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Profiles of Barrow business people.

Vito Stojic Owner, Arctic Pizza

Vito Stojic attributes the success of his business to three main ingredients: authentic Mexican food using shredded beef rather than ground, a delivery service, and daily specials ranging from shrimp scampi to baked halibut. Toss in a personal touch, hard work and a commitment to quality, and it's little surprise that Stojic's Arctic Pizza is a popular Barrow restaurant.

"The food's exquisite," says Bob Harcharek, a longtime resident and customer. "I've never had a bad meal there."

Stojic moved from Yugoslavia to the United States with his parents 23 years ago. In 1985, he landed in Barrow and took a job with the city. Three years later, he and his wife Heidi combined their savings with money borrowed from friends and family, bought a dilapidated restaurant and began turning it into the business they envisioned.

Raised in a home where food played an important cultural role, Stojic studied cookbooks, experimented with ingredients and came up with a menu offering Mexican food, sandwiches, steaks, spaghetti and, of course, pizzas. A large, 16-inch combo with 26 ounces of dough and heaped with ingredients sells for $23. Soon, when Stojic's folks move to Barrow from Wisconsin to help with the restaurant and grandchildren, he hopes to add Yugoslavian dishes.

Stojic, who had no previous restaurant experience, plans to add a second story to his small, 48-seat restaurant this year. When he does, he says, his place will be the only restaurant in town with an upper view of the Arctic Ocean. Also planned are an expanded menu and possibly a new name. With a larger facility, Stojic also hopes to cater to the tourist trade.

"Everyone is important to us," says Stojic of his customers. "I really don't want to get professional, to get cold." Stojic also believes in giving back to the community that supports his restaurant seven days a week. He says that every day he gives at least one customer a free meal. Adds Stojic, "I think we are accepted up here."

Beri Morris Manager, Alaska Commercial Store

Beri Morris, 38, is most concerned with taking care of the basics. And as manager of the Alaska Commercial Co.'s Barrow store, Morris has plenty to keep him busy.

"My main goal is to try to keep the shelves stocked with the things our customers want. It doesn't sound that lofty," says Morris, "but just doing the basics keeps us busy."

A manager at a Fort Yukon Alaska Commercial store before moving to Barrow three years ago, Morris manages 75 full- and part-time employees and oversees a 40,000-square-foot facility. Spread across its two floors are groceries, furniture, clothing, fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, including star fruit and kiwi, a bakery and deli, a hardware section, whaling tools and the country's northernmost fresh salad bar. The salad bar is a real hit with residents and an attention-grabber for visitors.

"We think of it as a Cadillac of stores," says Morris. "We do the greatest volume of any AC store. We're by far the leading store in Barrow." The business is known locally as the AC Stuaqpak -- Inupiaq for "Big Store."

It is difficult for Morris to compete with prices available in mail-order catalogs or at stores in Fairbanks and Anchorage, so he tries to reward his customers in other ways -- such as holding midnight-madness sales, square-dance demonstrations in the aisles and pie-eating contests, as well as sponsoring community activities. "It makes the folks feel good about coming into the store," says Morris.

To make Barrow residents feel good about their culture, Morris has put up section labels and other signs, including the store motto, "We're here to make a difference," in Inupiaq. He also prints bilingual advertising fliers. Reindeer meat is often available, and seal-skin slippers, Eskimo yoyos and other traditional crafts are sold on consignment.

The details of running the store keep Morris from mingling with his customers as much as he'd like to. And 60- to 70-hour work weeks spent getting fresh lettuce delivered or supplies in before whaling season are common. "Logistics could be, without exaggeration, described as a nightmare," says Morris. "There are so many possibilities for failure."

But Morris doesn't use his location as an excuse for not doing all he can to meet his customers' needs. "We try not to make allowances by saying, 'This is Barrow so we don't have to try so hard.'"

Diane Orbeck Owner, The Video Bank

A nursing strike in Minnesota drove Diane Orbeck to Alaska, where a friend of a friend encouraged her to visit Nome or Barrow. She chose Barrow. Three years later, in 1987, burned out from years as a nurse, Orbeck left her hospital job in Barrow and bought an existing video-rental business.

After holding a contest to rename the enterprise, she dubbed it The Video Bank to reflect one of the building's prior uses. Since her initial investment of approximately $150,000, Orbeck has pumped all her time, energy and money back into the operation.

Twelve hundred movie titles have swelled to 6,000 and helium balloons have been added, along with delivery people dressed as the Pink Panther, Garfield the cat, an alligator, a walrus and a host of other critters. The store now offers candy and popcorn for sale, video games for frequent school-age visitors, and special trinkets and gimmicks to brighten any holiday.

"It takes a lot of time," says Orbeck of her quest to offer something besides just videos. "I try to be very involved in the community, but it's exhausting. I put a lot back into the business. The novelties have been fun, but they're exhausting on holidays. I'm always trying to scheme up new things to do."

When she opened the store, horror movies were by far the videos of choice. Nearly five years later, Orbeck is pleased to report that comedies, action films and dramas are in demand.

Trying to meet the needs of her classic-movie lovers, however, is a constant challenge. "I try to keep a good line of classics," says Orbeck, "but to be honest, they're hard to find." Among those on her shelves are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Taming of the Shrew, Moby Dick and Cleopatra.

The Video Bank has five part-time employees. And although Orbeck has to leave town to get any time off, she seems to thrive on the activity in Barrow.

"I love the people," the 44-year-old says. "My customers are almost like friends. Some of them are."

Robin Harrison Branch Manager, National Bank of Alaska

In 1987, at age 23, Robin Harrison became one of the youngest branch managers of any National Bank of Alaska office in the state. Starting as a teller in 1982, Harrison worked her way up by handling new accounts, loans and other responsibilities.

Barrow's NBA branch, which it acquired in 1987 from Alaska National Bank of the North, is the only bank physically located in the 90,000-square-mile borough.

Harrison's main objective is serving as a link between her customers and the often-misunderstood banking industry. "We have to tailor services to customers of the area. ... What you do is dictated strongly by what your customer base needs," Harrison says.

The branch manager notes that one major customer need is help in obtaining home mortgages. The process, which can be a nightmare for those accustomed to dealing face-to-face with financial institutions, can be even worse for someone with limited exposure to such practices and who is forced to do the entire process by long-distance telephone.

To help ease the process, Harrison began acting as the liaison between her customers and mortgage representatives in Anchorage. She also began offering mortgage-loan workshops so her customers would better understand the process. In addition, Harrison travels to outlying villages once a year to explain mortgage-loan procedures. With no realtors, title companies or private attorneys in town, Harrison is often the only local source of information.

Harrison has instituted other customer programs. She started a savings-coupon system to help future homeowners save for a down payment. To encourage customers to open new checking accounts, Harrison began a program whereby the bank offers free statement balancing for the first few months.

These services are important to a community in which cash is used for everything from buying groceries to paying the telephone bill. They also are important to a community that, for the most part, was introduced to a cash-based economy only within the last generation or two.

Harrison, who moved to Barrow with her family from Arizona when she was 10, oversees a staff that ranges from 7 to 10 employees. Because she receives very few applicants with previous banking experience, Harrison typically does extensive training with each new hire. Employee turnover also can be a problem because, like other private-sector employers, NBA cannot match the high wages that make government jobs so attractive.

Harrison, who is president of the local Rotary Club and also coaches the junior-high girls' basketball team, hopes to expand her workshop offerings this year to include training on consumer loans and tax preparation for small businesses. Her primary goal, however, remains the same. "I want to bring banking in its best form to the residents of the North Slope," she says.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Barrow, Alaska
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Words:1540
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