Locals have been welcoming cruisers to Juneau, Alaska, a small and gorgeous port city in Southeast Alaska -- not to mention the state's capital -- for decades. In 2019, the last year the Alaska cruise industry operated here in full force, over 1.2 million passengers stepped off their cruise ships straight onto Juneau's docks off South Franklin Street. Many of them had been here before -- and they knew exactly where they were heading.
Cracking open a steamy bucket of Alaskan king crab legs at Tracy's King Crab Shack and bellying up to the bar at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau are non-negotiable experiences for some Alaska cruisers, and have been a part of the Alaskan cruise experience for decades.
These two popular Juneau port staples survived to see another season and couldn't be more excited to welcome cruisers back.
We sat down with the owners of Tracy's King Crab Shack and Red Dog Saloon during our visit to Southeast Alaska last week to got the scoop on how these two Juneau favorites managed to make it through the last two years of the pandemic, why it's more important than ever to stop by and show some love this year -- and what cruisers can expect in return.
When we meet up with Tracy LaBarge, owner of Tracy's King Crab Shack in Juneau, it's roughly 12 days before the arrival of the first big cruise ship. A sign on the main entrance of her restaurant's dockside location reads, "Opening Soon! We will be opening our doors Monday, April 25."
Inside, communal wooden tables and benches are stacked on top of each other, half-opened boxes are strewn about, and things are in general disarray. LaBarge apologizes for the appearance. As messy as it is, it's still a sight for sore eyes. After all, it's still here. In fact, both Tracy's locations have made it through the pandemic.
Tracy's King Crab Shack started as a spontaneous idea over 20 years ago, before being realized in the form of a single food cart serving up fresh, on-demand boiled Alaskan king crab legs. LaBarge now has two locations, one just 121 feet from the Juneau Cruise Terminal Area (the busiest, most chaotic and the cruiser favorite), and another a half-mile down the road (more of a locals' hangout).
Despite the limited number of cruise ships that have visited Juneau since the pandemic began, she kept the dockside location open for business.
When it comes to Alaskan crab, LaBarge says she offers the best deal in the state when it comes to size and price, simply due to the sheer volume of crab she purchases. (She declines to give a ballpark estimate but ensures us it's a lot of crab.) Which leads us to one of her biggest challenges in 2022: Finding crab.
Tracy's usually orders their local Alaskan king crab during the state's winter crab season. Except, the state canceled its 2021 red king crab season, leaving LaBarge without her golden goose just when she needed it most.
Anyone hoping to crack their way through one of Tracy's famous king crab buckets need not fret. Along with local Alaskan brown king crab, tanner crab, snow crab and Dungeness crab, Tracy's is still stocked and ready with huge, delicious Alaskan king crab legs for the crackin' -- but with a catch: this year, unfortunately, it's just not local. (If anyone says they've got local Alaskan king crab legs this year, they're either frozen, or lying because they just simply -- and legally -- aren't available.)
Alaskan king crab is only native to two bodies of water on earth -- the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. For anyone wondering what all the fuss is about, red king crab is the crab you've watched fishermen risk their lives for on Discovery Channel's famous show "Deadliest Catch". In fact, Tracy is known for sourcing her crab from "Deadliest Catch" boats.
"We've done our best to stay true to what we've always believed in," she says, "which is always selling Alaska seafood, but we were pushed this year and, in order to stay in business, we had to do what we had to do."
For Tracy's King Crab Shack this also means staying true to the experience they offer.
At Tracy's dockside location, the restaurant practically advertises itself to disembarking passengers. Passersby are privy to the eye-catching show of bright orange Alaskan king crab legs being boiled live, on demand and in plain view. If you weren't planning on trying Alaskan king crab before, you are now.
Aside from some of the best crab around, Tracy's offers a memorable Alaskan experience from start to finish. She's managed to maintain and mix that low-key and casual original food cart feeling with the lively atmosphere of a busy beer hall. You don't just eat delicious crab here; you have an experience.
"That's what it's always meant to be," she says. "It's fun. It's loud in here. It's chaotic, the music's going. We're gonna do our best to make sure everybody has a really good time and good experience, and that's what people take away from this place; they have an experience. I've had people come back to me for 13 or 14 years -- they come (to Juneau) every year on a cruise and come back here every time."
Seating at Tracy's is purposefully communal, to encourage diners to interact and share their experience. LaBarge says she tries to facilitate this even more by calling out finished orders by name where the customer is from.
LaBarge admits that the restaurant had become a bit "status quo" and that the pandemic has forced them to get more creative. This year, she's trying out a few new things: non-seafood menu items, crab sliders, QR codes for ordering and a separate line for pickup and to-go orders.
