Supply chains all over the United States serving people in cities and in rural towns have been affected by efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Importing groceries to a remote place like Gustavus, a seaside town in southeastern Alaska, seven hours from Juneau, presents logistical challenges during even the best of times.
When delivery transport to the town was cut off amid the coronavirus pandemic town grocer Toshua Parker stepped up to ensure his community’s access to affordable food.
Each week Parker pilots a barge through icy water to the world’s smallest Costco warehouse where men load the ship with pallets containing $20,000 of eggs, flour, meat, canned goods, produce, and highly coveted paper goods—toilet paper.
He then turns around and makes a 7-hour return voyage to Gustavus. The shipment keeps his store, Ice Straight Wholesale, aka ‘Toschco’ in stock for the week ahead.
Moose outnumber the population of less than 500 that call Gustavus home. The 38-square-mile plain along the Icy Strait is surrounded by distant mountains and ice fields of Glacier Bay National Park on three sides and the Atlantic Ocean on its fourth side. The people of Gustavus didn’t have electricity or phones until the ’80s and mid-90s, respectively, and, to this day, there are no roads connecting the town to the outside world.
So… “You either gotta fly here or boat here,” said Calvin Casipit, the town’s volunteer mayor.
Parker is honored to be tied to the land because his great grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Parker, became the region’s first permanent homesteader in 1917. He opened his grocery store ten years ago.
Since then, Parker and his father have taken ownership of the town gas station and bought two ships to effectively open a freight company. The barges act a $300K “insurance policy” enabling Parker to maintain supply chains during periods of hardship— like he is doing now, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before his supply run via a 7-hour barge journey to Alaska’s capital, Parker takes orders by phone, creating a massive list each week to be sure to get everything his 446 neighbors. But it’s still a challenge to keep the right supplies in stock week to week.
“It’s an art form, not a science,” Parker told The Hustle.
“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%.”
Parker’s profit margins are lean. He says Costco’s prices keep him honest because he can’t raise his prices too far above what it takes to cover the high costs of barge maintenance, labor, refrigeration, logistical planning, and gasoline.
But his community is grateful for the hero’s effort, and Parker knows how much they depend on him.
“Toshua pretty much saved the town,” said Mayor Casipit. “I really don’t know what we would’ve done without him.”
“It’s like Christmas when the load gets here,” said Parker. “Everyone is waiting for it. Word gets out, and they all seem to know when it’s coming.”