The Alaska Cab Company is under new leadership, and its new owners know what it takes to work long hours and nights. Sam and Tina Chung own Casa, Bethel’s only late-night delivery joint. Their foray into the transportation business is just the latest of the couple’s entrepreneurial business moves in town.
Sam and Tina Chung were supposed to retire this year. They were touring houses in Anchorage when they heard Alaska Cab Company’s 25 taxi permits were up for sale. Sam Chung says that he and his wife couldn’t pass it up.
"I do have experience in taxi driving in California," he said, "Yellow cabs. I always think about my old memory. I liked driving cabs, that’s the main thing."
That was two months ago, and the Chungs have been working non-stop ever since. They manage Alaska Cab’s 23 drivers, and drive for the company themselves. When their shifts are over, they head over to Casa, the late-night delivery restaurant they’ve owned for over a decade. Between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., the Chungs cook and deliver nachos and hamburgers to Bethel’s insomniacs - something they’ve done every night, without a night off, for 13 years.
Sam and Tina are both from Seoul, Korea; they met and got married there. Sam is blunt, with a shrewd sense of humor. Tina openly laughs at him throughout our interview and keeps hitting him playfully. She prefers to use her son, Steve, as a translator.
The Chungs moved to Bethel from Orange County in 2005 to find work. Plenty of immigrants experience culture shock when they land in Bethel. "Some Korean people, they come to Bethel and they say it’s too small," said Sam. "But we were happy. You know why? Big airport!" The airport, the Chungs say, is good for business.
The family purchased Casa from a local gambler three months after they moved to town. Casa’s previous owner was known to only open the restaurant when he felt like it. Steve Chung says that his parents made a series of changes.
"He never stopped working," he said about his father. "When we first took over Casa, I remember very distinctively that all the menus in town were black and white. They spent that extra dollar to get them laser printed."
The Chungs also added three more containers to their inventory, Steve Chung said. "Other people saw the success Casa was having and they kind of copied these traits."
The Chungs also made Casa the one restaurant in town that would never close. They never close for weather; they’re open on all holidays and birthdays. Sam Chung says his family worked through the night, every night, at Casa for years, including his three children.
"They complained, 'Why are you open Christmas Day? New Year’s Day? Thanksgiving Day?'" Chung remembered. "'Why are you open those days?'"
But they complained less than you’d think. "You know, my kids, they know we were poor," Chung said. "That’s why they helped each other. Sometimes they complained, but they knew we were poor."
The family’s hard work and long hours paid off. The Chungs are comfortable now, and their son Steve operates a successful business of his own. Managing Alaska Cab is a new challenge for the couple, but they plan to run a tight ship. Having lived in Bethel for over a decade, they’re keenly aware of the resentment and rumors that surround its taxi companies. Last year, following a two-year sting operation, 22 cabdrivers were charged with bootlegging; all but one were Korean. Those cases are still working their way through the courts. Sam Chung bluntly says that he'll fire any Alaska Cab driver who is caught bootlegging on his watch.
The couple encourages other immigrants to come to Bethel. Alaska is a land of opportunity, they say, if you’re willing to work hard.