At 26, Amanda Coolley owns two houses in the Philippines and is a former winner of the country’s version of “Survivor.” She is also the co-owner of the Asian Food Market in Fairbanks, the town’s only general Asian food specialty store.
The road to owning a store has been difficult and, according to Coolley, was initially unexpected.
As a former career construction worker, she was hesitant to invest in the store when her mother told her a family friend was selling it.
“I like working with my hands and I like physical work,” Coolley said. “I’ve always been a tomboy.”
After thinking about it more, Coolley decided to buy the store last May and currently co-owns with her mother and father.
“When you think of Asian markets, many times you think of smelly fish or vegetables everywhere,” Coolley said.
The Asian Food Market is anything but.
The small store on Aurora Drive features five aisles filled with Taiwanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Japanese food products. Coolley said the market attracts a diverse customer base, including Indian, Russian and Hispanic backgrounds.
The front corner of the store has a small restaurant called “Ina’s Kitchen,” which sells homemade Filipino food and is owned by Coolley’s mother.
After growing up in a small province in the Philippines, Coolley moved to Fairbanks when she was 16. She used to worked at the store when it was located on South Cushman Street.
“I remember when I first came here and my dad took me to the Asian store, it just made me feel so good. It felt like a little piece of home,” Coolley said, adding that she feels good when customers come to the store because it makes them feel at home, too.
Working in a store that caters to many different cultures has also created some unique learning experiences and funny situations. When Coolley first took over the store, she decided to order a box of dried squid. When the box arrived, it cost $800 and Cooley was shocked.
Despite the stress of learning the ins and outs, language barriers add comedy to the store.
“A lot of Asians, they’re just funny and silly,” Coolley said, “You get to know them on a personal level.”
Coolley acknowledged that for some customers, she even uses a translation app so she can help them find what they need.
She said the most challenging aspect of owning a business is not having a lot of personal time. Due to the store’s current financial state, money is tight, making it difficult to hire more workers to help out.
Coolley says that her time on Survivor: Palau in 2009 has helped her out. After buying her first two houses she was in a lot of debt. Whoever won Survivor would win $3 million, about half a million dollars in American money.
“It was a very cool experience, it really, really was,” Coolley said. “I enjoyed it, but then it just got old. I’m just human, I’m no different than anybody else.”
Despite her celebrity status in the Philippines, Coolley remains very humble and down-to-earth. When reflecting on her time on the show, she says that it taught her to “just stick with it, [and] to never give up.”
Even now, with the stress of being a business owner, she says the best part of working at the store is the customers.
“They’re all family to us. It makes me feel good to bring them joy, not just groceries but memories.”