After 12 years of owning and operating Echo Lake Superior Meat and Processing, located on Kalifornsky Beach Road, Jim and Sharon Clark, along with business partner Randy Yost of Anchorage, have added a new location: Ninilchik Trading, formerly Ninilchik General Store.
A Dec. 7 grand opening was an opportunity for locals and visitors to see some reorganizing that’s taken place, the expanded inventory filling the shelves and to sample Echo Lake’s tasty sausages and famous jalapeno cheese spread. With Santa in the neighborhood, it also was the perfect time for youngsters to stop by for a visit and sample the trays of Christmas cookies made by store personnel.
The idea to buy the general store began taking shape years ago.
“I’ve been delivering our cheese and salsa all the way down to Homer and was looking at the possibility of buying it, but I wasn’t quite ready,” said Jim Clark. “I wanted to make sure my business (on Kalifornsky Beach Road) was in a marketable state before I took on any more.”
This fall, Clark found himself at the “point where I needed to do something.” Realizing that in the Kenai-Soldotna area, Echo Lake was only going to get so much market share of the pie, Clark decided to branch out elsewhere.
The timing couldn’t have been better, according to Greg Encelewski, board president of Ninilchik Native Association. For the past four years NNAI has leased and operated Ninilchik General Store. However, the store was losing money and Encelewski received the board’s authorization to fund a business partner in an attempt to turn things around.
One company had already expressed interest when Clark showed up in Encelewski’s office.
“I introduced myself to Greg and asked how things were going at the store. Luckily for me, he was well aware of Echo Lake. He said it was where he goes to get a good steak,” said Clark, laughing.
Encelewski said he would let Clark know if the interested party changed plans.
“That was a Friday. He called Monday and said the other company was going to pass and did I want it?” said Clark.
The final agreement includes ownership of the land and store by NNAI in partnership with Sea Lion Corporation of Hooper Bay; the Clarks and Yost lease the building and operate it as Ninilchik Trading.
No sooner was the arrangement finalized than Clark began upgrading the store to with Ninilchik’s needs in mind.
“When you move into a community, it’s always hard to break in, but, being as this is the only store, it’s a little easier,” said Clark.
One of the biggest changes is the addition of a meat market managed by Jessica Haddock.
“She’s actually a meat cutter that came up from Washington,” said Clark. “We were going to hire her for the Echo Lake store, but she has relatives in Ninilchik, so we asked her if she wanted to manage this department and she was ecstatic.”
All the Ninilchik General Store staff has been retained.
“That was part of my agreement with NNAI, that I would not make any hasty decisions about staff,” said Clark. “Naturally some people’s hours get cut back because of seasonal activity, but at this point, we still have all the staff.”
Echo Lake products, such as the jalapeno cheese spread and jars of salsa, are featured, but there also are a variety of other Alaska-made products that have been added to the inventory. An assortment of fresh vegetables and fruit are available. Meat prices are the same as at Echo Lake’s central peninsula location.
By working with vendors and freight companies, Clark hopes to offer competitive pricing.
“That’s always a challenge when you’re not a big company, so we have to work harder at making our vendors competitive for us,” said Clark. “We challenge them to give us the best pricing they can.”
Clark also has taken steps so recipients of the WIC, Women Infants and Children, program, and SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can shop at Ninilchik Trading.
“I’m hoping we get that before Christmas,” he said. “That’ll be a good plus for the community.”
One more step the Clarks have taken to be part of the community is the purchase of a house.
“We felt if you own a business in the community, you’ve got to be part of the community,” said Clark. “We have to spend a fair amount of time here and had no place to stay, really, so we bought a little home. … We can hang our hat and be comfortable when we’re down here and I think it means something to the people here, too, that we’re going to be part of the community.”
That doesn’t mean Clark is kicking up his feet and taking a break, however. With Ninilchik Trading in operation, he recently finalized plans to expand to the Homer Spit this coming summer and purchase of a 250-square foot building that formerly housed a candle business. That will become the home of “Kach-a-snak,” featuring ready-to-eat products and beverages, as well as burgers and hot dogs. The business will open the first part of May and operate until Labor Day.
“We’re pretty confident it’ll do fairly well,” said Clark.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.