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Alaskan coffee shacks

July 20th, 2011

From what I can tell, Alaskans really love coffee.  And ice cream.  Maybe both at the same time.

The Raven Wolf Java Joint, a coffee shack on the Glenn Highway

As evidence of this, one needs look no further than the prevalence of coffee shacks lining the roads.

For the uninitiated, coffee shacks are simple buildings, typically about 10 ft by 20 ft, which have drive-through windows on one or both of the long sides.  They are drive-through only, with no seating space.  As a rule, the shacks sell espresso and ice cream.  Curiously, drip coffee tends to be a rarity at such venues.

Traditional sit-down coffee shops do exist, but they are nowhere near as common as in the Lower 48 or the western provinces.  Not even the Yukon Territory appears to have many coffee shacks.

I stopped at the Raven Wolf Java Joint along the Glenn Highway while driving away from Anchorage.  The Java Joint was slightly atypical in that it appeared to have some seating in the back, but it was still primarily a drive-through coffee outfit.

I asked the owner for her opinion about why coffee shacks were so common in Alaska but nowhere else.  She couldn’t muster any good theories, but she did surprise me by mentioning that she found it difficult to find coffee when in the Lower 48.  It seems that she was so accustomed to getting caffeinated from shacks that she had trouble locating the “more traditional” types of coffee purveyors.  A suggestion of “Starbucks” was met with a chuckle.

Here are my theories about why drive-through coffee is so popular in Alaska.

From the supply side, it seems like it would be easy to set up a coffee shack.  All that is needed is some land near a road and access to utilities.  The building itself would be inexpensive to construct, and the staffing requirements would be minimal.

From the demand side, there is probably significant appeal in getting a hot beverage made for you without your getting out of your warm car in the frigid cold of winter.  I for one enjoy going to coffee shops in winter and sipping coffee by the fireplace, but shacks aren’t conducive to that.  Perhaps Alaskans have plenty of fires in the fireplace, thank-you-very-much, and would rather sip their coffee behind the wheels of their cars?

Maybe it’s just the start of a trend that will eventually expand to the other states.

If anybody has a good explanation for this phenomenon, I’d love to hear it!

  1. July 20th, 2011 at 13:10 | #1

    With the size of Alaska, it seems like getting anywhere would take a lot of time in the car. That’s the most likely explanation in my mind for a car-centric coffee culture. Weather might actually be less of a factor than you might think if there are that many fewer coffee shacks in Minnesota. As you said, there’s more benefits on the supply side, too – besides the lower initial costs, a smaller building is also a lot cheaper to maintain and heat. No idea what commercial rents are like in Alaska but surely that comes into play too. According to http://www.statemaster.com/graph/lif_sta_sto_percap-lifestyle-starbucks-stores-per-capita Alaska is #9 for Starbucks per capita (Minnesota is #16), so it’s not a matter of there being fewer Starbucks around.

    I pass two coffee shacks (and one Starbucks) on my way to work every day, so I don’t think they’re that unusual elsewhere.

    You might enjoy this flickr set of 178 Alaskan coffee shacks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/btmeacham/sets/72157603839017130/

  2. July 20th, 2011 at 13:14 | #2

    Something else I just thought of: it’s very easy to move a coffee shack, since most I’ve seen would fit on a trailer. With the double-digit growth rates of the Alaskan population I imagine the ability to pick up and move to respond to changing demand is an asset.

  3. Sue P.
    July 20th, 2011 at 18:37 | #3

    Hey Jeff—
    They aren’t ONLY in Alaska…….you’ll see them along the west coast and maybe a few other places–although around here they need to be licensed, maybe not the case in Alaska? They are called Drive Thru’s for short, or espresso stands. Most down here will serve coffee’s, espresso, hot chocolate, granita’s, italian soda’s, etc as well as biscotti or some other small food item depending on the season………They are for drivers/families/people in general who pull over and get their goodies and get back into their drive easily–the alternative to sit down coffee shops with wifi, etc. They were very popular before the downturn, but they are still many around. Oh, and they often have daily specials or ‘happy hours’ featuring their drinks……………

  4. Jeff
    July 21st, 2011 at 11:40 | #4

    @Isaac That’s a great collection of coffee shack photos. Really shows the variety within the type.

  5. Jeff
    July 21st, 2011 at 11:43 | #5

    @Sue P. Do the traditonal coffee shops lack drive-throughs? In Minnesota, they tend to have both. I just find it surprising to encounter so many shacks with no seating whatsoever.

  6. Sue P.
    July 21st, 2011 at 12:11 | #6


    In Seattle, there are coffee shops without drive thru’s….Tully’s, Seattle’s Best, Starbucks (most) and other names a non-coffee drinker like me can’t remember!……Then there are the Starbucks that have drive thru’s………Then there are the stand alone drive-thru Mom and Pop coffee shack’s like what you saw in Alaska that have no seating and you order, pick up and drive off from your car. And yes, there are quite a few around the greater Seattle area–but you will find them pretty much everywhere on the West Coast. Often tucked near to a gas station in a side area. But certainly not limited to that. They usually rent the space that the shack is located on…….some of them are quite unique and the names for the business can be very creative!

  7. Sue P.
    July 22nd, 2011 at 10:51 | #7

    People would probably give me a bad time for saying they are shacks……..they are “espresso stands”………

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