kind of shut down. We weren’t having the customer flow that we had with the store. So I had to kind of pivot and decide what was going to work for people. What would I need as a mom to make my life a little bit easier?”

Katie Wright owns Concoction Breads. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Wright started incorporating deliveries and setting up at farmers markets, leaning on social media to get the word out. 

“Social media is imperative to making my products available to the consumer at all times,” said Wright. “You can kind of see what I’ve done in the past, what I’m working on. Things like Instagram stories and TikTok videos keep you engaged with your customers at all times.”

But, pivoting to having a robust online presence wasn’t easy for everyone. 

“The mantra that everyone kept saying is, you know, ‘You’ve got to get your business online. You’ve got to get your business online,’” said Emily Cohn, Director of Communications and Development at the Anchorage Community Land Trust.  

“For businesses that have not been able to do that, they’re now not just struggling through the pandemic, but they’re struggling to compete with other businesses who are able to digitally market themselves in that way,” said Cohn. 

Cohn’s organization is about to start an online boot camp to help business owners who haven’t been able to make the move online already. 

Tasha Webster is the program coordinator for the bootcamp. 

“Sometimes the online space, the digital space, can be a little intimidating,” said Webster. “Technology is rapidly changing and there’s always a new trend or a new platform or something new to kind of focus your business efforts on. Sometimes it can be overwhelming for entrepreneurs who aren’t as aware … of what’s available.” 

The Anchorage Community Land Trust has seen a lot of interest in the program, which begins in May: They’ve had almost 70 applicants so far. They hope bringing more entrepreneurs online will help small businesses grow, and help level the playing field.

Correction: This story has been uprated to correct the spelling of Emily Cohn’s last name.