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Three Bears opens Alaska-based retail chain’s 20th store in Ester

Jerry Lymburner
Three Bears Alaska sent a dozen workers to the Gold Hill Imported Beers and Fine Wines on Wednesday to convert it to a convenience store with a Shell fueling station, then reopen today.

Company acquires Gold Hill liquor store, plans ‘full facelift’ this summer; but, what to do with the caboose?

Three Bears Alaska is now the owner of the Gold Hill Imported Beer and Fine Wines in Ester, a small community near Fairbanks. The Wasilla-based retail chain closed the deal on Wednesday, then began replacing signage and equipment and inventory in time to reopen this morning as the 20th Three Bears store in Alaska.

Workers have been hustling for the past couple of days to get the Three Bears store in Ester ready to reopen in a spruced-up convenience store. Company spokesperson Jim Kolb said Thursday the workers were on track to complete the job in time to open the doors today.

Jerry Lymburner
Customers line up every morning at the popular Gold Hill Express coffee shop, housed in a red caboose next door to the liquor store. Three Bears officials are still trying to figure out what to do with the old railcar.

“We’ll hang some new banners over the existing signs and people are going to know it’s going to be a Shell fuel station and that it’s a Three Bears (store),” he said in an interview Thursday.

Kolb says Three Bears is following the same strategy it did with two other gas station-convenience-type stores the company acquired over the past year

“That’s what we did down in Ketchikan, not too long ago,” he said. “We basically closed down for two days and swapped some stuff over and got our systems in place and reopened as a Three Bears (store).”

Kolb says the initial work’s being done to enable the store to be reopened quickly. He says it’ll get a complete remodel after a few months of operation.

“Oh, it’ll be a full facelift,” he said.

Kolb says the company’s done similar renovations at other stores Three Bears recently acquired in Trapper Creek and Ninilchik. He says those were part of the company’s expansion around the state, financed mainly by a recapitalization deal it reached last year with a Seattle-based private-equity firm.

“We’ve become used to things that fall into our lap and we take ‘em over,” he said.

The store in Ester is the company’s 20th, with new grocery stores in North Pole and Ketchikan also in the works. Kolb says Three Bears buys in bulk for its Alaska stores to maximize economies of scale, and he says the company passes along those savings to customers. He expects they’ll notice that the next time they come in.

“It definitely makes a difference going from a mom-and-pop brand, single business, to more of a corporation style,” he said. “But we still like to retain that small-town feel.”

Jerry Lymburner
Gold Hill employees line up for a sort of family photo in front of the Gold Hill Express red caboose.

Kolb says customers also will notice another big change at the Ester store -- the closure of Gold Hill Express, the drive-through coffee shop that’s housed in an iconic red railroad caboose parked on the west side of the 1.8-acre property. He says the company won’t reopen the caboose, because it now sells coffee in the store. And he says he’s already heard a lot about that, virtually.

“That’s a hot topic on social media!” he said.

Kolb says he’s also gotten feedback about the caboose from regulars who stop by there every morning for a cuppa and a gnosh. He’s also heard from the local historical society, and a writer who wants compile the history of the railcar. But all he can say for now is: “The official word is (it’s) undetermined. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it.”

Kolb says the company has long encourages customers to suggest products they’d like to see on the stores’ shelves. And he says it’ll also welcome suggestions on what to do with the caboose.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.