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For one tire store, first snow brings a flurry of business

 Alyeska Tire's Kenai location on Oct. 25, during the first major snowfall of the season.
Riley Board
Alyeska Tire's Kenai location on Oct. 25, during the first major snowfall of the season.

The Kenai Peninsula had its first real snow days this week, which means it’s been a busy week at Alyeska Tire.

“Extremely busy. Overwhelmingly busy at times,” Alyeska owner Craig Wortham said. While most peninsula businesses are at their peak in the summer, his rush hits at the start of snow-tire season.

“You just get such a large influx of people, and you want to help everyone, but unfortunately we don’t have enough space and manpower to get it all done, every day during the peak season,” he said.

Alyeska Tire operates eight locations across the state, including three on the central Kenai Peninsula. When snow first hits the ground, Alyeska takes first-come-first-served appointments to change out customers’ tires.

They consistently see lines out the door. At the Kenai location, manager Mark Fielden said it’s been an intense week.

Over the past few days, Fielden said his store stayed open a few extra hours each night to meet demand, sometimes until 9 p.m.

He said on Tuesday morning, when the first flurries fell, more than 30 people lined up first thing in the morning to change out their tires. The Kenai location has changed about 3,500 tires in the last three months.

There is a six-to-eight-week period in October and November, around the start of the snowfall, that accounts for 30% of Alyeska’s annual business. Wortham said this short period is critical to Alyeska’s overall profitability.

“Without this time of year, we probably wouldn’t be a profitable business. It’s kind of a break-even in the other months, but October and November are key to us making money and being profitable,” he said.

Some years, Wortham said, he can narrow that window of profitability down to just five weeks.

Alyeska Tire has grown a lot over the past 15 years and expanded out of the Kenai area into Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks. Wortham said Alyeska has sold more tires across its locations in the last 19 days than they did in the entire year of 2011.

But it’s not just Alyeska that has expanded. The variety of tires has expanded dramatically in the last 30 years, too. Wortham said in the early ’90’s, Alyeska stocked about 15 different types of tires. Today, he has a database of around 900.

That variety works out well for Alyeska, as a dedicated tire shop with the capacity to stock and store the massive assortment of tires necessary for the changeout season.

But Wortham said the overwhelming business can be a drain on staff.

“They sacrifice their personal times, their family lives. It takes a toll on you physically, it takes a toll on you physically and mentally,” he said. “They make tremendous sacrifices this time of year, not just for the company, but for the community.”

Wortham said Alyeska, like many local businesses, is struggling to maintain a full staff. At the Kenai location, Fielden said understaffing means they can’t always meet all of the demand this time of year.

Even though snow is just freshly on the ground, Alyeska is already gearing up for the next winter tire rush.

“Because of shipping and freight delays, we start ordering our stuff about a year ahead,” Wortham said.

Alyeska will receive its winter tire shipments in July, because as an Alaska-based tire company, Wortham said, preparing for winter tire changeovers is a year-round operation.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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