It seems like on just about every street corner in Fairbanks, Alaska, there is a drive-thru coffee stand serving customers breakfast sandwiches and specialty coffee items. The small coffee huts are fairly unique to Fairbanks and the pacific northwest. They range from one person businesses with a single location, to small franchises that have multiple stands spread out around the city. I was able to interview Liz Gardner, who owns “Cafe Cache”, and Dan Meyer, the owner of “Mocha Dan’s.”
Mocha Dan’s was the first drive-thru coffee stand in Alaska. Dan had originally run a coffee and snack stand during the 1990’s inside of West Fred Meyer’s, which is one of the busiest stores in Fairbanks. He says, “In the summertime when people would come up from Seattle and Portland they would say ‘Good, we’ve got Espresso up here’ because down there, you know, Seattle is called the Espresso capital of the world. There was a number of tourists that would remark to me that they have drive-thru’s down there, where you can just drive up and get coffee, and so I started getting the idea from these tourists.” Similarly, Liz from Cafe Cache got the idea years later after seeing numerous coffee stands pop up throughout town. She says that she always thought it seemed like a good idea and regretted not starting one earlier, but after stopping for coffee at “Kurt and Kim’s” stand and being told that it was for sale, she decided to purchase it.
Both Dan and Liz said that the most difficult part of starting the business was learning how to make all of the specialty coffee drinks. It’s not as simple as just pouring a cup of coffee. They also mentioned that location is one of the most important parts of starting a business. For example, Mocha Dan’s has a stand on Geist Road that is right next to three high schools and the University. This location provides a lot of business during the day from students on their lunch break or between classes. Students from Effie Kokrane even make the short walk over and walk by the window to order their items.
When I asked them why they thought that coffee stands are so popular in Alaska, they both acknowledged that the cold weather could be a significant reason, but it’s not as simple as that. Dan says, “I think just about anywhere you go in the United States if you have a good location and you serve a good product for a reasonable price you’ll be successful [regardless of the weather].” It’s hard to argue with that statement when you look at coffee drinking statistics. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day. And while Anchorage, Alaska does rank number one on CNBC’s list of “America’s Most Caffeinated Cities”, warm climates such as San Diego, California and Austin, Texas are also on the list. Liz says that she thinks there are a lot of coffee stands because people think that starting one is an easy way to make some money, but it’s more difficult than they assume. “There’s a lot of pressure because of how much competition there is up here. If you don’t have good food, or if you’re slow, the customer may never come back because they can easily go somewhere else.”
With all of the competition for customers, it’s crucial to try to stand out from the rest of the pack. Almost all stands have a rewards program that provides a free drink after a certain number of purchases. Every stand tries to make good coffee and food. However, it seems that establishing a personal connection with customers is one of the most important factors in maintaining steady customers that are willing to pay 3 to 4 dollars for a cup of coffee. Liz runs the business off of her own property and doesn’t have employees (other than when her nieces and nephews want to make a few extra dollars) and has established friendships with many of her customers. She says, “With other businesses, you might get a different employee every day, but with me, I feel like some customers come here because they want to tell me something or see me.” Dan also stressed the importance of getting to know the regular customers. He says, “I’ve got a real low turnover rate as far as employees. One has been with me for 22 years, and another for 20 years, and others as long as 8-10 years. And they, themselves, have built up their own customer base to where they know people personally and they know things that are happening in their lives.” With so many similar businesses in a relatively small city, it’s clear how important the details matter.
One thing that’s remarkably consistent at drive-thru coffee stands in Fairbanks is that almost all of the baristas are young females. Liz bemoaned the fact that, “There is a mentality that if you’re a young girl and you’re cute you will get more business.” I was curious why only females get hired, and when I asked Dan about it, he said, “There are some male applicants, but there are a lot more female applicants. In this job, you know, it’s hard to make a generalization, but young females seem to be able to multitask better and be a little faster. And that’s a real generalization, and I’m not not hiring males because of that, but that’s just the way this business seems to run the best.” This is a perspective that I had not thought about before. I always figured that hiring attractive girls was an attempt at bringing in more customers based on their looks, but I can definitely see his point that, in a very generalized sense, girls could be better at greeting customers and working in a fast paced environment.
Drive-thru coffee huts have been around for a little more than 20 years in Fairbanks, starting with Mocha Dan’s. Since then the number of stands has multiplied, and now they are located in areas all over the city. As long as coffee beans are still being harvested, drive-thru coffee stands will be a popular business in America’s northernmost state.
“Coffee by the Numbers.” Harvard School of Public Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
“The Coffee Addiction: America’s Most Caffeinated Cities.” CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.