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Middle Way Cafe: A snapshot of the Anchorage economy

By Rhonda McBride 10:14 PM December 31, 2013

If the past predicts the future, the local economy should be off to a good start

ANCHORAGE - Those who track the Anchorage economy see a glass half full and forecast a year that will be similar to 2013, marked by slow growth.

Although the Middle Way Cafe in Spenard is bustling with activity, customers and restaurant workers also seem to be approaching 2014 with care.

“I’m definitely feeling cautious. I’ve got to watch myself,” said Kim Duldulao, as he wiped down the tables. “I don’t know what’s going to happen this year with the economy. It could drop or go down.”

Just in case, Duldulao plans on spending less and saving more.

Wendy Spencer, who was waiting in line to buy lunch, said she is keeping a closer eye on where her money goes.

“Probably the fact that I have a daughter that’s just going off to college, so now I have college expenses,” Spencer said, who balances being a stay-at-home mom and a professional photographer.

Bond Stuart, who was lunching with another man in the banking business, said he’s “bullish” about 2014.

“I think we ended our year on a high note. Anchorage is pretty stable,” Stuart said. “We have a very good loan pipeline for customers that are expanding.”

Expansion is something that the owner of the Middle Way Cafe is weighing right now. Jonathan Campabello expects to make a decision soon on whether he’ll take on an ambitious new venture.

His manager Jacob Davis has seen a modest growth in sales, especially for breakfast.

“Some of our healthy foods, like our salads and our juices have exploded this year,” Davis said.

In general, Davis and Campabello believe demand for high-quality food will continue. The question is, if they expand, will they capture enough business to recoup their costs?

For Campabello, 2014 marks an important milestone.

“Who would have thought 20 years ago, when the Middle Way started, that Spenard would be what it is today?” Campabello said, who believes Spenard’s economic renaissance has helped his restaurant grow.

When he started his business, Middle Way was the only eatery in the mini-mall next to REI. Today, it’s one of several. And although it may seem counterintuitive, Campabello believes competition has helped his business grow. The cluster of high-quality restaurants in Spenard has helped the neighborhood reinvent itself, he said.

“It’s a lot of fun and exciting to become a destination,” Campabello said, who believes Spenard’s success bodes well for the whole city.

Spenard is one of several bright spots in Anchorage’s economy, which has seen slight job growth and was recently ranked tenth in a national survey for being a good place for small business start-ups.

“I think it was pretty good,” said Tim Bradner about the performance of the Anchorage economy in 2013. He does, however, see some clouds on the horizon, which include state and federal budget cuts. But Bradner doesn’t believe we’ll feel much impact next year and expects the loss of those funds to be felt gradually over time.

“We’re kind of muddling along,” Bradner said. “We’re doing better than a lot of other states. Our economy is still growing, though very slowly. I don’t see any real big change in that.”

Whether the glass is half full or half empty is something that could be revealed sometime late next year, Bradner said, depending on what happens with oil tax reform and industry investment.

As Duldulao clears away the dirty dishes at the Middle Way, he’s preparing for either outcome. He doesn’t expect it to be too big of a sacrifice.

The year 2013 will be remembered as a year of hard work.

“I had to pay for my car and stuff. I had bills to pay,” Duldulao said. “But I still had fun.”

In 2014, he thinks he can strike the same balance and save a little for college.

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