The recent spike in local egg prices, caused by supply shortages in the Northwest, brought back memories of a time when eggs were free right here in downtown Cordova.
Back in 1966 the two major grocery stores in town were located on Main Street. In fact, they were right across the street from each other.
One was Davis Superfood, a longtime family business, which eventually evolved into today’s Backdoor Store — a name which must baffle newcomers, because one enters the store through a pair of front doors facing Main Street.
Needless to say, volumes could be written about the history of businesses in Cordova. But in a nut shell, for several years Dan and Martha Nichols operated a bulk lot store in back of Davis’s, which quite naturally they called the Backdoor Store. Eventually they took over Davis’s, but kept the same title.
The name of the competing enterprise is easier to decipher. K & E Foodland was owned and operated by Pi Kaiser and John Ekemo, who opted to use the first letters of their last names to title the venture. Ironically Kaiser was the butcher at Davis’s for a time. Ekemo gained experience in the local grocery business at a small store called People’s Market located further up Main Street. When the Cordova Co-op, which was owned by the Fisherman’s Union became available, Ekemo approached Kaiser about buying it together.
Thus K & E Foodland was born, with its catchy slogan, “Where the least buys the most always.”
For present day geographical context, K & E was located in the building that now houses The Copper River Watershed Project.
From the checkout counter at both stores you could look out the window to see who was shopping at the other store, which could make for some small-town angst. Back then charge accounts were the norm, and credit was extended at one’s peril. I say “peril” because of a uniquely Cordova acronym in those days: PAF, which stands for “Pay After Fishing.”
As one can surmise, it could be rather aggravating to see certain customers heading across the street to shop while being carried on the other store’s books.
Equally challenging, as it is even today, was maintaining a quality produce and dairy section. In a way the method to get that stock here is the same as it was back then: by boat or plane. Back in the 1960s it was by boat all the way from Seattle, or flown down, usually from Anchorage. Nowadays, much of the produce and dairy is brought in from Anchorage via ferry through Whittier, and smart shoppers know what day the fresh produce will arrive.
But what about those free eggs in the spring of 1966? As it turns out my future wife Sue, one of John and May Ekemo’s daughters, was working at K & E at that time while earning funds to transfer from the University of Alaska to Oregon State University.
One day she happened to overhear a telephone exchange between her dad and Phil Collins, who was the freight expediter in charge of getting K & E produce and dairy from the airport or dock to the store.
John: “Phil-how is your driver?”
John: “How is your driver? I figured he must be in the hospital with several broken bones from a serious truck wreck, based on all these cases of broken eggs that were delivered to me.” Click.
Ah. Love that Norwegian humor. John was born and raised in Valdez. His parents both came from Norway, and, in fact, his father arrived in Valdez in 1898 when he hauled freight to Fairbanks via dog sled over the Valdez Glacier.
John was a shrewd business man, and looking at his cases of broken eggs saw not a complete disaster but rather a marketing opportunity to outfox his competition across the street.
He meticulously sorted through the broken eggs, removing shells and pouring the remainder into a large container.
The folks over at Davis’s must have been perplexed to see grocery shoppers scrambling into K & E with empty containers, for word spread quickly that eggs, albeit already scrambled, were free at K & E, proving their motto, “The least buys the most-always.”