Working in Mountain View: Inside Red Apple

For 17 hours every day of the year, Red Apple Market is the bustling center of life in Mountain View.

When the doors open at 7 a.m., the store is already busy with employees wearing recognizable red aprons. Bright fluorescent interior lights illuminate dark winter mornings, casting a warm glow through the market’s front doors. Slowly, people begin streaming in.

The parking lot fills up as the sun rises over the Chugach Mountains. By nightfall, it’s a haphazard, revolving mass of cars and people and shopping carts. Customers toting armfuls of groceries pick their way across icy pavement, dodging drivers on the hunt for an open parking space.

The market stays open until midnight. Hundreds of people pass through its doors every day, greeted by a cheery “Welcome to Red Apple Market!” painted over the front doors.

Like the neighborhood’s schools and churches and community center, the supermarket is a place that brings people together.

Part of the store’s popularity comes with location. At the corner of Bragaw Street and Mountain View Drive, Red Apple sits in the heart of one of the densest residential areas in Anchorage. Part of it comes with age. Most people who’ve lived in Mountain View over the last 20 years will remember at least one trip through the market’s doors.

Beyond that, it all comes down to function.

One of Mountain View’s oldest and largest employers, Red Apple provides jobs and groceries; a paycheck for dozens of employees and affordable necessities for thousands of people every month.

The store’s well-stocked aisles boast everything from cords of firewood and discounted bags of dog food stacked inside the front entryway to three-for-$1 packages of ramen noodles and giant tubs of hominy for $4.49. People browse through racks of baked goods and long rows of canned soups and similar staples. The food spans a variety of cuisines – Hispanic to Hmong and everything in between.

In a way, Red Apple Market is a microcosm of Mountain View.

While the surrounding streets have experienced steady transformations over the last decade, daily life at the corner supermarket follows a familiar pace.

Claude Anaruk has deep ties to both the neighborhood and the market.

A born and raised Alaskan, he began working at Red Apple when it first opened more than two decades ago and he’s seen its customer base change slowly over the years. The store has always been busy; nowadays it just has a different atmosphere.

“The biggest change – and the nicest change – is seeing every nationality you can possibly imagine shopping at the same time and getting along,” Anaruk said. “It’s incredible, standing right here and watching it.”

Claude Anaruk

Claude Anaruk at Red Apple Market

Red Apple sits on the pulse of the neighborhood where he grew up.

At first, the building was home to a Safeway. Anaruk was raised in Mountain View alongside nine brothers and sisters, and remembers grocery shopping with his parents and trips to the store bakery.

Back then, he said, “This neighborhood was it.”

Mountain View had all the best businesses in town, he said. There was Montgomery Ward & Co. and Brewster’s Clothing & Footwear and La Casita and Alaska State Bank. It was the place to be, Anaruk recalled, and he lived in the heart of it all.

Then came the Northway Mall.

“When they opened up the mall, [businesses] all left to go across the highway,” he said. “It changed everything.”

Those were the boom days, when Alaska’s economy was flush from the recent construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. During the early 1980s, Anchorage workers earned 50 percent more than the nationwide average, according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Between 1980 and 1990, the city’s population swelled by nearly 30 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More homes were built that decade than any other period in the state’s history.

Mountain View was flooded with new apartment buildings made to house the sudden influx of people.

Safeway abandoned its old location in favor of the Northway Mall, and a Market Basket took its place on the corner of Bragaw Street. Anaruk worked there from 1983 until oil prices crashed, the state plunged into recession and Market Basket closed a few years later.

When Red Apple Market took over the space in the early ‘90s, Anaruk returned to Mountain View. He’s worked there ever since.

The market changed hands several times over the decades. These days, it’s owned by a local accountant.

The people who work at the market share close ties. There are husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. Anaruk’s own son worked at Red Apple throughout high school. Later, the supermarket paycheck helped pay for his education.

“When he went to school, I was paying part of his bills, paying my bills and I was eating at my sister’s and I worked here,” Anaruk said.

Those tight times are over, but some things stay the same. Kids from Clark Middle School that used to pass through after class still come by, only now they’re adults towing kids of their own, Anaruk said.

“It’s really nice for them to come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re still here! Remember me when I was a kid?’” the manager said, smiling. “And of course I say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’”

The neighborhood around the store has undergone a slow shift since Anaruk first began working there. Older apartment buildings gave way to new construction. As Anchorage’s population grew, Mountain View became home to an increasing variety of cultures and ethnicities.

In 1990, shortly before Red Apple went into business, more than half of Mountain View’s residents were white, according to research from the Alaska Justice Forum. By 2000, according to census data, that number shrunk to around 36 percent and the neighborhood was home to a growing number of people of Asian and Polynesian descent. After the rollout of the 2010 census data, a sociology professor from the University of Alaska Anchorage called Mountain View the most diverse neighborhood in the country.

