ANCHORAGE, Alaska – When the Dairy Queen opened in Anchorage in 2006, it was big news. People stood in a line that stretched for two blocks just to get an ice cream cone, and drive-thru traffic backed up just as long.
Residents weren’t just excited about the treats. They were elated that the Dairy Queen was in the city at all.
For years, Alaska might as well have been on another planet, so far off the radar of the big national restaurant chains that those in the Lower 48 became used to — and maybe even grown tired of.
It was too costly and the logistics too daunting to run a restaurant in the state. Now, restaurants are rushing in.
When Olive Garden opened, people stood in line in the bitter winter to get a table. Buffalo Wild Wings is in the city. Next year, Anchorage will get its first Texas Roadhouse, a Hard Rock Cafe and Krispy Kreme doughnut shops.
“We are foodies in Anchorage, and we are significant consumers,” said Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp, adding that one reason for the influx is the relative health of the local economy and people having money to spend.
At $72,813, Anchorage has the second-highest median income in the U.S., only lagging behind Honolulu’s median income of $87,934, according to Popp, quoting 2011 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
About half of Alaska’s 730,000 residents live in either Anchorage or the neighbouring Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Another reason for the attraction to Anchorage is that it is a big draw for tourists as well as those who work at military bases and long for the familiar tastes of home.
Hard Rock Cafe, which will open in late spring, chose downtown Anchorage “because it’s a key city in Alaska,” and expects to draw from both locals and tourists, said Scott Brokaw, who is moving from Hard Rock Cafe Universal Los Angeles to be the general manager.
National chain restaurants in the city have not always been the case, mainly because of the remoteness of the state.
“You’re not going to be able to just take a truck from one of your warehouses and drive it to Anchorage or Fairbanks, or wherever it is, like you could open up a store in Oregon,” state economist Neal Fried said.
The city did get a glimpse of what it would be like for a national chain to open up a store.
In the late 1960s, when the first McDonald’s opened, the event was preceded by months of television commercials, appearances by Ronald McDonald and a closed street for the grand opening.
“My little brother and I were very excited, probably by being brainwashed from so many commercials,” recalled Jay Barrett, now the news director at KMXT radio in Kodiak.
Years later, he said in an email, the family moved to the much smaller Dillingham, in southwest Alaska. Whenever they were in Anchorage, the last stop before heading to the airport for the trip home was to McDonald’s to stock up.
“Big Macs freeze remarkably well,” Barrett said.
Alaska is a big state with a small-state mentality, and it means something when a chain decides to locate here. Having a national chain open a location in Anchorage provides a legitimizing force, said Julia O’Malley, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re actually a city now,'” she said. “People have always been wanting to feel we’re legitimate, we’re really a place. Somehow having an Olive Garden, for some people, makes it seem like that.”