Gathering AK Café Gives Aspiring Chefs a Chance
Frank Canha thought downtown Anchorage’s food offerings could use some diversity.
“I thought it would be nice and refreshing to have something other than a hot dog cart on 4th Avenue,” said the former accountant and Fairbanks native, who returned to Alaska after 16 years in San Diego. His plan? To open Frank’s Bar-B-Que. The food? Char-grilled, wood-smoked meats (Canha uses mesquite), a style of cooking known as California barbecue.
Then Canha’s permit application hit an unexpected snag. “My cart was four-inches too wide to be downtown,” he said with a chuckle. “I was ready to chop four-inches off that thing.”
His head low, Canha was reevaluating his options when someone at the Municipality of Anchorage Health Department suggested he contact Anchorage re:MADE, an upcycling/thrift store that rents out its commercial kitchen. Canha approached re:MADE owner Patti Buist, thinking she’d offer him the use of their kitchen and a space to set up his cart. Instead, she invited him to be part of Gathering AK Café, a pop-up style restaurant re:MADE planned to open in its café space. Canha was beside himself at the offer.
“I just thought, ‘Are you kidding, this beautiful café?’” he said. “I was dumbfounded because I’d been trying so hard to get my cart up to spec. I couldn’t believe this opportunity had opened up.”
Gathering AK Café, which celebrated its grand opening on April 15, features a different guest chef each day. Canha serves his California barbecue, which includes pulled pork, sausage, and tri-tip sandwiches every Friday. Other days of the week you’ll find Cuban Bred Café serving traditional Cuban sandwiches; Filipino dishes and afternoon tea service from Gigi’s Tea Shop; organic, vegan and gluten-free offerings from Good Little Bakery; baked goods and sandwiches from Somebunny’s Baked Goods and Grandma’s Goodies; homey casseroles and sweets from Alaska’s Sweet & Savory, and; Guatemalan food with an American twist from Mochileros Street Food.
Keeping with re:MADE’s mission of empowering people to make a positive change in their life, the café gives budding entrepreneurs an opportunity to experience what it takes to successfully operate a food business before jumping in head first.
“A lot of restaurants fail, and (the owners) never had a chance to really hone in on what their vision and dream really is,” said Annette Buist, a volunteer with Anchorage re:MADE who helped get the guest chef program up and running. “This is an option for those who have the passion to work and want to see what it takes to run their own small business before they get in and become overwhelmed.”
The chance to learn before making a full-time commitment is what drew Gigi Campbell, owner of Gigi’s Tea Shop, to the café. A retired nurse, Campbell offered tea classes in her home and had toyed with the idea of opening her own tea shop. So far, the café experience has offered personal and professional insights and helped narrow her vision.
“After doing this, maybe that dream was just too much. I still want to enjoy my life and not be tied down in this kind of work,” she said with a laugh. “I can see how hard it is to work in the restaurant business and I’m just so glad that it’s once a week.”
Buist said the goal is that chefs ultimately transition out of the café.
“We’d like to be almost like a boot camp,” she explained. “We want to be able to equip people so they can come in and then they leave and open a kitchen or food truck.”
Mochileros Street Food, which worked the café on Tuesdays during its soft opening, is an example of the type of success Buist hopes guest chefs will achieve. Co-owners Ana Pleitez and Whitney Parker utilized re:MADE’s kitchen to make its creamy bacon, chorizo and kale soup for 907 Alehouse’s Soup’r Bowl this past February. Their success at that event, coupled with their café service and Pleitez’ savvy Facebook marketing, helped earn the pair a large following. Their food truck now has bookings all summer.
“We’ve talked to Annette, expressing our gratitude to the café and to the re:MADE store because they opened the doors for us,” Pleitez said. “They give us the opportunity to get people to know our food.”
Canha hopes the café will do the same for him. Until then, he’s just enjoying the ride.
“I’m living my dream right now,” he said. “I’m just so proud to be part of this program. It’s been a journey, and it’s just all falling in to place all at the right time.”
Gathering AK Café is located at 13500 Old Seward Highway and is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Gathering-AK-Cafe for the weekly guest chef schedule. If you’re interested in being part of the guest chef program, visit www.gatheringak.com/are-you-a-chef-or-baker.html.