Meet the finalists of this year’s Path to Prosperity program
Since 2014, Spruce Root’s Path to Prosperity competition has allowed individuals, for-profit businesses and tribal entities to compete with their business ideas in Southeast Alaska for up to $25,000 in consulting and technical assistance.
This month, finalists will travel to Juneau for a three-day intensive training to work with experts on developing their business plans, which must be submitted before Dec. 2. The finalists will be announced in February of 2020. Alaska Startups spoke with 10 of the 13 finalists from this year’s cohort (other finalists include Around the Bay Lodging, Kaawu Shellfish Co. and M/V Adak Short and Longterm Rentals).
Alaska Coastal Seaweed — Juneau
Theresa Abbas began harvesting seaweed when she moved to Juneau in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2010 when she and her family moved to a remote Southeast facility that they started incorporating it into their daily lifestyle.
“It provided a food source and became part of our homeschool curriculum,” Abbas said. “I was processing and sending it back to family and friends. They requested more and their kids loved it. [It was] a healthy food that replaced many over-processed snacks.”
After moving back to Juneau, Abbas decided to start Alaska Coastal Seaweed as a means to provide healthy, local, sustainable foods and be on the water with her family living their Alaska life.
“I want to provide a locally sourced food that can be sold to local health food stores and provide
inventory for them to be profitable,” Abbas said. “I would also like to grow on a sustainable scale that would provide local employment and incorporate my business as an educational platform on Alaska’s coastal ecosystems.”
Foundroot — Haines
Founders Leah Wagner and Nick Schlosstein started Foundroot — an Alaskan open-pollinated seed company — as a response to the need for better seeds for the state’s growing conditions.
“There was no conversation happening about the relationship between our state's food security and diminishing stock of seeds relevant for our climate,” Leah said. “Since the early 1900's, 93 [percent] of the diversity of our seed supply has been eliminated.”
Living in a climate with specific challenges means that many seeds being sold won’t flourish in Alaskan gardens.
“By selling and breeding seeds catered to northern growing conditions, we have the best chance of maintaining varieties that will thrive in Alaska and ensure our food security in perpetuity,” Leah said.
An integral piece of Foundroot’s business model is education. Leah and Nick spend a lot of time and energy teaching their customers — from seed saving to northern gardening and using sustainable growing methods.
“In addition to providing better seeds for farmers and gardeners, we hope to support the larger Alaskan growing community in their efforts to produce more food and regionally adapted seeds as our outreach grows,” Leah said.
Gale Force Gardens — Craig
Stephanie Jurries of Gale Force Gardens told herself that she wasn’t going to start another business.
“I already had several small ones making some Made in Alaska products that I sell, and my husband and I were asked to grow some nasturtiums for a local fishing lodge,” Jurries said. “So we grew the plants for the lodge and took some extra plants to the spring bazaar to sell, and we sold out quickly.”
Jurries started learning as much as she could about plant production and realized many lodges were sourcing their plants from out of state. She discovered what the needs were on the island so that they could be met locally. That way, more money could circulate on the island instead of businesses in the Lower 48.
“Just because we are in Alaska with a cool climate, it doesn’t mean that [we] can’t grow a wide variety of flowers and vegetables,” Jurries said. “I want to encourage the beautification of our communities, because it has a positive impact on both locals and visitors, and allows for a greater sense of pride in our communities.”
Jurries is looking to upgrade facilities in the near future.
Jellyfish Donuts — Ketchikan
When Brianna Krantz noticed the gourmet donut scene was booming in big cities, she decided to bring it back to her hometown.
Krantz, a Ketchikan local, was a personal chef for many years before deciding to start her own business venture — Jellyfish Donuts. Her artisanal donut shop has been open for two months, featuring unique flavors like smoked salmon cream cheese and lemon curd with toasted coconut. She’s even had some famous faces come through — like Andy Grammer.
“Donuts are like a blank canvas to explore,” Krantz said.
Krantz moved back to Ketchikan for a few months with plans of moving to Hawaii to start a massage and acupuncture program in Hawaii, but after coming home, she never left. She says that there are a lot of business opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Ketchikan.
“I think the food scene can just really improve in Ketchikan in general,” Krantz said.
The Kootéeyaa Koffee House — Saxman
Kootéeyaa Koffee House is the first business for the community of Saxman — outside of the summer cultural tour program. The Organized Village of Saxman felt a small independent coffee house business would succeed and be refreshing for the area
Winona Wallace, Tribal Administrator, said that it’s rare to see independent business entrepreneur opportunities in town.
