•Opportunity to get Wild Berry sweets in town dwindling
By Carey Restino
Those with a craving for jellied berries covered in chocolate have only a few weeks left to buy them locally.
After 57 years, Alaska Wild Berry Products’ Homer store will most likely be closing its doors at the end of this month. A sale on the building is pending, said Chris Story of Story Real Estate, which has been negotiating the deal. If the sale doesn’t go through, the store could stay open until the holidays, Story said.
The Homer store’s history spans nearly six decades after the mayor of Homer, Hazel Heath, and her husband Ken began making jams and jellies from local berries and selling them. The Heaths ran the business until 1975, expanding the Homer store to include the rustic-sided combination of small houses now found on Pioneer Avenue. Harry and Betty Brundage bought the business from the Heaths in 1973, and sold it to Peter Eden in 1975. Eden has owned it since then. It wasn’t until 1989 that chocolate-covered candies — now arguably the flagship of the business — were produced.
Hazel Heath, who passed in 1998, wrote about her early days in Homer in “In Those Days — Alaska Pioneers of the Lower Kenai Peninsula,” saying it was the abundance of food, including the berries, which lured her to Homer in the first place. While visiting the town following World War II, the pair said they were told about all the wild berries that grew in Kachemak Bay. The couple then set off on a six-week trip around Kodiak Island.
“By the time we returned from our six weeks trip with Dal, around Kodiak Island where we ate ducks, clams, crabs, shrimp, blueberries, cranberries, smoked salmon and other kinds of seafood, we were completely sold on Alaska living.
Alaska Wild Berry Products started in a 10-foot section in the back of a restaurant run by Freda Coles, fronted by four small cabins for rent, Homer’s first hotel, Heath noted. At the time, Homer’s population was 450-500 people and less than 30 miles of road, which was enough, since there were only seven cars in town, Heath said.
“One didn’t have to look up to see who was going by,” she wrote. “You could recognize them by the sound of the vehicle.”
Heath eventually wound up taking over the restaurant, and remembered a steep learning curve as she cooked for harvest crews.
“With no water, no electricity or refrigeration, it was quite a challenge,” she said.
The berry business was set up on a large range powered by coal, Heath wrote.
“When the berry season came on, we would operate the café until 8 p.m., then work berries until midnight,” she wrote. “I had some grand people come in to work for me. I never could have done it alone.”
Heath started packing berry gift boxes for Christmas, and the couple was able to buy a homestead right in the middle of town, and built the gift shop and a kitchen behind it.
Since the Heaths started the business following the war, finding supplies was difficult, especially glass jars.
“I contacted glass wholesalers and they smiled indulgently at me and said, ‘Oh, our regular customers are taking all of our output. We can’t take on any new ones at this time,’” she wrote.
Working with the local grocery, Heath was able to find some surplus pint jars from a pickle factor, and peanut jars from Fort Lewis and they got through the first year using those. In their second year, a tourist with connections to a Seattle glass company finally got them a steady supply.
Gift boxes were a challenge, too. Finding cardboard folding boxes took several years, and even then, strikes in the Alaska Steamship company sometimes meant the boxes didn’t get in on time.
A friend who was a commercial artist designed the logo and coined the slogan “A taste of Alaska.”
Fairly soon, limitations of shipping from Homer became an issue as the business expanded. They set up a forwarding station in Seattle, shipping gift boxes to Seattle on the steam ships in large containers and then addressed and shipped out by rail express. The heaviest gift boxes were 19 pounds, and were shipped anywhere in the United States for 75 cents.
Finding berries wasn’t always easy, Heath recalled, and locals were skeptical about newcomers starting a business like theirs in town.
“I don’t think many really believed there were enough berries to do what we said we were going to do — make gift boxes and ship them all over the country?! Bosh !!,” she wrote.
One year, they had to send money back to customers because they didn’t have enough berries to fill all the orders. The following year, seafood was incorporated into the boxes to make the berries go farther. Pretty soon, the locals caught on to the fact that the Heaths would buy berries, which caused some trouble.
“It wasn’t long before the children found out that they could earn money by bringing berries to us and then we got into trouble with their mothers,” Heath wrote. “One woman said she had to make a deal with her children that after they had picked all she needed, then they could bring them to me. Another youngster refused to pick for his mother unless she paid him for the berries because Mrs. Heath would.”
When fishing seasons were slim, homesteaders and fishermen would bring the business berries.
The store didn’t only sell jams, jellies and seafood, however. One innovative idea was the “forest incense” box, containing five moose nuggets sprayed with balsam oil on a bed of moss.
“The idea was to insert the thumb tack into one end of the nugget, light the other end and from the fragrance you could imagine you were sitting around a spruce or birch campfire,” Heath wrote.
One man ordered seven salmon boxes of moose nuggets to burn in his seven fireplaces. Heath had to send out an emergency call to her gang of children to find moose nuggets. In less than two hours, they were back with more than enough moose nuggets to fill the order.
In addition to her business prowess, Heath also served as the mayor of Homer from 1968 to 1976, and served on numerous boards, both in Homer and statewide. She was a charter member of the Alaska Visitors Association during the 1950s, and was appointed to the Governor’s Tourism Advisory board by Gov. Jay Hammond.
While the Homer store, which has been for sale for a year, will most likely be closing, the Alaska Wildberry Products brand will continue to be produced from the Anchorage store, built in 1994 by Eden. The store and factory off Old Seward Highway has a 20-foot-tall chocolate fall, and according to the company’s web site, Alaska Wild Berry Products is the largest candy manufacturer in the state and the only one to ship Outside.
Eden did not return calls for an interview by press time.
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