Following a couple of slow COVID years, Sitka businesses got a long awaited boost this summer. While the surge in cruise tourism revived some traditional enterprises, it also inspired new businesses, from food carts to sustainable snorkeling. One Sitkan’s entrepreneurial spirit took her in a “curious” direction, however, managing a distinctively offbeat vending machine.
It’s the last big cruise ship day of the season, and I’m out at the Sitka Sound Cruise terminal. There are around 4000 people in town today. I’d hoped to get out here earlier this summer when it was a little busier. Today, the terminal feels pretty empty, though every ten minutes or so a wave of tourists shuffle through, backpacks and umbrellas in tow.
There are several businesses out here that cater to tourists- Baranof Jewelers and the Sitka Fur Gallery being two of them, and they’re not too busy today- staff are standing around, chatting. There’s a coffee shop here, a brewery too. But I gravitate toward a vending machine in the corner that drew me here in the first place.
It’s called The Curious Fisherman, and it’s not full of the usual sort of candy and junk food, but things you wouldn’t expect.
“I was born in Sitka, Alaska. Moved between here in Port Townsend, Washington and landed back here. I’ve been a commercial fisherman for a lot of my life,” says owner Tamara Kyle. “My husband and I own the fishing vessel Nona S. You sometimes see us selling fish off the dock, we market a little bit of our seafood.”
For the last 14 years, Kyle has been fishing, parenting, and running a small jewelry business. She doesn’t really slow down – last year she opened a mobile sauna that she rents out in the winter months. And for the summer, now, there’s The Curious Fisherman.
“I feel like there’s a lot of random ideas that I toy with in my head, and I couldn’t tell you exactly when the vending machine idea first came to mind,” Kyle says. “But it’s been something I’ve talked about. Being a fisherman when I’m away from town a lot, it’s something that you can have passively in place and working.”
Then in January, one fell into her lap.
“Someone put a used vending machine on Facebook, for sale, and the little light in my head went off and was just like, ‘Oh, look, it’s time!’ We need to jump on this opportunity and try it out.”
But what to sell was the question. She threw around a lot of ideas: a healthy food vending machine maybe? But those are really hard to maintain. Maybe a vending machine for the bar scene full of gag gifts and games? Or maybe something catering to tourists, considering the record-breaking potential cruise season. She cast the idea to the cruise terminal this spring, and they more than nibbled, they bit. So her machine has been posted up there since late May.
“There’s squishy slugs, like little banana slugs that are just like slimy, or mustaches. Mini tarot readings and mini-oracle’s, those have been popular,” Kyle says. Her vending machine features over ten Sitka makers – from locally made jewelry to household products. Even smoked salmon. The items range anywhere from $1 to $60.
She says creative vending businesses are growing in popularity. She’s part of a Facebook support group for people who own vending machines across the country. And they all carry different inventories, from high-end electronics, to party games, to pregnancy tests.
“There’s definitely new people in our group every week. It does seem like it’s one of those things that’s catching [on]…maybe it’s due to COVID, because less contact. But maybe not. I think it’s just kind of a fun way to try things and to present things that’s maybe a bit, almost outdated?” Kyle posits. “I can’t think of the last time I’d put money in a vending machine that was like a snack vending machine.”
I’m standing next to the machine hoping someone takes the bait. A man in a driving cap and a red raincoat walks up, and looks a little downtrodden. “I was looking for something to eat,” he tells me, a little incredulously, and walks over to the coffee shop to grab a snack. A little later, two women come up and peer through the glass, and admire some of the locally made jewelry.
But no one buys anything. Since it’s a slow day, I decide to become the customer myself. So I grab a “mystery bag.” In the bag is a smattering of fun stuff, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise of its contents. But it includes an oracle, and I can see why they’re popular. It tells me I’ve been granted the card of the elephant, which gives me stability. Inscribed on the card is this message about seeking wisdom. On the back is a list of lucky numbers. I don’t know if Kyle hit her lucky numbers with this vending machine business or not– but the mystery is alluring…and more than anything, a little curious.
Kyle hopes to move her machine to the airport terminal and expand The Curious Fisherman to a two vending machine business next year.