Denali’s Cannabis Cache is the first business to stay open during winter months in the Denali Canyon area, just north of Denali National Park. So far, business is good, according to owner Kevin Schwan.
“I always wondered if this would work and wanted to do it,” Schwan said. He opened the cannabis business six years ago. “We wanted our business to be year-round from the get go. But just the way Denali is set up, it’s very seasonal.”
Usually, the long line of businesses in the canyon area, dubbed “Glitter Gulch,” all shut down for the winter in mid-September when the tourism season ends.
Over the years, Schwan occasionally tried staying open late into the season, but business always tapered off and it wasn’t worth it.
COVID changed everything in 2020. For one thing, two loyal employees decided to stay for the winter. Schwan also decided to stay in the Denali area for the winter. That made it the perfect year to go for it, he said.
That decision required some preparation to implement, specifically winterizing the building.
“We had to get a diesel tank and stand attachment behind the building,” Schwan said. “I did it all by hand because you can’t get equipment back there.”
He installed a Toyo stove and they were soon ready to open.
The employees, Geoff Gabriel and Abby Szarkowski “kinda took ownership,” Schwan said. “I’ve handed off more to them and I’ve been able to take other jobs.”
The shop is paying the bills, rent and utilities, he said.
“It’s exciting that it’s a success,” he added. “We’ve been able to stay open, created two jobs for two people who wanted to stay here.
“So far, so good, we’re getting all the bills paid. It doesn’t feel stressful at all.”
The best part, he said, is receiving gratitude from customers. He has loyal customers from throughout the Denali Borough, from Cantwell to Anderson.
“We love it,” he said. “They are super appreciative. Some of our regular customers would rather drive to Denali and avoid Fairbanks. And we stay competitive with shops in Fairbanks. Our operating costs are more expensive, but we do our best to stay competitive.”
Surprisingly, he has had plenty of business from tourists too. He has noticed a lot of visitors from California and many independent travelers. The holidays were especially busy.
The shop had to stock up on drip coffee. That has become a popular item for people who pop in, especially if they just happen to drive by.
“They hang out and chat,” he said. “It’s a break from the weariness of the road.”
At the end of last summer, he opened a new coffee shop right next door — The Cache Cafe — and is very happy that they decided to host a regular coffee shop and not a venue for on-site consumption of marijuana products.
“We love having families come in,” he said.
It was only open for five weeks in 2020, with cafe treats and food compliments of McKinley Creekside Cafe, but expect a full season in 2021.
Since remaining open, the shop has been more involved in community events. They participated in the Halloween Trunk-or-Treat event in Healy and won an award for their holiday lighting for the Denali Chamber of Commerce holiday lighting contest.
It has been nice to have time to participate in the community, Schwan said.
“In summer, that’s hard to do,” he said. “For sure, it has been fun.”
As Denali National Park nudges toward more winter tourism, he hopes his shop venturing into year-round business will encourage other businesses to do the same.
“I want to prove it can be successful,” he said. “It would be great to see more businesses here in the winter.”
He wishes he could keep the coffee house open during winter months too, but so far, that isn’t feasible.
“Water comes from a well, a couple hundred yards away and above ground,” he said.
COVID made the past year a tough one, but Schwan likes to reflect on the good things instead.
“I think the gift given is for everyone to pause a little bit, to slow down, take inventory and consume less of everything.”
Contact Alaska Cannabist staff writer Kris Capps at kcapps@AlaskaCannabist.com