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Warehousing

Managing a rural grocery store: ‘you get whatever shows up’

By Melinda Munson

Tim Fairbanks would rather be fishing. Instead, he runs Fairway Market IGA, the largest grocery store in town.

Large is a relative term in Skagway. Fairway Market is about 5,000 square feet with five aisles.

Tim, who went to college in Colorado and spent time in the military, never planned on heading the grocery establishment.

“One year my father asked me to help out and I just never got away,” Fairbanks said.

Fairway Market was started by Fairbank’s grandfather, Ervon Fairbanks, in 1958. Ervon worked in grocery stores Outside before he decided to settle in Skagway. He turned down an offer to go into the food business with a friend in the Lower 48. That friend, Joe Albertson, later founded the giant grocery chain, Albertsons.

Eventually, Ervon’s son, Ervon (Ed), took over the market along with his brother, Leslie. Today, Tim Fairbanks manages the store. His brother, Rod, is in charge of the meat department.

When asked how many hours he works a week, Fairbank’s wife, Heidi, quickly answered.

“Too many,” she said.

Fairbanks estimated his work week is between 60-70 hours with additional time in the summer. Fairway Market normally employs approximately 22 workers during tourist season and 10 in the winter.

Like most businesses, the IGA is struggling to stay afloat after the non-appearance of cruise ships due to COVID-19. The grocery must also deal with a supply chain that is more finicky than normal.

“I wish they (customers) understood what it takes to get the product here,” Fairbanks said.

Groceries, which are barged to Skagway, undergo a 10-day process before they are delivered to Fairway Market. On Saturday, Fairbanks makes his order. The warehouse in Centralia, Washington, pulls the numbers on Monday and pickers put the order on pallets. On Tuesday,  Alaska Marine Lines receives the pallets and loads them onto the ship. The barge leaves Washington early Wednesday morning. Assuming the weather and tides are good, the barge will arrive in Skagway’s port the following Monday.

If the barge arrives as planned late Monday night, the IGA restocks dry goods, perishables and chill items on Tuesday. On Wednesday, frozen items are stocked. Bread is always shipped to Skagway “freshly frozen” so it doesn’t mold. 

Fairbanks said the most challenging item is produce.

“Once in a while you’ll get a whole load that’s just gorgeous,” he said. Other times, the produce might be showing its age.

Sometimes, the warehouse pickers make mistakes or the desired items just aren’t available. Fairbanks recounted a time when they didn’t get bread for six weeks.

“You get whatever shows up,” Heidi said.

The Fairbanks have tried to truck product in from the Yukon but drivers were wary of the steep mountain pass.

“In the winter time they just simply didn’t want to come here,” Fairbanks said. “We couldn’t keep a driver.”

There were also problems bringing goods across international borders.

Skagway’s grocery prices reflect the cost of shipping to a rural community. Avocados are generally $5 each, except when they’re on sale for 99 cents. 

“We’ve always tried to keep our prices low. We’ve even at times not added in the freight,” Fairbanks said.

Fairway Market is currently on the market with several interested parties. If it sells, expect to see Fairbanks on the Lynn Canal, fishing pole in hand. 

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