Rhubarb sherbet takes top spot in business competition

TURNAGAIN ARM — What is the quintessential Alaska food?

Juneau resident Marc Wheeler would like it to be rhubarb sherbet, available at most cruise ship docks in Southeast Alaska.

Wheeler won the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.’s Pitch-on-a-Train event July 31 with a plan to expand his ice creamery and coffee shop, Coppa, where he currently sells rhubarb sherbet and other flavors.

“The rhubarb stock is a little bit humble. It isn’t as iconic as a king salmon jumping out of the Kenai River,” Wheeler said during his pitch. “But rhubarb has a lot of positive associations for a lot of people. When you eat rhubarb you think about something that was handpicked, right? … Rhubarb harkens back to those days when we made and put up more of our own food, a tradition we still have in Alaska.”

Most of Coppa’s current revenue comes from the coffee side of the business, but it all started with ice cream — and that’s where Wheeler believes there’s the most room for growth.

He started the business with raspberry sherbet to sell at the Juneau farmer’s market with his five-year-old daughter and the ice cream maker his wife had picked up at a garage sale.

“I thought, ‘what a unique opportunity with my daughter,’” he said. “We can pick raspberries, we have a lot of raspberries in our neighborhood, make sherbet with the raspberries, and sell it on Saturdays. She can practice her math skills and saying
‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and it’d be a lot of fun.”

When the raspberries ran out, he began looking around for another local product he could use, and realized that Juneau had acres of rhubarb, he told the judges before offering them a sample.

Now, Wheeler makes and sells a variety of Alaska flavors: the sherbets, blueberry and spruce tip ice creams, and other varieties, at his shop in downtown Juneau, about 1.5 miles from where cruise ships dock. His wife does the marketing and much of the creative work for the business.

His pitch was to expand to mobile food sales right on the docks in Juneau. Eventually, he’d like to see his product on other docks, he said.

“We have visions of having rhubarb sherbet in every port from Ketchikan to Skagway, and someday, coming to Alaska and not having rhubarb sherbet will be like going to Italy and not trying the gelato,” he said.

Wheeler’s pitch called for a $75,000 investment in exchange for a 15 percent equity share in the business to expand to the Juneau docks.

He told the judges that with a larger freezer and a food truck, he could scale up production and reach the 1 million cruise ship passengers who visit Juneau each year. The business currently takes in about $300,000 in revenue each year, including $60,000 in ice cream — that could be doubled or tripled with dock positioning, he said.

Judge Jon Bittner, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, said that Wheeler’s pitch won the competition for several reasons: He has a proven business, he was realistic about his potential for growth — and the product was good.

“Bribing a judge panel with ice cream is never a bad idea,” Bittner said with a laugh after the winners were announced.

He also pointed to Wheeler’s answers to the judges questions: the Juneau entrepreneur said he wasn’t well-versed in crowdfunding, he knew his market, and he knew just how much he could grow.

After the pitch, judge Carol Howarth asked Wheeler about the potential for expanding into grocery stores; he does not yet have the capacity for that, he said, although with further investment he could get there.

Travelocity.com and Kayak.com founder Terry Jones, another judge, asked him if the pending opening of a Starbucks in Juneau would detract from his business. Wheeler responded that the Starbucks was farther from the docks, and likely wouldn’t impact him, particularly if he got closer to the docks.

Wheeler won a three-month membership to The Boardroom, 50,000 American Airlines miles donated by Jones and 25,000 Alaska Air miles donated by GCI, as his winnings.

He also went home with a better idea of how to grow his business, he said.

Wheeler was nominated for the AEDC competition because he was a finalist in Juneau Economic Development Corp.’s Path to Prosperity competition in 2013.

But he had never done the sort of pitch that AEDC asked for, and the process of putting together his presentation helped Wheeler and his wife think about how to grow, he said.

“I think it helped us crystallize our thinking about our next steps,” he said.

Wheeler was just one of several Alaskans who presented their business ideas at the second annual event.

A panel of judges including Bittner, Howarth, Jones and others from banks, investment groups and other Alaska organizations heard the pitches, and questioned the teams at the end of each presentation, pressing them for details on how the businesses would work as the train traveled from Anchorage to Whittier.

The runner-up team — Danny Reeves and Dewey Halverson — are trying to develop a new water filtration system that’s more robust than those typically used by backpackers, but still portable enough for hunting guides.

Third place went to Fairbanks-based Arctic Fire Development Corp.

Keith Cunningham and Charlie Parr pitched a software subscription to control unmanned aerial systems. The fourth and fifth place businesses were a fractional aircraft ownership plan and a business that enables bitcoins to be used on a debit/credit card.

Each of the business teams was nominated to the pitch competition via a different route, ranging from regional competitions to the statewide Alaska Business Plan Competition, and while some had business experience, others were simply trying to make a go of a product they thought was useful.

Dewey Halverson, part of the Roving Blue team pitching a portable water purification system, said that the event itself was a valuable experience.

In addition to talking to judges and learning from the pitch, Halverson said other attendees were willing to share their experiences and ideas developing other business proposals.

“There was a lot of nice freely given information,” he said.

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