How Kiosk Owners Satisfy Statewide Coffee Cravings
“I wanted to keep my job, and I wanted the Wagon to stay the same,” she says. “I didn’t want another coffee shop chain to buy it and change everything, because we’d worked too hard for all of our loyal customers. And I wanted a way of making my own income while still being able to be a stay-at-home mom.”
Set on empty lots, street corners, and parking lots, these small, standalone drive-thru coffee kiosks are seemingly everywhere. A Facebook search yields approximately 120 coffee kiosks from Ketchikan to Utqiaġvik and almost every village and town in between—more, accounting for businesses with multiple locations. That’s roughly one kiosk for every 6,100 Alaskans seeking a jolt of java on a chilly winter morning or to fuel their summer adventures.
“It’s just not as simple as people think,” says Kelly Cooper, owner of Coop’s Coffee in Homer. “I would say the general public thinks these are cash cows and you open up and it just grows through the window. It’s just not that way.”
Terika Kons, who owns Stars & Stripes Coffee Shop in Anchorage, agrees.
In other words, there’s a lot happening on the other side of the window at your favorite coffee kiosk. From creating the perfect beverage and keeping machines in good repair to challenges found only in Alaska—“There’s no good solution for carrying your drinks when you’re on a dog sled or snow machine,” says Syneva Runyan, owner of Lulu’s Coffee in Kotzebue—here’s how kiosks keep the hot coffee flowing and the cold foam frothy.
Dreams of Java
Like Feller, Dillingham residents Amelia and Jacob Nelson had fond memories of working in coffee shops throughout high school. Dillingham was also down to one coffee shop at the time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they saw an opportunity to fill a void in the community.
“We wanted to build something for ourselves and our children, so we decided to give it a go,” Amelia says. Jacob hand-built the kiosk, which they named Wren’s Drive Thru after their oldest son Wren, who referred to it as his building during construction. “It becomes hectic when both of our boys are here, but we still manage to work around it.”
Runyan, too, was motivated by a desire to have a drive-thru coffee shop in Kotzebue. When the original owner of Lulu’s Coffee Shop decided to sell, Runyan says she realized it was now or never.
“I kind of wanted one in town, and the idea in the back of my head was that it was a really good opportunity,” she says. “The business was already there, and if I was ever going to in my life, this was the place and the opportunity to do so.”
Cooper, a self-described “coffee junkie,” decided to open Coop’s Coffee when the coffee shop near her home, where she stopped daily, closed. She saw it as an opportunity to create jobs for women (statistics from CareerExplorer.com show that 74 percent of baristas are women) and youth.
“Homer is a big marine town, so young men have a lot of opportunities, and women don’t usually have the opportunity to make the amount of money that they make at my shop,” she says. “I’m the proudest of creating full-time, year-round jobs for women.”
For Kons, Stars & Stripes fulfills a long-held dream of owning a coffee business; she hopes it’s a first step to one day owning a sit-down café.
“Since I was 18, my dream was to open a coffee shop where people could come and hang out, read, work, or socialize,” she says. “I thought a coffee hut would be a great way to start the business, gain experience, and eventually grow it to include a coffee shop.”
Coffee, Snacks, and More
“The first [Wagon] had one blender and 10 syrups,” Feller says of the Espresso Wagon’s evolution since first opening in the early ‘90s. “Now we carry well over 100 syrups, and we have Lotus Energy and there’s Red Bull and there are all the different types of coffee drinks that you can have. It’s definitely evolved a ton.”
Like their café counterparts, those different drinks include blended drinks like Frappuccinos and smoothies, iced coffees and cold brew, and non-coffee options for an energy boost, like Red Bull or Lotus Energy smoothies, slushies, or sodas. Drinks can also be customized with different flavored syrups, plant-based milks like almond, soy, and oat, or additional shots. Baristas also use their imagination—and TikTok tips—to create monthly specials, which they post on social media to attract customers.
“Drink specials are a team effort,” Kons says. “Our baristas come up with a lot of our specials, we listen to what customers like and are requesting, and we’ll find drink recipes online and change some of the ingredients to what sounds good to us and our customers.”
Offerings have also grown to include some type of food to pair with their beverages, though exactly what those offerings are varies. One of Kons’ priorities when she opened Stars & Stripes was to cater to people on the go, whether headed to work or out of town during the summer.
Other kiosks offer a pared down food menu, both to keep the focus on the drinks and to keep the line at the window moving.
“My business model is, don’t try to be everything to everyone,” says Cooper, whose food menu is limited to hot dogs, muffins, and a dark chocolate chunk cookie she makes herself. “Find what you do well and stick with it. People ask us constantly to do more food, but that takes us away from our quality and being timely and getting drinks out the window.”
Runyan says logistics limit her food options to bagels and pre-cooked breakfast sandwiches that only need to be reheated in the microwave. “We don’t have our own food permit to cook in the shop, so we have to buy everything ready to cook,” she says.
Small Shops, Big Challenges
“Your people are your biggest asset, and without them you have nothing,” Kons says. “But trying to find the balance of keeping your employees happy and making sure the needs of the business are also met is definitely a challenge.”
Many people view barista positions as seasonal work rather than a long-term career, Feller says. That mindset sometimes creates a revolving door of baristas, which means constant training of new staff and negative impacts to the quality and consistency of the beverages.
”For Runyan, who has a full-time day job, a lack of employees means her shop is sometimes open only on weekends.
“It’s really hard to find people who are consistent,” she says. “It’s been a really big thing, probably the hardest thing. Because I work a full-time job, I can’t work during the week. It’s only one person, so if she’s sick or something, I have to close the shop.”
Maintenance of both the kiosk and the machines is another challenge, especially for kiosks farther away from Anchorage.
“A very unique, Alaskan problem is that coffee huts are more susceptible to freezing,” says Runyan, who recently installed WiFi and a smart thermostat so she can monitor the temperature inside the kiosk and adjust it accordingly, wherever she is. “If the espresso machine freezes, it will break.”
A broken-down espresso machine or frozen or burst pipes can shut down the kiosk until owners can get it fixed. When it comes to the machines, owners outside of Anchorage often do the repairs themselves.
“Down here on the peninsula, we don’t have a maintenance person who can work on espresso machines,” Feller says, “so you got to kind of figure out how to work on your espresso machine and your blenders yourself, and it’s not an easy task.”
“Everything affects the beans,” Feller says. “The sun, the wind, if you have one door open, if you have one window open. It all affects the beans. In the summertime, in those little places, it’s super hot, and in the wintertime it’s cold. We have little space heaters in each window, and then in the summertime, we have a fan.”
Keeping inventory on hand is another challenge, one that’s harder for kiosks off the road system.
“We have been most surprised with how challenging keeping up with inventory can be,” says Amelia Nelson. “A lot of our inventory—like syrups, baked goods, powders, and smoothie mixes—have to be flown in weekly. If we run out of something, we’re often stuck waiting for a plane to come and have our product within the following few days.”
Runyan places bi-weekly orders and stores as much as she can in the freezer; Feller and Cooper get weekly deliveries from Anchorage and store items at their homes if needed.
Despite the challenges, owners say the overall experience, the relationships they’ve built with customers, and their ability to give back to the community—whether hosting community fundraisers, donating to local nonprofits, or creating jobs–make it worthwhile.
“It’s probably a little less fun than I thought it would be, but I’m glad I’m doing it,” Runyan says. “I love it when people come by and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re open today.’ That feels really good.”