Gourmet food shops thriving in Alaska, elsewhere despite recession

Prior to opening his gourmet Italian food shop in Anchorage, Sergio Anzelotti wanted to steep himself in the cuisine. For him, that meant a temporary move with his entire family to the Tuscany region of Italy.

For Jerry Lewanski, selling the ideal crusty loaf of bread at his downtown neighborhood bakery required no less than importing the ultimate European technology: a towering oven worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Anchorage native Helen Howarth grew up eating Velveeta but today her passion is small-batch cheeses from family farms around the world. She's getting ready to open a South Anchorage cheese shop near O'Malley Road and Old Seward Highway this fall featuring artisanal cheeses "so divine that everyone should taste them."

Follow your nose around town: Over the last few years, a crop of local entrepreneurs have opened fine-food oriented businesses all over town.

This former frontier city is now a place where, any day, you can purchase a hand-made chocolate truffle with an anchovy perched on top or a croissant baked the same way as the ones in French pastry shops.

"It's an entirely different experience than even shopping at a high-quality grocery," said Janice Fleischman, who with Lewanski owns the Fire Island Rustic Bake Shop in a residential downtown neighborhood.

Anchorage's specialty-food sector -- a retail category that includes fine-food shops like those above -- has emerged as a mini-industry with some strong growth. Neal Fried, a state labor economist, said the sector has grown from 299 employees in 2001 to 454 last year.

Anchorage is following a trend that many food lovers are tapping into Outside. "We've seen a growth in that sector around the country," Fried said.

It's a bit ironic that fine-food shops — by that we mean not cheap food — are proliferating today, a time when many people are stressed about the economy.

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