After eight years as a teacher, 21 years in the U.S. Army and another eight years spent working for the federal government, Eva Perry didn’t retire: She went into business for herself.
“I’m a dreamer,” she said Thursday, sitting at a table for two in her shop at Glenn Square. “I’ve just been dream-building for some time.”
Her dream combined baking — like she learned to do in her mama’s kitchen years ago — and travel, and entrepreneurship. For decades, she told herself she’d start chasing that dream when she finished a certain milestone, or wrapped up the next phase of her career.
“Then all of a sudden, it came to me,” Perry said. “’If I’m ever going to do it, now’s the time.’”
In 2011, she banished the what-ifs in her head, left her job with the federal government and began building her dream business in a newly developed mall in Mountain View. The unused Glenn Square space was all concrete floor and exposed walls, surrounded by other vacant spaces.
Turning it into the bakery of her dreams took months of planning and building and painting, but Perry knew what she wanted and followed her vision and opened Eva’s Cupcakery the following spring.
She said she had a good feeling about doing business in Mountain View, all the way across town from her home in South Anchorage. She considered other places — people urged her to avoid the neighborhood — but between the price and the location, Perry said Glenn Square was the best fit for her first shop.
Now, she’s one of a growing number of new business owners opening their doors in the area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, small businesses account for about half of all employment in Alaska. Recent data from the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship nationwide, shows Alaska has one of the highest rates of new business creation in the United States. That number has been on the rise for the past three years.
In Anchorage, Mountain View is steadily becoming a neighborhood of choice for Alaskan entrepreneurs.
“I have no regrets,” said Perry, about two-and-a-half years after her Glenn Square grand opening. “I just believe this is where the Lord led me.”
Eva’s Cupcakery transformed the formerly barren storefront. Inside, the walls are painted soft pink and brown and decorated with framed still-life images of tranquil kitchen scenes. Morning sunshine streams through the tall front windows and jubilant-sounding gospel music plays from a radio at the back of the room. In the tightly-packed, well-organized back kitchen, employees squeeze dollops of caramel buttercream over freshly baked apple cupcakes. Boxes of sweets are piled on shelves, ready for delivery or pickup.
The countertop out front is crowded with even more cupcakes; rotating flavors displayed temptingly in glass cases. A former drill sergeant, Perry honed her baking skills in the Army and now offers red velvet, seasonal pumpkin with cream cheese frosting, pink lemonade and chocolate cake with Snickers filling.
She bakes s’more-flavored cupcakes, hummingbird cupcakes filled with bananas and coconut and pineapple and thick chocolate Mississippi mud cupcakes. One of her most well-loved recipes — southern sweet potato — is inspired by her childhood spent on a farm in Alabama; a nod to her favorite vegetable.
Drizzled in syrup and topped with a pecan, the sweet potato cupcakes have won over a loyal audience in Anchorage and beyond. Perry said she serves one repeat customer who hails from Barrow and developed a taste for sweet potato the day the cupcakery opened. Some people from Eagle River and the Mat-Su Valley stop by the cupcake shop every time they come to town, Perry said, and a few customers come from Kenai and other parts of the peninsula. Others live and work on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
The cupcake business grows mostly through word-of-mouth and social media, its owner said. In an effort to reach out to the community, Perry hosts special events for Girl Scouts and military wives. Sometimes customers ask to meet her; sometimes they don’t believe the “Eva” from the sign is a real person. And over the two-and-a-half years she’s been in business, she said, there have been a good number of customers who keep coming back. Perry’s gut feeling about Mountain View helped turn her entrepreneurial dream into reality.
“It’s going exceptionally well,” she said.
Just a few doors down from the cupcakery, Arturo Martin had a similar gut feeling about the neighborhood. After a long move north from California and 10 years of preparation, Martin finally opened his first Alaskan restaurant in spring 2013.
“A lot of people told me – they said, ‘Why Glenn Square? It’s horrible. It’s an empty mall,’” Martin recalled.
He had his reasons for the move. He’s worked in Mexican restaurants since he was 18. When he was 23, he opened his own and during the 90s, Martin owned and operated two more Mexican restaurants down in California. Then came a recession that flattened businesses around the state: When the dust settled, Martin decided to pull up stakes and move north to Alaska. He had a sister who lived there, and he heard good things about the business climate in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
So Martin moved to Anchorage in 2002, and spent the next decade working for a local Mexican restaurant and planning his next move. Finally, he was ready. The concept for Xalo’s Mexican Grill was born, and Martin set his sights on Mountain View. He said people told him about the neighborhood’s bad reputation. All he saw was the busy highway right outside, and the deals on leases at the half-empty Glenn Square shopping center.
“I have a feeling that mall has to come back,” Martin told his skeptics. “I follow my heart; my feeling on where to go.”
The restaurant is Martin’s fifth, and he co-owns it along with five other people. Xalos opened for business last year. These days, it’s filled with upbeat mariachi music and the spicy scents of a full Mexican menu – chipotle steak and shrimp-and-octopus cocktail and slow-cooked beef tongue topped with fresh salsa. Around lunchtime, it’s also filled with customers, including many in fatigues and combat boots.
