‘Nothing is for certain’ amid operating restrictions
In October 2013, Fat Ptarmigan opened its doors. After years spent working at bars and restaurants in Anchorage, co-owner and head chef Guy Conley was excited about bringing a “fast casual” dining option to the downtown scene.
“There were a lot of fine dining options, but not many for someone looking for something casual,” says Conley. “No one was doing wood fired pizza when we opened and I couldn’t find a decent meatball in this town to save my life.”
The restaurant opened to positive reviews and an overnight following. Diners loved the simple but delicious fare as well as the inviting ambiance of warm wood, exposed bricks, and a front row seat to watching Conley work the pizza oven.
Less than a year later, the recession hit Alaska.
“It definitely wasn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant,” says Conley.
An opportunity, and a challenge
Fast forward to early 2020. Fat Ptarmigan was still going strong, but downtown had changed since the restaurant’s early days.
On the positive side, apartment buildings and condos being constructed were attracting new residents to the area and Conley felt like the Anchorage Police Department’s relocation to 4th Avenue was leading to decreased crime. New businesses were opening or expanding.
On the negative side, Nordstrom, a downtown retail anchor since 1975, closed in 2019 and much of downtown business still depended on the visitor season and events that brought locals to the area. Conley says that even when the economy rebounded after the recession, people just weren’t eating out as much as they did pre-recession.
Always on the lookout for ways to strengthen Fat Ptarmigan’s business model, a collaboration with the Double Shovel Cider Co. seemed like a good opportunity to diversify the restaurant's offerings and co-mingle clientele, while taking advantage of underused space. For Double Shovel, it was a chance to have a downtown presence and easily connect with locals and visitors.
Anchorage Cider House launched in February 2020 in Fat Partmigan’s south room, offering cider from Double Shovel on tap and in cans.
Galen Jones, co-owner of Double Shovel, says that the collaboration with Fat Ptarmigan is grounded in shared values and a mutual appreciation of downtown.
“A vibrant and thriving Downtown is good for Anchorage, and fortunately it’s on the upswing. We want to be part of developing an even more popular scene with increased activity, mixed use and residential buildings, help it be a place people want to hang out at all hours of the day,” Jones said.
Jones’ plans for Anchorage Cider House included featuring ciders from around the world, educational tours spanning the cidery (located in Midtown) and the cider house, live music, special release parties, and Spain-inspired events serving cider directly from casks.
Any other summer, and the Anchorage downtown restaurant scene would most likely be booming. But summer 2020 is unlike any other summer in living memory: it’s the summer of a global pandemic.
An twist called COVID-19
By Anchorage Municipal Emergency Ordinance, restaurants and bars were closed to indoor dining from March 18 to May 11, and then again in August for a four-week reset meant to slow the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Anchorage.
The closures have been brutal for businesses.
“One bad week is hard to recover from,” says Jones. “And we’ve had months of bad, with no sustainable revenue. It was a big investment for us to open Anchorage Cider House, and if something were to happen to Fat Ptarmigan, we’d be up the creek without a paddle.”
To get through the closures, Jones, Conley, and the rest of their team are focusing on new ways to reach customers. Conley says that third party apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are essential, but terrible in terms of revenue.
“When we have a full dining room and can sell cider, wine, and beer, they’re okay. But now, when we’re relying on them, the fees they charge are devastating.” (Pro tip: if you connect to delivery apps from a restaurant's website, the app waives the fees.)
Both Jones and Conley say the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, has helped, and are hopeful that State of Alaska CARES Act funds will soon be made available to businesses who received more than $5,000 from PPP (this has been proposed and will likely be approved soon). Conley says options like rent relief or delayed property taxes would be welcome.
During a time when the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants across the country may permanently close by the end of 2020, restaurateurs are looking for creative solutions.
Conly says that the Open Streets ANC initiative, organized by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, is helping.
“Downtown is like a ghost town, without the tourists and with the small number of people who live here. We’re not seeing a lot of foot traffic. But, we’re trying to get people to the outside seating and right now we’re only down 25 percent of our annual revenue, which is good compared to other restaurants I know.”
The State of Alaska’s decision to allow to-go and delivery for alcohol is also helping.
“We really focused on people picking up cans and growlers when we were first shut down,” says Jones. “Now with the ability to pick up cider combined with the open streets, we’re seeing revenues grow.”
Conley found another way to reach customers, too: the Migrating Ptarmigan, a food truck selling Fat Ptarmigan fare. “It’s going well, and it’s another way to promote the business.”
What does the future hold?
“Right now we’re so preoccupied with the day-to-day and how to get people to come downtown, we haven't really thought about how to get through the winter,” says Jones. “I wish I had a plan, but between running Double Shovel and keeping our full-time jobs, it's tough to look further than a week into the future. But I know downtown in the winter is going to be really tough for everyone.”
Conley hopes that indoor dining will return at least at 50 percent indoor seating capacity in the fall.
Both like the idea that initiatives like Open Streets ANC and the EasyPark’s recently launched Operation Downtown Dine Out, which provides restaurant seating in parking spaces, might return next summer.
“It’s so cool that there are all these options now with seating and shops, and it feels like a safe and fun place to be. You can get food and see live music, see friends while staying distanced, support local businesses,” says Jones.
Neither is keen to predict too far into the future though.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” says Conley, “It’s that nothing is for certain.”
Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.