Michaella Perez

Michaella Perez of Cafe de Stir It Up Thursday October 3, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

“Options for your dietary lifestyle guaranteed,” is how Michaella Perez described the menu at Cafe de Stir It Up, the breakfast and lunch place she opened this spring on the Old Steese Highway.

Located in the spot formerly occupied by Speedy’s Subs, it’s a dine-in and takeout version of a popular coffee hut she’s operated for four years. “We have gluten-free, dairy free, vegan, vegetarian. We can accommodate almost anything.”

Perez has a personal reason for wanting to cater to those with restricted diets.

“My little boy has a growing list of allergies, and I realized that Fairbanks lacked a place with options,” she said. “Especially a drive-through place. There were not a lot of options here in town where people really understood allergies and intolerances. So that’s what sparked the coffee hut.”

Perez grew up in Fairbanks and has a degree in early childhood education from the University of Alaska, but she said the java business has been the mainstay of her career.

“I started in coffee when I was 16. It’s a profession I always found my way back to. After I got my bachelor’s degree and had taught for a couple of years, I wanted to do something different.”

That something different was opening Stir It Up, a coffee stand on Phillips Field Road, in November 2015. She found a building available in North Pole, moved it to its present location, and got it up and running.

“Finding financing when you don’t have a standing business can be very difficult,” she said. “So I started the coffee hut on a lot of hope and faith and a personal loan.”

Fortunately, she had a network to draw from. “I had a lot of support from family and friends for things that I needed. I started fairly small, and the more the finances came in, the more we expanded.”

Building a customer base took time in the competitive drive-through coffee stand market. She said she found social media particularly helpful in attracting business. She also worked with a local radio promotion.

“A big game changer for us was doing 50/50 Friday with the radio stations,” she said, describing the program where stations sell gift cards for local businesses at half their face value. The stations keep the money, but the businesses get advertising and promotion in exchange.

“That is difficult because you’re handing away free product for your airtime,” she said. “But it definitely gained us some clientele.”

Last year Perez decided she was ready to take the next step and expand to a sit-down eatery. She said choosing the location was easy.

“I’d looked at this spot for a long time. I made a call to the realty company and said, ‘Hey, I want to look at it.’ I had faith that if it was meant to be, it would be, and here we are. We signed the lease in December, and we opened in May.”

The restaurant is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Along with food, they serve coffee from two roasters, Anchorage-based Kaladi Brothers, and also a new startup.

“Lifeline Coffee Roasters is Fairbanks’ newest coffee roaster,” she said. “They are a veteran-owned business.” Owner Spencer DeWaele roasts the coffee in the srestaurant, providing Perez with a house blend.

Reflecting on her experiences as a business owner for several years now, Perez advised those considering the same path, “Don’t lose yourself in starting your business. Self-care is very important. Make sure to block out a couple of hours a week for yourself.”

Even more important, she added, “Don’t be afraid of failure. Because failure is a stepping stone to success.”

Another key ingredient is community involvement. Stir It Up engages in local philanthropic work. Her son has a support group for kids with food allergies that meets there. She’s hoping to offer painting classes onsite soon. And she’s taking part in the upstart Final Friday art event, offering music, art, and coffee tasting.

“It does say outside, ‘Your community cafe’,” she said. “We want this not just to be a restaurant but a place where people can come together. On whatever note that is.”

David James lives in Fairbanks.