In the Shadow of Denali

Alaskan cannabis retailer proves location is everything

Nestled at the base of the foothills surrounding North America’s largest mountain sits what might be one of its smallest cannabis shops.

Clocking in at just 400 square feet, Denali’s Cannabis Cache is situated just outside the national park for which it’s named. Located at about 1,600 feet above sea level, the tiny shop, built in an area locals call “the Canyon,” is dwarfed by the massive volcanic mountains that explode into the sky just beyond its back door.

To ensure they secured the location they  wanted, Denali’s Cannabis Cache owners Kevin Schwan and Tiffani Bishop leased their small space for two years before getting their license.

And that’s exactly how owner Kevin Schwan likes it.

“When I need a break and I need to get my energy up, I grab my dog and we just shoot right up the trails, right out of the backyard,” he says. “In just minutes you can have your heart pounding and get up on a big, rocky outcropping and have a completely different perspective. You can gain altitude fast and be up on the rocks looking down on our tiny little shop and it’s pretty neat.

“That’s why we’re here, because of those mountains,” he adds. “If you want a movie theater, you’ve got a five-hour round trip on your hands.”

But what the mountains give, they can take away, as the harsh winters bring feet upon feet of snow and temperatures that drop well below zero, which is why, along with being one of the smallest shops around, Denali’s Cannabis Cache is also one of the only seasonal shops, closing each year in early October and reopening on April 20. Schwan says other shops may have a seasonal ebb and flow, but his is the only one that he knows of that does a full breakdown each fall.

“We take down the security and everything because with the outside cameras, they’re not really rated for 60 below,” he says. “It makes things pretty interesting.”

 

Seasonal

Closing for the season makes sense for Schwan and his shop, and not just because of the weather. Most of his clientele are also in the area for the mountains, with his customer base split about 50/50 between tourists and the locals who serve them during the season.

“It’s our primary focus,” Schwan says of the tourists, “but it really works out to be about half tourists, half seasonal employees that don’t live here annually, but come up to work.”
Denali’s Cannabis Cache is located in a small shopping center just outside the park boundary. There’s a pizza place, a Thai restaurant, a rock shop, a general store and multiple gift shops. Across the street are hotels that house both the tourists out to experience the Alaskan wilderness and the employees who work in the Canyon.

Schwan credits the local workers for helping create the “coffee house” vibe at the shop.

“We’re really psyched to have those seasonal employees because we can really connect with them,” he says.

Though flower remains the store’s top-selling products, the locals prefer concentrates and vape products, many with flavored oils, because they mostly live in the hotels where there are zero-tolerance policies.

But Schwan says the tourists are the main focus, not only for the cannabis products they sell, but also for souvenirs featuring the store’s logo, which are a major source of revenue for the shop due to the location.

“A large portion of our shop is dedicated to selling swag and clothing and memorabilia with our logo on it, and we do a fair amount in sales selling that,” he says, adding that the shop might even be able to survive if the state repealed legalization. “Even people who don’t partake in cannabis will come in and buy a shirt for a nephew or a grandson as memorabilia from Denali National Park.”

Bridging gaps

It was the souvenir market that helped the shop survive at first, before the company got its license to sell cannabis. Schwan says while he was not the first to get a license from the state of Alaska, his store was the first to start selling product, primarily because the shop itself had already been open for a year by then.

“We got all excited and jumped as soon as legalization happened, not knowing the state would drag its feet and it would take two years to get a license,” he says, adding that for the first year, the space just remained empty. “The second year it was like ‘we’ve got to do something’ so we opened up our boutique shop without a cannabis license and sold CBD products and T-shirts and clothing and memorabilia and paraphernalia.”

Even with their license, Schwan and his wife, Tiffani Bishop, strive to keep Denali’s Cannabis Cache focused on health and wellness, not only because it is a focus for them, but in order to be welcoming to people from all walks of life. Prior to getting into the cannabis business, Schwan worked as a massage therapist in Colorado, where he lived prior to moving to Alaska permanently nearly a decade ago. He and Bishop hoped to create a “spa vibe” at the shop.

The spa feel also helped defuse a potential clash with a local woman who started a petition to shut down the shop even before it could open. During the first year, before it was selling cannabis, the woman “stormed in” with what Bishop described as a “furrowed brow.” Upon entering the shop and seeing its “industrial antique look” of refurbished and repurposed wood and steel, the woman looked around and her face relaxed. Before she walked out, she said, “Well, this isn’t what I expected.”

“Tiffani killed her with kindness,” Schwan says. “I don’t know what she expected but what she got was a little more like walking into the entry way of a spa.”

Interactions like that, as well as the active role Schwan, Bishop and the store take in the community — Schwan is the local chamber of commerce treasurer, for example — have helped make a connection between the traditionally conservative locals and the generally more liberal employees and customers. The year spent selling CBD products and souvenirs also helped.

“It allowed us to open and make a smooth transition with our tight-knit community,” Schwan says. “I feel like in some ways we’ve really bridged the gap and have shown them it’s not the evil thing they thought it was.

“Stigma is really weird,” he adds.

Tiffani Bishop and budtender Taylor Hight help one of the tourists visiting Denali National Park that make up half of the shop’s customer base.

Seeing the need

Though not a native of the 49th state, Schwan has been a regular visitor for 20 years and a resident for nearly a decade. Like many, it was the state’s raw, natural beauty that brought him north.

Originally from Arizona (“I was born and raised a desert rat,” he says), Schwan went to massage school in California and then moved to Colorado, where he had family, in order to ski and ride in the Rocky Mountains. He worked as a massage therapist during the winter season, but at the time there was not a lot of summer tourism and his job was seasonal. In the summer of 1998, a friend asked if he wanted to road trip to Alaska and Schwan jumped at the chance. He got a job working at a flightseeing tour company, spent his summer flying around the Alaska Range and fell in love with it. After that, he’d winter as a massage therapist in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and head up to Alaska in the summers.

“I did that for nearly a decade and I just never left,” he says. “Eventually I just moved up here year-round.”

Schwan says the idea of opening a cannabis shop started as a bit of a joke between he and his wife as the state debated legalization, but the more they thought about it, the more they realized there was a need for it.

“When I worked at [the tour company], people constantly came in asking me about tours and then, ‘Hey, do you know where I can find some bud?’” he says.

When voters passed the state initiative on adult-use cannabis in 2014, the couple got serious and reached out to the landlord at the plaza where they are currently located, securing a location — even though it was two years earlier than they actually needed it.

“Like a lot of entrepreneurs, if you knew how much work it was going into it, you probably wouldn’t do it,” he says now with a laugh.

And while the shop’s seasonal nature adds another layer of difficulty most cannabis shop owners don’t have to deal with, Schwan says it provides a nice respite in the winter and an opportunity to focus on other pursuits, even if sometimes the five-month season feels too short. In fact, this year, the store stayed open a little longer than usual, keeping product on the shelves until after the state distributed the Permanent Fund Dividend in October. It’s the annual share of the state’s oil revenues that last year gave every Alaska resident a check for $1,600. Schwan says most stores have PFD sales and this year, so did his.

After that though, the doors closed, and he and Bishop again hunkered down for the winter, with plans of reopening as the melt begins in the spring.

But even with the shortened season, Schwan says there’s no other place in the state he would rather have a shop.

“We’re exactly where we want to be in the state of Alaska,” he says. “It’s just such a great place to have a shop.”

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