Spruce Root business development manager Paul Hackenmueller, Village Coffee Company owner Justyne Wheeler, Foundroot co-owner Leah Wagner, Spruce Root Board Chairwoman Susan Bell and Spruce Root programs manager Ashley Snookes smile together after the presentation of the Path to Prosperity awards Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Spruce Root business development manager Paul Hackenmueller, Village Coffee Company owner Justyne Wheeler, Foundroot co-owner Leah Wagner, Spruce Root Board Chairwoman Susan Bell and Spruce Root programs manager Ashley Snookes smile together after the presentation of the Path to Prosperity awards Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

These two Southeast businesses just won $25K

Alaska-ready seeds and village’s first drive-thru earn awards

Two businesses focused on making food accessible to Southeast Alaskans won an annual business development competition and the $25,000 prize that comes with the distinction.

Foundroot, a Haines-based company that sells seeds proven for Alaska growing conditions, and Village Coffee Company, Yakutat’s first drive-thru business, were announced Wednesday as winners of Path to Prosperity put on by nonprofit Spruce Root. The win means $25,000 for each business.

“There’s this huge hurdle for becoming an Alaskan gardener, and we wanted to remove that,” said Foundroot co-owner Leah Wagner during her acceptance speech at the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit. “We believe all food production, down to the windowsill herb garden, has inherent value in our food security.”

Foundroot co-owner Leah Wagner and Spruce Root Boardmember Susan Bell share a laugh after Bell told Wagner that Wagner’s company makes magic happen at Bell’s dinner table during the presentation of the Path to Prosperity awards Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Foundroot co-owner Leah Wagner and Spruce Root Boardmember Susan Bell share a laugh after Bell told Wagner that Wagner’s company makes magic happen at Bell’s dinner table during the presentation of the Path to Prosperity awards Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Foundroot, which Wagner owns and runs with her husband, Nick Schlosstein, focuses on producing seeds that can tolerate the cool temperatures, long days and short seasons of Southeast Alaska. The seeds are open pollinated, which means any home gardener can save seeds from what Foundroot sells.

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While Foundroot tailors its products for Southeast, Village Coffee Company took a business model that works elsewhere, drive-thru espresso, and imported it to the village of about 660 located roughly 200 miles northwest of Juneau.

“One of my main goals is to create and hire part-time jobs for locals,” owner Justyne Wheeler said during her acceptance speech. “I’m from Yakutat, I’ve lived in Yakutat my whole life — with the exception of going to college for a few years — and one of the most gratifying things about opening this coffee shop is being able to connect to people on a deeper level.”

Village Coffee Company owner Justyne Wheeler of Yakutat gives a speech following the announcement that her business was one of the 2019 Path to Prosperity winners. The distinction comes with a $25,000 prize. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Village Coffee Company owner Justyne Wheeler of Yakutat gives a speech following the announcement that her business was one of the 2019 Path to Prosperity winners. The distinction comes with a $25,000 prize. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Ashley Snookes, programs manager for Spruce Root, said in an interview said both Foundroot and Village Coffee Company faced stiff competition from other entrepreneurs who took part in 2019’s competition, which includes a business boot camp and the creation of business plans evaluated by a five-person panel. The application process for the 2020 competition opens April 1.

“Something that really made Leah’s standout was the attention to detail in her business plan,” Snookes said. “It just looks like she thought of everything. She’s done it in a way that is so mindful of the bigger picture, it made it easy to support her and be excited about her. I think Justyne really stood out because she was making something happen in a community for the first time, and she’s never done it before. There was a lot of excitement to support Justyne and Yakutat through connection.”

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Wheeler said the prize that comes with being one of Path to Prosperity’s winners will help with creating a new logo for her business and allow her to transition from selling vendor-made baked goods.

“I want to use some of the funds to enroll myself in a baking course, so I can make my own fresh goodies,” Wheeler said.

Wagner said the $25,000 will help with a marketing and rebranding project that she hopes allows Foundroot seeds sprout up in more communities.

“We’re hoping to reach a lot more Alaskans in more remote areas with that marketing help,” Wagner said.

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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