In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, we sat down with Angela Ketah, owner of Sitka Flowers & The Chocolate Moose, a shop full of delights located on the main street of Sitka, Alaska. As businesses around the country struggle with supply chain snafus and hiring challenges, Angela’s dedication to her team’s wellbeing and growth has helped her lead the way through the difficulties of the pandemic, setting an example for entrepreneurs around the region.
Read on to hear from Angela about her tips for successful hiring, supporting her team, how being Tlingit and Tsimshian shows up in her work — and what delicious treats she is making for the holidays.
Want to support more businesses like Sitka Flowers & The Chocolate Moose this holiday season? Check out the Shop Local, Shop-Native Owned Gift Guide, produced by Spruce Root, Sealaska, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Angela! Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I was born in Ketchikan and moved to Sitka in about 1996, and I’ve been here ever since. I was a sophomore in high school then, and actually I worked at the shop that I own now. That was my first job in Sitka!
Later, I met my partner and started raising a family. I have three kids: my daughter Kayaani is 15, she’s the oldest, and then my middle guy, Rawl is 13. And then Olen is 12.
Wow, you’re about to have three teenagers! How do you balance your life as both a mother and an entrepreneur?
It’s so hard to believe that I have a daughter in high school. She’s amazing and she works at the shop with me, too. She always has, since she was so little that she couldn’t even see over the counter. The boys, whether they like it or not, have to work sometimes, too. It’s pretty great to have the opportunity to have them in my everyday life.
What made you decide to buy Sitka Flowers & The Chocolate Moose?
I bought the shop in 2017 from Jackie Caywood, who owned the shop when I worked there. One day, she called and said she was ready to retire and was wondering if I wanted to buy the shop. Ever since working at Sitka Flowers, I had the idea of owning a business in the back of my mind.
I always enjoyed the pace and being able to do something different every day. I told her, “I’ll come work for you for the summer to see if I still like it.” And I did. And now I’m in my fifth year of ownership!
That must have been a big leap. Can you tell us about your transition from employee to business owner, operator and chocolate connoisseur?
When I took over the business, Jackie and her daughter gave me a month-long crash course in chocolate making. I spent that whole month learning everything I could. Jackie, who at this point was retired, had said she would make some of the chocolate to keep herself busy, but then pretty immediately realized that she had no desire to be working anymore. So I was making everything. It was pretty challenging.
There were definitely a lot of failures, especially when I wanted to be a part of every single day-to-day thing in the shop. But I survived it. I still make mistakes, but now I can laugh and move on. There were quite a few tears in the first year.
What has it been like training others to make chocolate?
Once I was actually making all the chocolate, it was hard to think about training somebody else because we have so many different products. Every time I come out here, I make something new. It’s not just like, “Oh, here’s the recipe, do this.” So, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but I have trained one of the girls, Gavi, who has worked for me since 2017. She started when she was 16 and has been working out front all these years. I’ve always talked to her about my wins and losses in the kitchen.
I’ve been training her this year and she’s been doing great. I’ll work on fillings, she does all the dipping. She gets to do something different every day. I haven’t convinced my kids that chocolate making is fun, but they enjoy sampling!
What is most important to you when it comes to building your team of employees?
When I talk to somebody I might hire, I ask myself, “Are they friendly? Are they personable?” because so much of our work is communicating with people and helping them find gifts and figuring out what they want for their wedding or their events. It’s also helpful if they have some sort of creativity. A couple of the girls that work for me now are artists, which helps because there’s creativity in everything that we do, from displays to packaging to arranging flowers.
I also have had great luck with saying to potential employees, “Let’s just try it out. Come in and we’ll work together for a couple of weeks and see how you like it.” And it’s never failed me. I’ve never had somebody that we couldn’t find a place for. There’s so much hands-on work we do: we package everything ourselves, we make all our own boxes, we water our plants every day, we make deliveries. So there is something for everyone.
We’re also really flexible. I’m a mother of three, I understand that people have lives, and I don’t need them to be married to this store — that’s my job! My main florist, Hannah, has brought her daughter to work every day since she was six months old. Her daughter is almost three now! We can be flexible in that way, which is so important because not everyone can commit their whole entire day to nine hours of work, especially moms.
The Chocolate Moose seems really special in its ability to grow with its employees, including you. This was your first job, right? And it seems like you’ve trained a lot of people for whom this is their first job as well. Is there a special kind of importance and care in training someone for their first job?
Oh, absolutely. I love the fact that my daughter works here and that Gavi has been working here for five years. They’ve both grown up so much. Earlier this year, I took Gavi and my daughter to a market buying show in Las Vegas since they are the ones that order the products we sell out front. So, I took them and we found a bunch of new products for the shop and they had a great time.
It seems like you are very conscious about matching opportunities for professional development with your employees as they grow.
