By RJ Johnson
Sometimes your journey in life takes you down several winding paths. John Youse and Tyler Russell always had the drive to find their place and their purpose, they just weren’t always sure what that was. The two spent half of their lives putting their time and energy on education, in the military, working construction, in the medical field, and spent many years working in the bar and restaurant industry. As they get ready to open the doors on their latest business venture a look back seems to suggest that everything until this point was just preparing them for this moment. On May 13 the pair will open the doors on the newest cannabis retail store in downtown Anchorage, Tundra Herb Company, and hope that individuals participating in the First Friday Art Walk stop in and see what they have been working on.
For Youse, his journey started in Florida. After joining the U.S. Army, he took a different path than most and moved from intelligence to infantry.
“I did two combat tours — tour of the first Gulf War and Somalia. I got out in ‘94 and went to college. I went back to my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida and got my psych degree, child psychology,” Youse said. “It is a completely wonderful endeavor but something I was not cut out to do.”
He decided to come visit Alaska for a year in the late 90’s and made sure that they would both stay for the entire time. They had just enough money to make the trip, and so they came to the 49th State and, “we did this whole come to the new world and burn our ships thing.”
He made the decision to work in the restaurant industry and sometimes it was more for the free meals than it was for the paychecks. After he had spent the time up here, he had planned on he made the move back to Florida, but not for long. “I went back to Florida and within a month of being in my own hometown that where I wanted to be was in Alaska. The people I met, the relationships I created, had made me not even want to be in my own hometown.”
He found himself back in Alaska as soon as he could and went back into the restaurant industry. He concluded that he wanted to be able to help people and after getting his EMT 1,2, and 3, got his degree in Paramedical Sciences. He continued to find himself in the restaurant field and one year, while working at Humpy’s, met Tyler Russell.
Russell is a lifelong Alaskan having been raised in Eagle River. His father worked as a commercial fisherman and in the real estate game. This created a desire in the young man to someday also be able to work more independently. As a teen, Russell worked construction jobs, and after high school he joined the Army Reserves. Upon his return from basic training he went to work at the Snow Goose Restaurant setting in motion the circumstance that would someday lead him to meet Youse. He used the funds from that gig to help him get through college, and soon graduated.
“I got my degree in Structural Drafting,” he said. “I did that for about four years. I hated sitting in an office, so I went back to working in the bar industry, because sadly even after four years and a degree in the field it was still better money.”
When the two men were both working at Humpy’s they decided to do some construction work together, setting into motion the business partnership that led them to this point. Youse still did some of the work he had gone to school for at this time as well.
“I stayed in and out of EMS somewhat, but for the most part I was doing bar industry and construction. A few years ago, my wife had a terrible accident where she shattered her leg and they almost had to amputate. I had a bunch of money saved up, and a bunch of construction jobs lined up, but I had to liquidate everything. She couldn’t work, I couldn’t work, she was wrecked, we had all of these medical bills,” Youse said. He ended up working for a private contractor doing combat medic work for the Department of Defense. This enabled him to get money back into savings, and that’s when he was again contacted by Russell.
“Tyler ended up coming back to me after marijuana became legal and asked what I thought about investing. I invested in and helped build a shop in midtown,” Youse said.
The duo took their construction knowledge and the funds they had been saving and helped open a new dispensary.
“Two-and-a half years at Alaskan Leaf gave me the background that I needed to get ready for this,” Russell says.
In December of 2017 the pair, along with Youse’s wife Bonnie, started planning the dream shop. From the beginning they knew the direction they wanted to go with the aesthetic and business model. They wanted to pay respect to the history of the state they love and find ways to give back to their community.
“No matter what I do, I want it to be helpful,” Youse says. “I have done a lot of things in my life that I don’t feel good about, things that I regret, but I don’t wake up every day thinking about how I can screw the world over. I want to wake up every day hoping I can do something good, and I don’t always succeed, because I am human, but I try. Maybe this somehow feeds into that, I am trying to do better by my community, and that’s Alaska, this is my home now. 22 years, this is home. The people here, they are just different. They care more, they do more, they are more interactive, they play harder, they work harder, everything about this place, is extreme — I love it”
For the décor, they have sourced antique bottles, scales, snowshoes and more to decorate the front entry where customers will be greeted. A fireplace is the central focus of this room, with custom leather chairs where people can relax while their friends shop. There is also a pickup window for people that have placed their orders ahead of time. Just to the side of the cases containing the antique knick-knacks and decorations there is space for locals to use as well.
“See this whole wall right here? It is 8 feet tall and 16 feet long. This wall is here exclusively to sponsor first Friday artists,” Youse said. Just outside the shops front door you can see the Wyland Whale Wall, and the location itself was the original public library for Anchorage, and they are attached to 6th Avenue Outfitters.
The founders’ background in construction gave them the ability to source and use another interesting feature for design.
“These boards and this wood were repurposed from a cannery that, as far as I understand, was about 150 years old. This wood is about 110 to 115 years old. They tore the cannery down quite recently and we bought up the wood and we repurposed it for the inside and outside of the shop.” Youse explained. “That includes the beams, the siding, and even our countertop is refurbished lap wood from a cannery down in Kenai.”
The actual feel of Alaska was important for Russell as well, and he was careful not to go too far with the concept. “When we started talking about the design, that’s what my biggest thoughts were on the subject. I have been serving downtown for years. I know it, I know what tourists like, I see the yellow bags from the gift shops. You know what you are seeing. It’s that fine line between making it look like something cool and Alaskan, and it starting to look like a northern Cracker Barrel. I didn’t want to go that far,” Russell said.
Another aspect of this business that they are excited to use is their experience in making customers happy. Youse takes that side of the business very seriously and explained, “If you are empathetic enough, and you know your customer enough, and you know your product well enough, it can be done. There will be people that come in, especially tourists, and as long as I have the knowledge, I can do it.” Russell wants that same level of expertise to be available from their staff. “There are connoisseurs of marijuana like there are of wine or scotch, or what have you. We can have that wine captain, that sommelier of marijuana that expand a palate that you didn’t think can be expanded. I think we have that ability. I am looking forward to that challenge.”
While the shop only sells marijuana for recreational use, Youse and Russell meet people that claim benefits each day from using the product and as Russell said, “Getting to actually meet the people that it helps, what helps people get through their day, the pain relief that doesn’t come from synthetic drugs, the CBD side of the plant.”
With his background as a medic, Youse sees another benefit to the industry as whole. “As a medic, this is not anything against alcohol, and I am not a huge marijuana user myself, but as a medic I have scraped way more people off the pavement because of alcohol. I have never had to treat a convenience store clerk that got shot from a robbery because the assailant was on marijuana.”
He has also heard from people in his life that use it for more than recreation. “I see what it does for friends of mine that I served with, that don’t handle the ghosts so well, and now they can get a good night’s sleep. If it helps you, I am all for it. I have never had to worry about the implications of marijuana as a medic like I have with alcohol, or meth, or spice, or a myriad of things. That’s something I can get behind.”
The final step for the partners was finding charities that can benefit financially from their new business. The first will be the LAP Foundation, a non-profit that benefits the health and welfare of children and animals. They will go further with animal benefits as they donate a percentage of profits to Straw for Dogs. That’s just the first step and they hope to be able to do more in the future.
“I want to continue to expand and keep doing good things.” says Youse.
As Russell and Youse, along with Bonnie, finish up the last-minute details on Tundra Herb Co., they look not only to the path that brought them to this point, but also have a steady eye on the future. Their experiences have brought them here, and now an entirely new path is laid out before them.