Tracy LaBarge, Juneau entrepreneur

Much of Juneau entrepreneur Tracy LaBarge’s business success comes down to offhand comments, relationships, and a comfort with risk.

 

Her first real “baby,” Tracy’s Crab Shack, for example, grew from one of those offhand comments.

“When I moved to Juneau, I started going out crabbing and fishing a lot,” she said. “It (starting a crab shack) was an ongoing joke for about 12 years before actually starting it.”

She’s the majority owner of McGivney’s Sports Bar and Grill, which she started with Dave McGivney in 2012. That purchase also started from an offhand comment; the couple that owned the business, which had a different name, came into the crab shack and told her she should buy it.

She started Salt with Kris Schwartz and Rob Hynes, and Saffron with Hynes, both in 2014.

A large part of Saffron grew from an offhand comment: LaBarge met the woman who would become the restaurant’s chef, Sharmila Shaligram, at a dinner party. Shaligram had a restaurant in Pune, India and was in Juneau visiting friends.

“I said, ‘Oh, you should come back and open an Indian restaurant,’” LaBarge said. “She happened to Facebook me the day we decided to buy it. She was instrumental in getting that up and running.”

A comfort with risk doesn’t stop LaBarge from shaking her head at the risks she once took. Her first business, for example, was an internet café in Juneau. At the same time, she was working on a cruise ship. She and a friend would run to Costco during the ship’s brief times in port, buying computers. Another friend came up from the Lower 48 to set it up.

Regardless of how each business began, LaBarge has long known she was meant to be an entrepreneur.

“I decided a long time ago that I probably am not best working for other people,” she said. “I felt like I’ve always really worked really hard for other people’s businesses. If I’m going to work this hard, I might as well do it for my own.”

When she wanted to start the crab shack, she went to the bank with $500 in savings.

“I said ‘I would like $100,000 to start a business…. They said ‘Okay, what collateral do you have?’ I said ‘I have $500 in the bank…’ They said ‘What makes you think you’re going to make it?’ I said ‘I’m a hard worker.’”

She didn’t get the loan.

“I walked out of there so mad that they wouldn’t lend me money. That they just didn’t understand I could be responsible with this,” she said. “I was that naïve.”

She sought advice from the Juneau Economic Development Council, borrowed some money, and got references from local business people. Her next trip to the bank was more successful.

Just the same, it wasn’t an easy start. She got started right around the time the economy was entering a recession.

“It was really tough,” she said. “The first four years were probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, and probably the reason I’m still around. It was brutal. I wanted to quit every day… but something wouldn’t let me give up, as much as I wanted to. I’d get a call from a customer saying ‘That made our trip,’ or a magazine, or a travel writer. The feedback from the people is what keeps you going. Friends are huge in keeping me going… but once I got over that hump, it was like ‘Now this is fun again.’”

One of the things that saved her: she’d been selling crab legs at too low a price. A friend convinced her to raise it.

“When you’re new in business, it’s not that simple, because you think nobody’s going to come,” she said. “But raising those prices on a couple of different things made the difference. It made us profitable.”

Now, with four successful businesses, she’s not done yet — with the legalization of marijuana, she’s considering starting a retail marijuana business.

The idea started when people came to her to ask for support; she’s spoken about the issue at Juneau Assembly meetings.

“It was a big risk to take as a business owner,” she said. “I guess it’s not something that I do but… it’s just business, and it passed by such an overwhelming majority… at that point, it was business, and I wanted to see it done right. It’s exciting to get in on something. It’s like Prohibition — to get in on that in the history books.”

This year, however, she’s planning on being a little more low-key.

“I believe everything kind of has a natural process and has a reason. Go with what the universe is telling us, I guess.”

What’s the universe telling her right now?

“Maintain,” she said. “Be smart in the decisions and stay true to the vision that I always had about just having fun with what you’re doing, be part of the community, and know you’re only as good as your people. Foster them. That’s what I’d like to do for the future. Help other young entrepreneurs.”

Of course, even if you’re planning to take it a little easier, having a managing share in not one restaurant, but four makes for quite a busy day. All in all, in the summer, she and her partners manage 120 employees. In the winter, it’s between 75 and 80.

“I firmly believe you’re only as good as your employees,” she said. “If they’re happy, your business is going to be much more successful.”

She uses the word “we” when talking about her business.

“I’ve always said it, even when it was just me,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without Kris, Dave, and all the other friends have helped out. ‘We’ has always been all of us, no matter who owns the place.”

 

• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

 

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