“The Organized Village of Saxman [and] owners of Kootéeyaa Koffee House (KKH) want to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for tribal citizens and embarked on starting a coffee house,” Wallace said. “The mission of the business was to train local residents in customer service and hospitality industry skills while developing a small business to benefit the community both culturally and monetarily.”
Kootéeyaa Koffee House provides training and jobs to individuals and provides a service not available in the local area.
“The setting at the Kootéeyaa allows for group meetings and hopes to be used as a venue or incubator to discuss social and conservation concepts important to the general public and tribal citizenry,” Wallace said.
Sagebrush Dry Gear — Kake
Sagebrush Dry Gear — an Alaskan company that manufactures completely submersible waterproof gear bags — provides a much needed product for those who are immersed in the outdoors.
All of Sagebrush’s bags are constructed using radio frequency welding and hot air sewing techniques to guarantee each seam is airtight.
“[We make] something that lasts — a high quality product that’s not ending up in the landfill and getting thrown away,” John Peterka, owner of Sagebrush Dry Gear, said. “We try to make a product that lasts a lifetime and try to fix them if there are issues down the road.”
Peterka says working out of a small town in Alaska provides plenty of logistical challenges.
“It’s a big challenge, especially in Southeast Alaska,” Peterka said. “We don’t get business points for doing business out here.”
The Sitka Food Co-op — Sitka
The Sitka Food Co-op was started in 2010 through Ann Betty, who understood the need to bring organic foods and natural products to Sitka at more affordable prices than were available in town.
“Her concept was to start a business where people in Sitka could come together to solve the problem of the high cost of food in town,” Keith Nyitray, general manager of the co-op, said. “That is, to create a cooperative where every member had an equal ‘stake’ in the business and, being a member-run and operated cooperative, it would put its people ahead of corporate profits.”
Over 240 households and businesses are members of the cooperative and are saving 20 percent on average on their food budget.
“One of the main purposes of the Co-op is to purchase and purvey the goods and services of local growers and producers and we are now purchasing products from several regional businesses scattered throughout [Southeast Alaska] to sell to our members… and the supply chain is growing,” Nyitray said.
Looking ahead, Nyitray says they are willing to assist any other community in Southeast Alaska who is interested in learning how they can create a cooperative of their own.
Tamico, Inc. — Petersburg
Tamico, Inc. is a marine and heavy construction company that has worked across Southeast Alaska for over four decades.
Carrie Martinsen, vice president of Tamico, says they hope to impact the Southeast community by providing good customer service in an industry that is not typically available in such a small town.
Martinsen says Tamico purchases welding supplies in bulk from a distributor and was looking for someone to take on some of their smaller accounts. They thought having a welding supply store would fit well with the custom fabrication business to bring potential customers in or serve as inspiration to welders that are purchasing supplies.
“Large construction jobs have a greater need for welders with multiple certifications and skillsets and we needed a way to keep those welders employed year round,” Martinsen said. “The plan to teach welding and be able to certify welders out of our shop is to stay current in the needs of our marine construction industry as well as strengthen the workforce in our community.”
Tommaso Shellfish — Whale Pass
Through the process of building everything from floating houses to learning twenty ways to tumble oysters over the last 10 years, James Greeley and his father were drawn to the mariculture life.
“I feel it provides me the inspiration to do what I want to do,” Greeley said. “I’ve learned how to grow oysters from tiny pebble-sized spat to delicious ‘shooters’ for people to enjoy.”
Tommaso Shellfish’s farm sits in the waters of Sea Otter Sound near Prince of Wales Island, where they specialize in pacific oysters. Greeley says he sees an opportunity to spark interest in oyster farming in Southeast Alaska by building on the economic and environmental benefits of the mariculture industry.
“Mariculture is a positive contributor to the environment,” Greeley said. “This awareness will help promote Southeast Alaska to become recognized as a regional place to grow and distribute Alaskan Oysters. Through this, we hope to become an example of good stewardship toward the local environment and economy.”
Village Coffee Company — Yakutat
Justyne Wheeler has always had a love for coffee and baked goods; that’s why she opened the Village Coffee Company in her hometown.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own business where I sell both of those things,” Wheeler said. “It’s been six years since I left college and moved back home to Yakutat. I was at the point in life where I was thinking if I don’t start my own business, when will I? So here I am!”
As a mother to two young children, one of the hardest things is loading the kids in and out of the care to either make a trip for coffee or groceries.
“Having a drive-thru coffee shop simply adds convenience to the life of my customers which is very important to me, especially in a rural village where quick and convenient is a rare commodity,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler hopes by next year, she can create a number of part-time positions in Yakutat and that her shop is open seven days a week.
“The end goal and true ‘impact’ I hope to have on our community is to create year-round work in a seasonal community,” Wheeler said.