Ana Fangonilo came to Kodiak from the Philippines when she was 18. Her parents were already in Kodiak, and her dad convinced her to leave her home in the Philippines, where she had begun her college education to become a nurse. Her dad said that if she came, more opportunities awaited her. He was right.
“It was hard, but my father told me, ‘You’ve got more opportunities in America,’” she said.
Indeed, opportunity awaited.
Her father first came from the Philippines to California, but struggled to find work. He moved to Alaska to find work at a cannery, and liked it. Fangonilo arrived in Kodiak in 1987 and joined her parents in the cannery. By June 1995, she left the cannery to set up a small grocery store with her then-husband, hoping to provide Asian ingredients to the migrants in town who missed the flavor of home. It was the first grocery store of its kind in Kodiak.
“When I came here, I wondered, ‘where’s the Oriental store?’ I was craving some Filipino food,” she said. Back then, the options were limited to just a few products. “I thought, ‘oh, wow, it’s kind of hard.’ Maybe it’s a good business to have an Oriental store.”
The first year was busy. Fangonilo had to contact suppliers in Washington and California, who would package items and send them by barge to the Emerald Isle.
“I had fun but I just wanted to do something else after a few years,” Fangonilo said, explaining her move from the cannery to the store. “I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about business, but I learned.”
For Fangonilo, running a business is fun. It allows her to see friends — the store is almost never empty.
“When I see people, I’m happy,” she said.
The success of the store is tied to the success of the canneries, Fangonilo said. Because many of the store’s clients are cannery workers, her business does well when the canneries are in full swing, and dies down during slow fishing seasons, and around November and December, when some workers leave the island to visit their families.
Seven years ago, Fangonilo and her husband separated. Since then, she has been running the Asian Grocery on 1410 Mill Bay Road on her own. With only one full-time employee and occasional part-time workers, she says the task isn’t easy, but she has risen to the challenge.
Over the years, the business has expanded, and now sells prepared food and airline tickets. It also offers a money remittance service and cargo box deliveries to the Philippines. For many in the Filipino community, it is a one-stop-shop for everything from groceries to a place to catch up with friends.
Fangonilo chooses new products according to what customers request, sometimes introducing new products to the community. The Asian Grocery was the first to sell boba tea in Kodiak.
The business doesn’t need to pay much for advertising — Facebook and word of mouth are enough. But Fangonilo also sponsors high school events and events at Filipino churches.
Outside of the store, Fangonilo enjoys fishing and hiking. Her birthplace in the Philippines, La Union, is similarly rural.
“It’s almost the same,” she said. “Except for the nice roads here. Our roads there aren’t as nice.”
She has been able to travel to the Philippines often to visit friends and family. But for now, Kodiak is home.
“I thought about leaving the island for a long time, but I’m still here,” she said with a smile. “It’s really because of the store, because it’s doing well.”
Fangonilo thought of selling the store five years ago, but many people approached her and asked her not to. If her kids aren’t interested in running the store, then she will likely sell it in the future.
“I’m not sure if they can handle it,” she said. “I love staying in the store and making it grow. I think they have their own mindset.”
Fangonilo said that the only challenge she encounters as a female business owner is when large shipments arrive. On days when large deliveries arrive, she often tries to get help restocking the shelves.
Despite the challenges, what began in a small rented space now thrives in a shop that Fangonilo owns. The building that now houses the store used to be a residence.
“Kodiak gave us a lot of opportunities,” she said. The success of her business has allowed her to pay off the initial cost of the store, and invest in local real estate.
Her advice to others is not to forget to take vacations.
“We need to get out of Kodiak once in a while,” she said. “You work so hard. You should go out there and explore … When you come back, you’re happier.”