A few blocks down at Red Dog Saloon, we sit down with bar owner and general manager Eric Forst. It is 5 p.m. on a weekday and the bar is filled with patrons happily drinking and chatting on barstools and a few folks are scattered around at tables in the main seating area. Things feel normal; it doesn't feel like Red Dog Saloon had just endured one of the biggest struggles of its existence.
And the Red Dog has been around. Depending on which origin story you believe, it's been in Juneau as far back as the 1920s. "Before Alaska was a state, before you were required to have a liquor license, this bar was here," says Forst. "It's been through a lot over the years." Forst also says the bar has been a tourism attraction since before he took it over in 2008, in what is now its third location, right off the cruise dock -- selected and built in the 1980s by a previous owner with excellent foresight around the city's growing cruise market.
We mention to Forst that it looks like the Red Dog Saloon has survived well, he is quick to correct. "It was pretty close," he says. "It was a long couple of years, let me tell you—three years almost now."
"The business isn't built for local business," Forst reminds. "It's not built to serve the local community. We love the local business, and we cater to it whenever we can, but in the grand scheme of things, it's the volume of the cruise ships that makes everything work. The town is only 30,000 people."
Early in the pandemic, Red Dog Saloon's famous swinging doors were shut for two solid months, right after St. Patrick's Day. The bar didn't welcome a single customer again until late May of 2020, at which point the impact of the canceled 2020 cruise season became glaringly obvious.
"I had been hiring for what we thought was gonna be the busiest summer we ever had," says Forst of the bar's preparations for the 2020 Alaska cruise season. He adds that Red Dog Saloon also ordered more retail merchandise than ever before -- all products that were delivered on credit, due in July, during the middle of the season. A season, in this case, that never happened.
Just like nearly every business close to the Juneau Cruise Ship Terminal Area, Forst estimates that cruise tourism accounts for over 95% of Red Dog's business. The March 2020 No Sail Order and continued cruise ban was devastating, "There were no ships," he says. "It was the worst possible time for that kind of thing to happen." Over the last two years, Forst says, "It went from a million-two passengers to 48 -- not 4800, just 48."
Red Dog says they survived due to good luck, savvy decisions and the few cruise ships that came to Juneau in 2021-- and because they were lucky enough to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and "lifeline" funds from the $28.2-billion-dollar SBA Restaurant Relief Fund, or RRF -- which ran out almost immediately after receiving applications totaling over $75 billion in need.
Tracy's King Crab Shack also credits the PPP and funds from the RRF for saving the restaurant. "Without PPP and RRF we wouldn't be here," she states candidly. "We were done."
Despite everything, Forst says he feels lucky to have made it through, knowing several other local businesses that did not, and he can't wait to see this year's cruise ship passengers swing by. "I'm just super excited to welcome everybody back in and, you know, get some normalcy back in our lives," he says.
Inside the red-lit space, not much has changed save a few new pieces of Alaska and Red Dog memorabilia Forst plans to add to the walls in the next few weeks. "We're still going to be that welcoming place with live music and sawdust floors," he says. He plans on having musicians, entertainers and a fully stocked bar and retail store, just like before.
Long-time cruisers can expect Red Dog to feel like it did the last time they were in town, and first-time visitors will be able to soak in that classic, legendary Red Dog vibe that they've been hearing about for years. It'll be a nice slice of pre-pandemic life, something that's become somewhat of a rarity.
Thankfully, cruisers can be assured Red Dog Saloon has already got a plan in action, just in case the 2022 Alaska cruise season has any surprises up its sleeve.
The challenges from the pandemic have made Forst "a little more cautious, a little more conservative", and, he says, as a safety net to ensure the bar makes it to 2023, he has already squirreled away much of the grant money the bar received.
That said, cruisers who know and love -- or have been waiting to step through the saloon's swinging doors -- should be sure to stop by the bar while in port this year. Every glass of beer, cider or soda, and every Red Dog Saloon retail souvenir helps this landmark business -- and other Alaskan port towns and businesses -- toward recovery.
For Tracy's King Crab Shack, LaBarge admits that this will be a make-or-break year. While she's predicting a possibly tiny profit, she says all she really wants is to break even this year. "I just can't lose any more," says LaBarge. "The last two years we've lost a lot of money, and we just can't do it again or we won't be here in the future."
Still, her outlook is positive. "We pride ourselves on quality and what we can serve, and our customer service," she says. "It's how we've been around this long, and so I'm excited to be back to it. Excited to get back to somewhat normal."
When asked if he's nervous at all about any curveballs ahead, Forst says, "Right now, we're ready for anything. Bring it on."