KENAI — It was business as usual at the Carl’s Jr. in Kenai for the last few weeks before it closed — except no meat was coming in on the delivery trucks.
Employees were still taken by surprise when they were informed the store would be closing. The company had not communicated with employees before abruptly informing them that the store would close, and no reason has been given since for the decision.
Operations continued for a few more shifts as supplies dwindled. Workers got creative as they ran out of ingredients, said Michelle Miller, a former employee. Customers, especially regulars, started noticing and expressed frustration for the employees.
“Customers were really kind of upset, because this was kind of a gathering place for people,” Miller said. “A lot of people came in and had breakfast there. A lot of customers expressed frustration with the company. They asked us like, ‘What are you gonna do? Do you have plans?’”
Managers at the store told the employees that they would get good recommendations if they stayed throughout the last few shifts. Some stayed and some chose to leave and look for other jobs, said Sammy Doughty, a former manager. Another former manager, who transferred to a different branch in Fairbanks, offered to take some employees with him, she said.
She said she wished the company had been up front with the employees before shutting the store down.
“A lot of us would have stayed till the day we closed,” Doughty said. “But at least give us fair warning. Some of them had kids. To be suddenly out of work, that’s not right. That’s not how you treat employees.”
A representative from Carl’s Jr.’s corporate office did not return multiple requests for comment on the store closure.
Doughty has since found work at the Chevron station in Soldotna, which she said she enjoys. Job-hunting is hard on the Kenai Peninsula, where there are fewer businesses that may be hiring than in a larger city like Anchorage, and those who are hiring may make fewer accommodations for employees needing to address personal health and different schedules, she said.
Miller had another job at Walmart while she worked at Carl’s Jr., and had that position to fall back on when the business closed. She said she stays in touch with several other employees and sees them at work occasionally, catching up on how they are managing.
Lisa Hinchman, a Kenai Central High School student, said she didn’t want to go through the hassle of applying for new jobs when Carl’s Jr. closed. She said she would rather focus on graduation, just a few months away, and then apply for jobs when she graduates.
She said she enjoyed the fast-paced environment of working at Carl’s Jr. and the variety of tasks she carried out during each shift. One downside was balancing a late shift with schoolwork, she said.
The employees at Carl’s Jr. were close and stay in touch, she said. For her part, she’s taking a laid-back approach to it and adapting to the reality of change, she said.
“I might as well start taking adulthood’s punches,” Hinchman said.
Rachel O’Brien, the regional manager at the Peninsula Job Center in Kenai, said the center worked with several employees who were laid off after Carl’s Jr. closed. It’s hard on families to have to rely on unemployment after the loss of a job, and when there is little warning, they may not have time to apply for the benefits and thus may experience a lapse in income while waiting for the benefits to come through, she said.
“There is nothing more devastating to a home than yesterday making $50,000 and today (to say) ‘I am dependent on unemployment insurance,’” O’Brien said.
When notified in advance, Job Center staff will organize what are called rapid response worker meetings to help identify training that might make someone out of work more marketable, or show them how to apply for unemployment, ideally before they are laid off, O’Brien said. Addressing layoffs in advances helps “keep employees grounded,” she said.
In the past with large layoffs the Job Center has even organized job fairs, which was successful when the Lowe’s closed down about three years ago, she said.
Across the parking lot from where the old Carl’s Jr. store stands empty, another empty store has a smoother transition story to tell. Just a few weeks before Carl’s Jr. shut its doors, managers at Blockbuster announced the Kenai location would be closing and the store would host a closeout sale for a month.
Customers flooded the store and bought out DVDs before many of the employees transferred to the company’s Soldotna location, working shifts in both places before going to Soldotna full-time, said Kevin Daymude, the general manager for all the Blockbuster stores in Alaska.
“That was a hard store for me to close,” Daymude said. “The store was just a nice store. Nice and clean, great location.”
However, it was not doing as well as the Soldotna store, so the company decided to close it. Most of the stock was sold before the store closed its doors, Daymude said.
The transition has gone well, he said. Employees are learning the layout of the Soldotna store and were able to get acquainted with the store before moving over there by working one shift at Soldotna and then one at Kenai, he said.
Justin Trickel, one of the employees who transitioned to the Soldotna store, said he felt it went well and he’s getting through the learning curve of working there.
“The setup is different, and where movies are categorized is a little different between what Kenai was and what Soldotna is,” Trickel said. “Getting used to all that is a little rough.”
However, the customers have not said anything about the Kenai store closing, Trickel said. He said he is happy to be working there.
Daymude said the number of stores closing in Kenai may be an indicator of the city’s economy.
“There are so many stores closing in Kenai,” Daymude said. “It’s kind of concerning. We love it down there.”
• Kelly Sullivan contributed reporting. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.