Barista Samantha Koenig's abduction last week sent a shiver through the workers — most of them young and female—who spend their days in Anchorage’s coffee shacks.
Coffee shacks are a thing here, a signature Anchorage phenomena. A study in 2005 said there was a coffee opportunity for every 3,300 residents in the city. At the time, that was the highest coffee-to-person ratio in the US. It’s a competitive business and it doesn’t hurt to have a cart staffed with attractive young women. While that makes caffeine and pretty faces easy to find, it also means a lot of women like 18-year-old Koenig will be closing up shacks in dark parking lots of car washes and gas stations tonight. Plenty of them will tell you that’s a vulnerable feeling. Koenig’s disappearance dials up the unease.
I doubt there’s a coffee shack in town that isn’t displaying her face on a poster Scotched-taped inside the sliding windows next to the drink menu. I saw signs at the doctor’s office, the car mechanic, and the grocery store on Wednesday. She’s on everyone’s mind.
Most carts have video cameras and safety procedures already, but baristas I talked to Wednesday talked about added precautions. Doubling up on evening shifts. Stocking carts with pepper spray. Calling boyfriends for escorts to cars. Perkup Espresso and the Anchorage Police Department have organized a "Protection Awareness" workshop later in the month.
At the Hot Spot shack in the parking lot of the Rainmaker Touchless Car Wash near Tudor and Elmore, owner Rachael Johnston told me Koenig applied to work there but she didn’t have any openings at the time. She’s been thinking about her a lot.
Eight years ago Johnston was robbed at gunpoint in that shack by a young man named Kenneth Robinson, she said. He took the money in the register, which wasn’t much, and her wedding ring, she said. It could have been much worse. Not long after Robinson got out of prison for robbing her in 2010, he shot police officer Jean Mills during a traffic stop and later shot himself.
She learned plenty from that, she said. A barista has to be smart. She has to be a good judge of situations, observant and cautious.
"We do see all sorts of stuff," she said. "I don’t even hire a girl if it seems like she couldn’t use her wits."
Johnston does a security training at her shack. There’s a metal door that stays locked at all times. Boyfriends aren’t allowed in. And they can’t hang out in the parking lot either. Outside of the Robinson incident, someone broke out the window once, but all they took was a case of Red Bull. It doesn’t hurt that she’s located very close to the Anchorage Police Department, so cops roll by her window all day.
Down the road at Cool Beans, a shack on Tudor near the intersection with Lake Otis, owner Kandi Williams asked me if I could tell her anything more about Koenig. Being in a cart can make you feel vulnerable, but she said she doesn’t. She’s older than Koenig and people don’t mess with her much because her husband comes around a lot. (Go there, meet the guy, you’ll see why.) She also told me she relies on "hand-held protection. We’ll just leave it at that."
Over at Mocha Masters on Old Seward, the baristas weren’t so confident. They have been doubling up to close at night since the abduction, said Stephanie Loutzenheiser. They don’t have much trouble at their stand, save the occasional tip-jar snatcher, but like a lot of young women in carts, they are nervous, she said.
"I hear a lot of girls are quitting coffee shops," Loutzenheiser said. "But it’s still a good job."
At Sugar Shack Espresso on Lake Otis, Christy Hopkins told me that she’s been a barista for 3 1/2 years. Her mother always worried about her before, she said, but now she’s really worried. She’s had her moments in the cart alone, especially with walk-up customers. More than once, she tapped 911 into her cell phone and set it on top of the espresso machine while she made a drink because a customer gave her a weird feeling. All she’d have to do, she told herself, was hit "call."
"We know how vulnerable we are. Now that (Koenig’s abduction) happened, it showed other people how vulnerable we are, so that’s kind of scary," she said.
"I just hope they find her alive."
A candlelight vigil for Koenig has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Town Square Park.