The Great Alaskan Bowl Company celebrated 30 years of operation this August. The family-run Fairbanks business is one of the few fully operating bowl mills in the U.S. Despite their status as an established company, they have no plans of slowing down anytime soon and are already looking to the future.
“We’ve hit 30, and I look forward to the next 30 years,” said Emily Berriochoa, retail manager and daughter of founder Lewis Bratcher. Moving forward, Berriochoa is excited to expand and grow the business while at the same time honoring its past.
As its name suggests, the Great Alaskan Bowl Company sells handmade wooden bowls, as well as wooden beer steins, salad tossers, plaques and a variety of other Alaska and American made products. “I’ve been pushing more than bowls,” Berriochoa said, because with 30 years of operation, many people already have Great Alaskan Bowl Company Bowls. Berriochoa described the business as “a home goods and gourmet food Alaskan store, in addition to being a forest product manufacturer.”
But what really sets the Great Alaskan Bowl Company apart is the way they embrace and emphasize the "Alaskan" part of their name. “We really wanted to be intentional with the products that we’re selling,” said Berriochoa. The Berriochoas put effort into networking with and supporting other businesses both in Fairbanks and across the state. Currently, they sell over 100 Alaska companies products in their Fairbanks store. “We take the ‘buy local’ modifier to another level,” Berriochoa explained, because not only are people purchasing local products, but the company itself supports other local businesses. “The money that we spent on that product stayed in the state as well, and I think that’s really special,” Berriochoa explained.
The wood is also all sourced in-state. Some of it comes from near Salcha and North Pole, and other comes from the Talkeetna and Trapper Creek area, since birch only gets so big. “We want the trees that are bigger at the end of their lifespan,” Berriocha said.
The logs are brought into the building with a forklift, where they are cut into slabs. Once cut, the wood goes through a series of steps, including sanding and polishing, to turn a rough piece of wood into a smooth bowl. The bowls go into a kiln for about seven days to remove moisture. Theoretically, bowls can be made in as little as a week, but generally the process takes longer, Berriochoa said. The images are burned into the wood using a laser. Along with a variety of Alaskan themes, people can submit photos or drawings for personalized pieces.
The building that currently houses the Great Alaskan Bowl Company was originally meant to be Bratcher’s building supply company. However, after the oil market crashed in the 1980s, building projects disappeared. Bratcher wanted a business that didn’t rely solely on the Alaska economy, so he decided to open an Alaskan souvenir store. After some consideration, he settled on a bowl mill. “It’s crazy to think of 30 years of this ... there’s been so much history here,” Berriochoa said.
Berriochoa explained that she grew up around the supply company, but after witnessing the trials of owning a small business, she didn’t want to be a small business owner and instead wanted the security of a government job. However, between jobs, she worked at the Great Alaskan Bowl Company for “what was supposed to be a summer.” “And I just fell head over heels...I just realized that this is what I wanted to be a part of.”
Berriochoa spent about a decade away from Fairbanks while her husband was in the Army. She and her husband, Dan, moved back to Fairbanks in early 2020 and have been working at Great Alaskan Bowl Company since. Now, “I can’t imagine ever going back to a traditional job,” she said. “For me it’s a joy to be able to pay my dad back a little for his years of sacrifice,” she added.
Berriochoa is proud of what they have accomplished in the past year and a half despite the pandemic. The company was not only able to weather the economically devastating time, but is doing well. “We took a situation that I think could have ruined the company, and now we’re thriving,” she said. The timing was fortuitous, she said, because their return helped to keep the business afloat during the pandemic. Berriochoa explained that she and her husband were willing to work essentially for free and bring in new products. “We were able to take a devastating event” and make the best of it, she said.
“I feel like we’re just now hitting our stride,” Barriochoa said, “If anything, my challenge is fitting everything I want to sell in one room.” Her vision is to bring manufacturing down to one level in order to turn a visit into an interactive walking tour, “and really create what looks like a destination.” However, she also respects her father’s work and wants to honor the history and company he started three decades ago. “I’m working within the bounds that he gives me.”
Located at 4630 Old Airport Road, the Great Alaskan Bowl Company is open seven days a week all year round.