When I was first working, Jackie did the same for me. I went to the market with her in Seattle and San Francisco several times when I was about 20 and it was so impactful for me. I feel like either one of those girls can do anything they want after having the experience of working in this business for so long. They’ll be well equipped with whatever they want to do.
In the early stages of running their businesses, many entrepreneurs struggle with letting go of their different roles and passing responsibilities onto their employees.
Do you have any advice for these entrepreneurs?
It probably took me two years to start letting go of anything. There were little jobs I could trust people to do, but I wanted to do all the flowers and make all the chocolate and arrange all the displays. After being exhausted for two years, I said to myself, “There’s only one way to lighten my load. And that’s to let these perfectly capable people do the job that you’ve hired them to do.”
I had to start verbalizing my vision: How do I want this business to feel for customers walking in the door? How do I want it to look? How do you make it so people’s eyes travel to the products that you want them to see? And I found that if you can verbalize that appropriately, your team can make your vision come true. They are 100% talented and creative.
Writing down your vision empowers your team to do things on their own. I mean, how could they do all the things that you want if they’re not written down anywhere and only living in your head?
It was not easy to get everything out of my head, but I said to myself, “It’s part of my job as the owner of this business to make it feasible to get everything done. So if you want your business to succeed, you have to hand over some of that responsibility and take care of yourself, because if you’re too tired to get everything done yourself, your business is going to suffer. Trust your employees, trust the people that work for you.”
What made this process easier was going through the business planning process as part of the Path to Prosperity competition. Once you start writing down all the things that you’re doing, you can start thinking about ways that you’re gonna grow. I obviously can’t grow if I don’t delegate.
How does being Indigenous show up in your business?
It’s so important for me to be a good role model for Native youth. And I’ve done a lot by hosting talks on how to make espresso for the kids from Pacific High or letting the softball team have fundraisers outside.
As a Native person, it is important to show kids how you can live a successful life while also contributing to your community. I want to be a good role model and inspire somebody to want to venture out and become a baker and play with flour as a job or pursue whatever they want to do.
What different creations are you making for the holidays?
It’s important, especially now, for people to buy things locally as much as possible, so we want to have good quality gifts they can pick up. We are making new products that are more artistic than we’ve done before. We got some new chocolate molds and we’re painting things with edible gold flakes to make things really festive and beautiful for seasonal gift boxes. We are making lots of treats that are tied with ribbons and ready to put into stockings like chocolate pretzels, Santa chocolate pops, chocolate-covered Oreos, and chocolate-covered cherries. Everyone has an Uncle or Auntie who would love a chocolate cherry cordial.
We’re also going to make marzipan and other old-school treats. We hope to just make shopping easy and rewarding for people by offering a lot of treats that are grab-and-go with beautiful packaging.
As far as plants go, we’re putting together winter wreaths and also, we have lots of little terrarium kits that we’re going to put together. So if you know somebody likes plants, you can give them this little kit and they can go crazy building their terrarium. We can put together something for anyone in your life, even if you’re not sure what to get them. It’s going to be a great holiday season.
What’s next for you and The Chocolate Moose? In the next year? Five years?
In the short term, we want to get our products out to everywhere in Alaska, and then hopefully beyond that. So, we’re learning how to package things while still being conscious of the environment so they can be sold somewhere else.
In the long term, I would love to have a store in Juneau and a store in Ketchikan. I think we have such a great business model that can be successful no matter what, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. So I definitely see growth, especially now that my kids are getting older. I would love to see us grow by having great stores for people in other towns in Alaska to go to filled with these great flowers, chocolates, and gifts.
Rooted in Southeast
In Southeast Alaska, small businesses like Sitka Flowers & The Chocolate Moose bring character to our downtown streets, channel economic benefits into our communities, and provide meaningful job opportunities. By supporting local businesses this holiday season and beyond, you are not only investing in our local economy, you are investing in those businesses’ entire teams and helping to develop the next generation of entrepreneurs, making our region stronger and more resilient than ever.
• Izzy Haywood works at Spruce Root as the communications manager and Path to Prosperity Competition administrator. She resides in Sitka. This story was published in partnership with Spruce Root, a Native-led Community Development Financial Institution that assists Southeast Alaska’s people and businesses to reach their full potential through loan capital and support services to promote economic, social, cultural, and environmental resiliency. Spruce Root provides backbone support for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Angela Ketah was a finalist in Spruce Root’s 2020 Path to Prosperity competition, a sustainable business development competition for entrepreneurs in Southeast Alaska Since its inception in 2013, the Path to Prosperity competition has received more than 300 applications from Southeast Alaskan small business owners and entrepreneurs across 22 communities. The program has trained 112 finalists at Business Boot Camp and awarded 17 winners $560,000 to build their local businesses. All of our participants have been trained in sustainability-focused approaches to building a business and learn to measure their profitability as well as the environmental and social impacts of their business. Of the 17 Path to Prosperity winning businesses, 15 are currently operational. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.