14 Hours And A Costco Card: How A Grocer In Alaska Feeds His Town In A Pandemic | KGOU
KGOU

14 Hours And A Costco Card: How A Grocer In Alaska Feeds His Town In A Pandemic

May 13, 2020
Originally published on May 16, 2020 5:24 pm

Updated at 10:05 a.m. ET on Friday

Think your grocery store runs are tough these days?

In the remote Alaskan city of Gustavus, a small-business owner, Toshua Parker, has started traveling 14 hours by boat to Juneau and back to stock up on critical supplies for his store during the coronavirus pandemic.

The roughly 450 residents in Gustavus rely on Parker's Icy Strait Wholesale for the bulk of their provisions, from fresh produce to hardware to home appliances.

Among locals, Icy Strait Wholesale is better known as "ToshCo," a play on the name of the store's owner and Costco, where the Gustavus business originally sourced most of its items.

In normal times, Parker would rely on Alaska's ferry system to deliver goods. Gustavus, a peninsular region surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park, is only accessible by airplane or boat. But ferry services have stalled — partly because of stoppages related to the coronavirus.

So, the owner found a workaround.

Parker and a crew of staff have been hauling supplies via ship from Juneau, 50 miles away, scheduling each trip around the tides. When Parker finds empty shelves at the local Costco, he gets orders shipped from out of state.

"It's like Christmas when the load gets here," Parker told The Hustle. "Everyone is waiting for it. Word gets out, and they all seem to know when it's coming."

He credits his 15 employees with helping to keep the store running.

"They're coming to work every day, no matter what, during this pandemic to make sure the town has groceries," he said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

The store has been keeping anxious locals updated on its Facebook page, uploading photos to share the status of the Gustavus-bound ship or a new restock.

"No reason for panic buying," reads one post accompanying a photo of a bulk supply of toilet paper. "Our supply chain may be occasionally delayed but it's holding. We've got you covered Gustavus!"

In the comments, grateful customers express their thanks.

"We are fortunate to have such dedicated people keeping us fed and supplied," wrote one commenter. "Stoked for flour!!!!" wrote another.

As the country faces meat shortages triggered by plant shutdowns and outbreaks amid suppliers, the general store is looking ahead. Last week, ToshCo notified its customers that it's stocked aplenty with ammunition for hunting.

Clarification: 5/15/20

While Toshua Parker does use his own boat as a workaround to ferry service disruptions, he first began making the round trip to Juneau in his own boat due to disruptions before the coronavirus pandemic. Our thanks to public radio station KTOO in Juneau, as well as The Hustle, for assistance with this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic touches just about every part of the world, even the town of Gustavus, Alaska. As described by one resident, this town is a little remote.

TOSHUA PARKER: We've got water on a couple sides and a steep mountain range on the other.

INSKEEP: It's surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park and sits on the tip of a peninsula.

PARKER: We are totally cut off from the rest of Alaska. There's no roads here, so it's only airplanes or boats to get in here.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Toshua Parker owns and operates Icy Strait Wholesale in Gustavus. His store is best known by another name.

PARKER: The community started calling it Toshco (ph) years ago, kind of a play off of my name and Costco, which is where we got, originally, most of our items from. And so the name just kind of stuck.

MARTIN: It's basically a general store where a summer backpacker tourist could pick up a bottle of water and some trail mix.

PARKER: Absolutely. You can walk in and get anything you need right off the shelf pretty much.

INSKEEP: But the town's 450 permanent residents also rely on Toshco for supplies like washing machines.

PARKER: We have a little bit of everything, from groceries to hardware to lumber to occasionally appliances.

INSKEEP: Now, normally Mr. Parker would rely on Alaska's ferry system to deliver goods to his store by water. But that's not an option now, partly due to coronavirus stoppages. So Parker has started making his own weekly round trips to get supplies from the city of Juneau.

PARKER: Unfortunately, as the bird flies, Juneau may only be around 50 miles away. But it's quite a bit longer than that by boat.

INSKEEP: Fifty miles which take Parker and his crew 14 hours to get there and back.

PARKER: We have to time everything around the tides. We have to leave Gustavus at high tide, head to Juneau, get unloaded, reloaded and back again on the next high tide.

MARTIN: And you thought your trips to get groceries were tough. Parker gives credit to his 15 employees.

PARKER: They're coming to work every day no matter what during this pandemic to make sure the town has groceries.

MARTIN: Later today, Toshua Parker of Icy Strait Wholesale and his crew will be making their second round trip to Juneau to bring back supplies to the people of Gustavus, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESS MEETS WEST'S "IF WHAT I THINK IS HAPPENING IS HAPPENING, IT BETTER NOT BE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.