Like Perry’s cupcakery, Martin said his business draws customers from all across Anchorage and beyond. Some clamor for a second location, he said. He’s happy with his first Alaska endeavor.
“It has been a good growth,” Martin said.
When he first opened his eatery, he employed four people. Since then, he said, he’s doubled his sales and staffing alike. His employees come from all over Anchorage to work at Xalos in Mountain View. And like Perry’s small business, Martin said he relies primarily on customer recommendations and social media. He’s seen it work firsthand.
Once, he cooked up a batch of Mexican street corn — covered in mayonnaise and chilis and spices – specifically for his employees. A photo was posted online. It wasn’t on the menu, but within a few hours customers were walking through his door and asking to order the authentic fare.
“’We’re coming for the corn,’” Martin recalled them telling him. “’We saw it on Facebook; we want some of that corn.’”
Word spread fast. For Xalos Mexican Grill, the past year has been a cycle of growth. But after a few decades of working in the restaurant business, Martin said he has faith in the power of the plate: If the food is delicious and the service is good, people will come back.
“It’s happening now,” he said, smiling as he gestured to the bustling dining room around him.
And when customers keep coming, other businesses follow suit. Just around the corner from the Mexican grill, a well-known Anchorage diner opened a Glenn Square spin-off location earlier this fall. Kriner’s Burgers & Pies – the third locally owned eatery to come to the neighborhood mall – serves hand-cut fries and homemade pies to ravenous crowds. It opens weekdays at 11 a.m.: By 11:30 a.m., there’s usually already a line forming inside.
Andy Kriner, who co-owns the burger joint along with his wife, shares some of Martin’s business beliefs. He thinks quality trumps location; that a good meal can help bring a dead mall back to life. Perry shares the same philosophy.
“A quality product, good customer service and keep the place clean — those are very important to me,” she said.
All the rest will follow, she said. When she first opened Eva’s Cupcakery, Glenn Square was home to an Old Navy and a Famous Footwear and more than a dozen empty spaces. It didn’t take long for both the clothing retailer and the shoe store to jump ship and sign new leases at Tikahtnu Commons, the bustling new commercial development on Muldoon Road.
There were plenty of people who saw the move as a death knell for her business, Perry said. She was unswayed. And, through some combination of off-site orders and devoted cupcake enthusiasts, Perry said her small bakery was unaffected by the departure of the two anchor stores. Her customers kept coming. The pull of the Mississippi mud was too strong.
For Perry, the biggest changes came when construction work began on the new, 80,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outpost last year. Parts of the mall parking lot were closed while construction crews went to work where the Old Navy once stood. Between the winter snow and ice and lack of parking, Perry said her little business began to feel the pressure.
For several months, there weren’t as many walk-in customers. Perry said the cupcakery struggled to survive off of event orders and deliveries and the few customers who were able to navigate through the maze of construction.
“They would come and complain about the parking, but they still came and we were able to stay afloat,” Perry recalled.
Then, the construction ended and the outdoor superstore opened for business and Perry’s cupcake shop was hit by a flood of new business that more than made up for winter’s sparse sales.
“It was worth it,” she said, smiling.
During Bass Pro’s grand opening, Perry said she brought on some additional help and stayed open a few hours later to take advantage of the hordes of hungry customers streaming in and out of the mall’s parking lot. Xalos, too, experienced a marked jump in sales that week.
“Especially the first Monday open – it was crazy,” Martin said. “Now, it has settled down, but it’s still new people coming to the area.”
For Glenn Square’s small businesses, those new people mean new growth. According to state economists, that growth isn’t predicted to end any time soon. An October economic trends report by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development predicts Alaska’s food service industry will see more than 10 percent growth over the next decade.
Based on job numbers alone, food service businesses make up the fourth fastest growing segment of Alaska’s economy. Food manufacturing, like that done in Perry’s back kitchen, is expected to increase by nearly seven percent.
Labor department economist Neal Fried attributes the growth, in part, to “an insatiable local demand for new eateries.” That’s good news for Mountain View, where affordable storefronts and a diverse customer base are helping push new business development and draw entrepreneurs from all sides of town.
Despite a hard-to-shake stigma and plodding growth in years past, Alaska entrepreneurs are choosing to put down roots in the neighborhood just north of the Glenn Highway.
“I’m not sorry at all,” Martin said. “It’s good that I went with my guts.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening. Sitting in a beam of sunlight that fell across the cupcakery tables Thursday morning, Perry said it took her upwards of 40 years to realize her dream and set up shop in Mountain View.
“Everything, everything, everything’s gonna be alright,” belted out the gospel choir on the radio in the background. Perry feels the same way. She was one of the first small business owners to bank on Glenn Square growth; now others have followed suit. There’s still room for more.
“I had to stay focused, I knew what I wanted,” she said. “I had no regrets then and I have no regrets now.”
This story is part of an eight-part series sponsored by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. Click here for more information.
Categories: Working in Mt. View