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

Shoppers walk the aisles of Costco. A small business owner in the remote town of Gustavus, Alaska, travels 14 hours to reach Juneau, where he shops for critical supplies to stock his store shelves.
Shoppers walk the aisles of Costco. A small business owner in the remote town of Gustavus, Alaska, travels 14 hours to reach Juneau, where he shops for critical supplies to stock his store shelves.

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.

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

Corrected: May 16, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
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.
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