By Joseph Robertia
Since the 1960s the Kasilof Mercantile has met the needs of those in the area, whether it’s the fishermen- and tourist-swelled crowds of summer visitors and itinerants, or, as it is now, going into winter where traffic is down to just those who live year-round in the community. A new owner plans to continue that tradition, but has a few changes in mind.
“It officially changed hands in July,” said Travis Steinbeck, who, along with his wife, Junie, took over the business at Mile 109 of the Sterling Highway.
It was the peak of the fishing season, a time when many tourists, guides and local anglers and commercial fishermen swing by for a bite to eat, a cool drink or for fishing tackle after spending the day on the Kasilof River. Steinbeck said this meant he and his staff had to hit the ground running.
“It was busy, and I had to learn a few new things, but I know a lot about managing little grocery stores, and we kept our head above water, so I’m really looking forward to next season,” he said.
Steinbeck, son of 1971 Kenai Mayor John Steinbeck, has been in the area for a long time. He’s spent that time in the grocery-related business, setting up or stocking small stores from Kasilof to Homer and a few across the inlet, as well as working at a large supermarket in Kenai.
“I spent 30 years at IGA Country Foods, running the retail side of it. I took them from $200 a day to $30,000 a day, but I felt like I had done all I could there. I wanted a new challenge. So my wife and I started looking at this place when we heard it was for sale. We had to work on a price with them for two to three months, but we finally got it,” he said.
The “them” to which Steinbeck was referring are Bob and Mary Laster, who moved up from Georgia to take on the business in 2006. They had bought it from Mary Lambe, who had run it since 1994. Before that the business primarily belonged to Jim Galloway, now deceased, who had run it since the 1960s with the exception of a brief stint when it was sold but the buyer quickly went bankrupt.
“The Lasters had bought it to run with their son, Rocky, and his wife, Destiny, but (the younger Lasters) ended up moving down to Indiana for work, so there wasn’t much reason for Bob and Mary to stick around,” Steinbeck said.
Rocky Laster’s pet project was expanding the café portion of the Mercantile, and while this is the part of the business with which Steinbeck is the least familiar, it is the area where he intends to make the most changes.
“The restaurant side was all new to me, but I hired a restaurant manager, and I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and cook or do dishes,” he said. “Also, it shouldn’t be hard to expand on what the previous owners were doing. It was a lot of stuff out of the can or package and we’re getting away from that.”
In the months prior to selling the business, the Lasters had reduced the hours of the eatery portion of the business, but Steinbeck said that it is back to being open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, and with an expanded menu.
“We’ve still got the burgers and pizzas, but now all the pizza sauce is homemade. We’ve added three new steaks to the menu, alfredo pasta, stuffed pork chops and a smoked prime rib. We’re also looking at setting up a high tunnel to start growing our own produce, and if we don’t end up having the space, we’ve already lined up a few local DEC-approved growers we can get fresh stuff from next year,” he said.
Using fresh ingredients is part of the green theme Steinbeck has been incorporating into the business since he took it over.
“We’ve already added 700 groceries to the store, including a lot more organic and natural items, which people out here wanted. We’ve also lowered a lot of the prices on what was here, so now the price of Dave’s Killer Bread is the same here as it is at Fred Meyer or Safeway,” he said.
Steinbeck also changed out all the lights in the facility to LEDs and converted the small cabin outside, which formally served as a visitors center, into a community swap. People used to put their lightly used clothes, children’s toys, books and other items in the arctic entry of the grocery store, but Steinbeck felt this limited the amount of goods that could be available and it was a bit of an eyesore to people trying to get into the business, so he moved that service to the cabin.
“It’s easily 50 times the size it was, so people can come and get what they need from the donated items,” he said.
Clothing, books and the like aren’t the only things some folks are accustomed to getting from the Merc. The store has been the primary source for clean drinking water for many people for years, a service Steinbeck said he will continue.
“We have to. Half of Kasilof gets their water here,” he said.
Steinbeck also recognized that the potholed parking lot could use some work, and he intends to upgrade this area in coming years.
“I graded it five times this past summer, but it gets tore up pretty quickly, so we’d like to get it paved next year if the business is doing well,” he said.
Steinbeck said he also is willing to lend support where he can to community and youth-related events with which the Mercantile has previously been involved, such as school pizza parties, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race and Thanksgiving dinners.
“We want to be part of this community,” he said. “That’s really important to us.”