FAIRBANKS, Alaska – It seems strange, the preponderance of iced coffees at the Starbucks just 196 miles down the bumpy, frost-heaved road from the Arctic Circle.
Strange, until you consider that for a good portion of the year, stepping into an actual iced coffee would be a whole lot warmer than the air temperature outside, which in the winter can often plummet to 20 below zero.
On a recent Wednesday morning, it was 11 degrees and climbing, on its way to a balmy high of 32 for the day. More than a few people wandered the streets of Fairbanks in T-shirts, shorts and Birkenstocks, and well over half the customers in the cafe were sipping cold drinks.
“Yeah, it’s a whole different interpretation of cold when you live in Alaska,” said Jack Parker, a regular customer. “We'll hit a cold snap between negative 30 and negative 50-some degrees, and then we'll go back to, like, negative five or zero. People are walking around in T-shirts and flip-flops again. The whole concept of what is cold is totally different up here.”
A lot is different up here. There are woodland creatures frolicking everywhere, including ones that wouldn’t mind taking a bite out of you, given the right circumstances. Moose wander down main street and eat the Halloween pumpkins off people’s front porches. At certain times of year, the sun shines 21-plus hours a day, and at other times, a ghostly blue-green ribbon ripples overhead at night – the aurora borealis. Most automobiles have plugs dangling from the front grill to power the engine block heaters, and most local businesses feature a bank of outlets in front. The school kids still go outside for recess when it’s 20 below zero. This is life in Fairbanks, home to the northernmost Starbucks on the planet.
It is also the company’s 50th Military Family Store, a special designation of welcoming and support for some Starbucks stores located near major military bases. Since opening in October, the café has been warmly welcomed by locals and a popular hangout, said Dan Hammer, the store manager.
“I think part of it is that we know we're remote and we know we're isolated and we know we're different. It's part of what's brought people to Fairbanks,” Hammer said. “Fairbanks is still a small town, and it doesn't have a lot of spaces, large community spaces. This store in particular has a nice-sized café and has really been embraced by people. From the day we opened, the cafe's always full. People are getting to know one another. They tell us it's so nice to have a space where they can come. Friends sit and meet people. So, we've really served a good niche in the community in that way.”
Hanging out in the store for the day, swapping stories with Fairbanksians, feels like an unintentional contest to share the most Alaska thing ever. An Alaska-off, if you will.
Take regular customer Jack Parker, who likes to sit at a table in view of the store’s large, original artwork – a laser-etched wooden moose head. Moose feature prominently in Fairbanks, both in real life and city merchandise (followed by bears and wolves, oh my). But moose are no joke, said Parker, a Navy veteran who works for the Army at nearby Fort Wainwright.
“We don’t have fences, so at any point in time you’re going to see a lot of moose in town. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, hey. I've got to go pet the moose.’ No, you don't pet the moose,” Parker said. “The moose is a few hundred pounds of completely stupid. You're going to get stomped. And man, are they mean.”
Parker said when he and his family lived outside of Fairbanks, a bear took out a moose a mile from their house, which brought all kinds of hungry scavengers, and one season there was also a pack of wolves roaming the neighborhood. Most Alaska thing ever?
But the human inhabitants of Fairbanks are generally very welcoming, Parker said.
“The amount of support that you're going to get from people here is pretty awesome,” he said. “I've had people show up on the door step with salmon and halibut, you know – it's not uncommon for a neighbor to be like, ‘Hey, we just got some halibut, do you want this halibut?’”
Customers Richard and Jo Carawan had just gotten their family photos taken. At night. On a frozen lake that they also parked their car on. In front of the aurora borealis. She pulled up a proof of the photo on her iPhone, a gorgeous, surreal photo of a family holding hands in snow and ice and frozen trees with a bright, ghostly glow in the sky above them. Most Alaska thing ever?
“It’s a thing,” he said.
“The Northern Lights are always a thing,” she said.
“And that’s Fairbanks,” he said.
“Even when it’s dark and dreary you can get a photo like that,” she said.
In certain rooms of their house, they can see the Northern Lights without getting out of bed. But it’s not all exciting animal encounters and epic family photos. There are down sides to living in Fairbanks as well. Namely, local inventory and shipping costs.
The couple said they once ordered a special baby gate to fit an extra-wide doorway. The gate was $80; shipping was $240.
“The joke is, if you can’t find it, Amazon it,” Richard Carawan said. “But you might pay more for shipping than the item itself is actually worth.”
Customer Michael Dahl summed up life in Fairbanks like this: “There aren’t very many Blockbuster video stores left in the world, and until very recently, we had two in the area. I think that says it all.”
And then there’s Hammer, the store’s manager, who was sporting a tremendous black eye and a broken cheekbone after he fell trying to avoid colliding with his dog, Tessa, while ice skating with his wife on a frozen lake. Most Alaska thing (injury) ever?
“It doesn’t hurt,” Hammer said, gesturing to his face. Later he told me when he heals he hopes to start skijoring with his dog, which is “when you ski with a tether around your waist that your dog's tethered to and your dog actually pulls you. They love that.”
Hammer said sometimes people forget how far north Alaska is – the Fairbanks store is farther north than St. Petersburg, Russia, and the entire country of Iceland.
“And that's really part of what took time to get a store set up here, just the logistics of getting supplies up here to such a remote market,” Hammer said. “Everything for all the Alaska stores comes up by cargo ship from Seattle. The supplies come into Anchorage port, and then they throw it on the Alaskan Railroad, and the trains bring it up here to Fairbanks. And then those supplies are put on a truck and brought to our store. I just have to make sure I’m on point with the ordering, but it’s worked out. We haven’t run out of much.”
Many Starbucks stores are open pre-sunrise to post-sunset, dark to dark, and this store would be, too – if the sun followed the same rules in Alaska. The Fairbanks Starbucks is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and at certain times of year, the sun shines in its large windows from open to close and beyond. So, the store also has large shades for those windows when the 22 hours of daylight feel ardent.
“When we had the short days that peak during the winter solstice in November, we had light for just around three hours a day. So, the sun didn't rise until well after 10 a.m., and it went down around 2:30 p.m.,” Hammer said. “Those are some really short days with not much sun. It's nice to have a space where people can come and be inside and have community. And now, as we're heading into the summer, we're going to get of course 22 hours a day of sunlight. We've got big windows that the sun just kind of blasts through, so it's definitely a yin and yang between the winter and the summer in the feel of this café.”
Parker said coffee and Alaska’s strange rotation of daylight and darkness actually go well together.
“Alaskans drink a lot of coffee,” Parker said. “Here's the thing – we'll make that pot of coffee at 8:30 or nine o'clock at night, and my wife and I will crush the whole pot of coffee. Like, we're probably drinking coffee up until 10 o'clock at night. And I sleep like a rock. And during the day, it doesn't matter how cold it is, I'm always getting an iced coffee. That's just my drink.”
Normally when a new store opens, the staff includes a majority of tenured partners who transfer from other stores. But because the next nearest company-owned store to Fairbanks is in Anchorage, six hours away, transfers weren’t really a possibility.
“We were definitely slower than other Starbucks at first,” Hammer said. “The thing we focused on was to just be really nice and to really develop those customer relationships early on. Over time the speed has come. The knowledge has come.”
It’s not all iced coffees in Fairbanks. The breve white mocha is all the rage.
“I would say, in Alaska, breve drinks seem more popular than they are where I’ve worked elsewhere in the country,” Hammer said. “You know, it's Alaska, so we need our warm drinks and we need something that sticks to the guts. I probably use less non-fat milk here than I have anywhere else. It’s whole milk, half and half, heavy cream.”