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After his remote Alaskan town was cut off from food supply, a grocer saved the day with a Costco card and a ship

'Pretty much saved the town'

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The coronavirus-related shutdowns pose a major threat to America's food supply chain, and nowhere is this threat more real than in rural and remote areas of the country.

But fortunately for Gustavus, Alaska — where moose outnumber the 446 permanent residents — the town grocer was keen to improvise last winter after the state cut off ferry access and the town dock was closed for repairs.

Using a Costco card and a small boat, the town grocer began making the 7-hour trip to Juneau to buy groceries and resell them back home, in a move that is now providing a lifeline to residents during the coronavirus pandemic.

What are the details?

Gustavus, Alaska, is about as remote a town as you will find anywhere in America. It's a place that had no electricity until the mid-1980s and no phones until the mid-'90s, and that to this day is only accessible by plane or boat, reports the Hustle in its original write-up of the story. The only reason outsiders ever come is for lodging on their way to nearby Glacier Bay National Park.

Up until a few years ago, the town would import food from Juneau by private plane or barge at a significant mark-up due to transportation costs. For example, a $5 carton of eggs in Juneau would cost $12 in Gustavus.

Then, a young shopkeeper, Toshua Parker, dreamed up a better method. Parker, a descendant of the town's original settler who had moved back home from Arizona after he lost his real estate business during the Great Recession, started taking the state-subsidized ferry to Juneau to the world's smallest and most remote Costco, where he would buy groceries and sell them for a smaller mark-up back in Gustavus.

Before long, business was booming at Ice Strait Wholesale, or "Toshco," as the locals call it — a combination of Toshua's name and the chain where he sources the bulk of his goods.

What else?

But then last winter, after the state cut off ferry access to Gustavus and the town dock was closed for repairs, Parker was forced to improvise again. Thankfully, he was prepared.

Using earned money from the store, Parker and his father had launched their own freight company, bought the town's gasoline station, and purchased two ships, which Parker told the Hustle was a $300K "insurance policy" against emergency food supply chain disruption.

The report noted that these preemptive moves proved to be crucial ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fall-back option, an air taxi, charges $0.50 a pound for deliveries, meaning that Gustavus residents could have been left without affordable groceries even as social distancing guidelines lightened wallets.

Instead, Parker now loads his 96-foot barge with shipping crates and sets sail for the Juneau Costco himself every week. He tallies what residents need and stocks up his store.

"It's an art form, not a science," Parker notes. "The town might have a 100-gallon swing in demand for milk from one week to the next without any explanation of why. One week, nobody wants whole milk; the next week, everyone wants 2%."

And sometimes Parker runs into problems with Costco's restrictions that guard against panic buying.

"We'll place a $20K order, but they'll still only give us one pack of paper towels," he says. "I understand why they'd do that, but we're not a single person panic buying; we're trying to feed a whole community."

Nonetheless, Parker loves the work and Gustavus residents are appreciative. He said it's "like Christmas" whenever the load returns from Juneau: "Everyone is waiting for it. Word gets out, and they all seem to know when it's coming."

"Toshua pretty much saved the town," town Mayor Calvin Casipit told the Hustle. "I really don't know what we would've done without him."

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