By Chris Jensen
Tosh Parker, who along with his wife Cassia owns ToshCo-Icy Strait Wholesale in Gustavus, Alaska, made national news earlier this year when it was revealed the lengths he went to keep their remote small town supplied with food and other essential items when the supply ferry shut down. He simply used his own 96-foot supply boat and made the arduous 14-hour journey himself every week. Click here and here to read more about this amazing story from CNN and The Hustle. We interviewed Tosh Parker about his fiercely independent and resilient business.
What makes your store unique in the marketplace? We are the only grocery, hardware and lumber store in our small town of 450 year-round residents. There are no roads in or out, so everything has to come in on a boat or in a plane.
What is the history of the business? We started the store 10 years ago with $3,000 in inventory from Costco. The local grocery/hardware store at the time was charging nearly $12 for a gallon of milk when you could buy a gallon of milk 50 miles away (by air) in Juneau for $3. I figured there had to be a better way, so we built our own shipping company to bring products into town.
How long did you have to make the 14-hour commute by boat to provide supplies? We’re still doing it, believe it or not. We were definitely surprised it struck such a cord and received so much coverage. I suppose in the midst of seemingly endless bad news it was something positive for people to latch onto and that’s why it resonated. Even though the state ferry started running again, COVID reductions, breakdowns and major budget issues have made the ferry so unreliable that we’re still having to run the landing craft every two weeks to fill in. This winter the ferry will be shutting down for a couple of months due to budget issues from COVID, so we’ll be out there yet again making sure the town stays supplied. It’s going to be another long winter.
What impact has the coronavirus had on your business? Sales are down because a major part of the local economy is tourism. While we only have about 450 year-round residents, our population normally swells to 1,000-1,200 in the summer with multiple lodges, summer residents and independent tourists. That didn’t really materialize this year. The lodges and summer residents are a big part of our annual sales.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, what steps did you take to provide the community the relief they needed? Essentially, we scrambled to source scarce products from all over the U.S. to make sure we had enough for the community. When none of our suppliers had toilet paper, we started calling companies with large warehouses and buying their personal business backstock if that’s what it took.
What measures have you adopted to keep the store sanitized and customers safe? We were one of the early adapters of Lexan dividers between our customers and staff, even before most stores down south started installing them. We also created physical barriers to help maintain separation wherever possible and of course increased our sanitation protocols. We look forward to the day when we can rip out all the obtrusive barriers and dividers and have normal interactions with our customers again.
What % of sales comes from hardware products and what are your top-selling hardware categories? The store is very small (9,000 sq. ft.) and hardware is our second-largest category after grocery. The top-selling category is plumbing. There is no city water or sewer here, so everyone has their own well and septic. That equates to a lot of plumbing to maintain between your well, pump, pressure tank, filters, softener, lift station, etc.
How difficult has it been to source products, especially grocery and food items, from all over the U.S. during the pandemic? We are the only local place to buy food and sourcing it was difficult. That being said, the minute we caught wind of potential scarcities we went into overdrive sourcing goods from all over the U.S., even from non-wholesale companies who for one reason or another had some supply of their own. We were quick enough on the trigger to make sure we didn’t run out of most supplies during the frenzy of the pandemic. ToshCo never ran out of basics like toilet paper. Some locals were even shopping for items here and shipping them to friends and family down south who couldn’t get them in major metropolitan areas, so we honestly fared fairly well here considering.
How have you stepped up your delivery service to provide products to people under quarantine? Alaska instigated both interstate and even intrastate travel bans early on and those who could travel were mandated to quarantine upon arrival. In addition, many residents went into self-imposed quarantine and wouldn’t leave their homes. That became incredibly challenging, because people would email orders and our already overworked staff would have to pull all of those orders, coordinate payment and coordinate delivery. If we’re out of an item the staff would have to contact the customer and try to work through a substitution. Hardware was especially difficult. It was incredibly time consuming and I remember one time looking at the email as orders were flooding in having no idea where we would get the manpower to pull them all.
The staff stepped up and made sure the orders got filled and between my wife Cassia (who’s really the one keeping the store going now), myself and the staff, we would run around for hours after closing making home deliveries. We also created a drop-off point on the front porch of the store, where customers could come and pick up their orders once they were pulled if they weren’t in travel-restricted quarantine. That helped alleviate some of the pressure of home deliveries of every order. We’re still doing some home deliveries today, but fewer than in the beginning.
How have you used Facebook to keep customers informed about availability of grocery, hardware and LBM products? At times we will use Facebook to let people know when the boat will be arriving and a sampling of some of the items we were able to source. Recently, we’ve started a Facebook series to give people some insight into what’s all involved in making this work in such a remote environment, which we plan to continue for a few months.
Have you been able to maintain full staffing? So far there have been six positive cases in Gustavus. I took a test six days ago and am still awaiting the results of it, which makes it difficult to coordinate work when you don’t have confirmation. Thankfully, no family or staff have tested positive and we’re doing everything we can to keep our staff safe. We have been able to keep 100 percent of our staff during this period.
What sort of community service involvement does ToshCo have in a typical year? ToshCo sponsors many local events from softball to fireworks. Some of those didn’t happen this year, but we still put on a large fireworks show for the town on July 4th to help raise spirits a little.
Talk about the role Orgill has played in helping your business be successful. Orgill has been really fantastic to work with. Of course, they experienced many of the same shortages every supplier did, but whatever they did have was delivered on time and correctly. Of all of our vendors, Orgill is by far the best at accurately delivering exactly what we ordered if it’s in stock.
What does it mean for your business to be honored with the Beacon Award for Community Service? It’s certainly an honor to be recognized. For us it’s just another day taking care of our community and we certainly didn’t seek any accolades for doing it. It’s just part of the job.