The cultural and ethnic makeup has morphed, but the neighborhood’s basic economic situation hasn’t.

Two decades ago, according to the Alaska Justice Forum, Mountain View’s average household income was the lowest in town. Census numbers show it still is, and as of 2010 Mountain View’s unemployment rates remained well above the citywide average.

It’s not for a lack of activity in the area

Over the past several years, there’s been a rush of new development throughout the neighborhood. Old buildings were demolished. New restaurants and Anchorage’s first Bass Pro Shops Outpost opened their doors and brought new customers – and new employment opportunities — into Mountain View.

New families moved into just-finished housing projects. Nonprofits spent millions developing formerly unused lots along Mountain View Drive.

At Red Apple, though, business has yet to change much.

“It seems to be pretty constant,” said Ron Petersen, the store’s general manager.

Sitting in a crowded back office on a busy Wednesday afternoon, Petersen said growth in the neighborhood brought customers from an increasingly wide variety of cultural backgrounds. It didn’t necessarily bring more customers.

In fact, Petersen said, things have been pretty flat lately compared with last year, despite the dozens of new duplexes and multiplexes that popped up throughout Mountain View over the summer and into the winter months. The development has helped spruce up the aging neighborhood, but Petersen has yet to see a major economic impact.

New freight comes Monday and Wednesday.

New freight comes Monday and Wednesday.

Life goes on as usual at the Bragaw Street supermarket; seven days a week and 365 days a year.

Mondays and Wednesdays are freight days. Trucks bring in pallets of supplies to refill the market’s shelves, and Petersen brings in more staff to handle the extra work.

They move quickly in and out of the back stockroom, where stacks of canned goods and boxes of dry food and big freezers line the walls. One man pulls a cart packed with empty cardboard boxes. Another man restocks a shelf carrying a selection of seasoning salts. Other employees do the same with different products at other shelves around the store. During opening hours, the store is never still.

To work at Red Apple, you have to be efficient, Petersen said. You must be able to read English and you have to know how to communicate with customers.

On any given afternoon, the checkout line is filled with women wearing multicolored hijabs and families speaking Spanish or Samoan or Burmese, besides English. The air buzzes with the sounds of a dozen conversations. People carry shopping baskets filled with flavors from around the world – bags of snow white masarepa, cans of sweet and creamy soursop drink, soups and spices and bags of fresh produce.

Most customers live in Mountain View, Petersen said. Some travel from outside the neighborhood in search of specialty items. The market will occasionally stock new products, usually based on requests. Recently, it added a new Caribbean section.

“We’re in this neighborhood to accommodate the people who live here,” Petersen said.

IMG_7199Baskets of bok choy, vu choy and gai choy sit side by side in the produce aisle. Endcaps display everything from plastic containers of raw peanuts, grains and legumes to snack-sized bags of dried shrimp to packaged mortar and pestle combos.

The store probably has the largest selection of animal parts in town, Petersen wagers. You can buy tempura seaweed off a display at checkout. And price is just as important as variety. When you run a supermarket in the poorest neighborhood around, it’s important to keep things affordable.

The market has its challenges. Rising freight costs can make it difficult to keep prices low, Petersen said. Shoplifting is a constant annoyance that can also lead to extra costs. But at the end of the day, he said, the problems are outweighed by the fact that business is steady and “most people are very, very nice.” Red Apple has a special, well-defined place in the neighborhood.

The market remodeled its façade several years ago. Inside, the stockroom expanded when the original backroom space could no longer keep up. Aside from those structural improvements, Petersen said little else is new.

The store has employed around 50 people for a while now. Many of the staff members are there for the long haul. The general manager said some of them have been there for more than 20 years; many for more than seven.

And then there’s Anaruk, who’s been there since the beginning.

His days at Red Apple are a mix of everything. He runs the front end of the store, does receiving and shipping work, takes care of the office and does the books on certain days. He mops the floor and gets grocery cards and takes care of anything else that might be necessary to keep the market running.

“If I can’t do it myself, I can’t ask my employees to do it,” he said.

It’s part of being a good manager, he said, and it’s part of the fun of the job. Every day is different. Some days are worse than others. He’s had knives pulled on him, looked down the barrel of a gun and been knocked to the ground. Still, he says he feels safer in the Red Apple parking lot than a downtown parking garage.

He sticks around because 90 percent of the people you meet are good people, and – even when business stays flat — the adventure never ends.

“I read an article in Reader’s Digest one time that stated, ‘The only reason I come to work is to see what’s gonna happen next.’” Anaruk said. “I think I’ve seen it all and I haven’t. It’s really interesting.”


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

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