Take strong Catholic roots, 100 tons of ice cream, blend them into a successful business model for more than two decades, and you’ve nailed the recipe for Alaska’s Rich Owens and one of the nation’s most prominent ice cream shops.
Earlier this year the Anchorage-based Tastee Freez celebrated its 60th anniversary, earning notoriety as the longest running Tastee Freez in Alaska and one of the oldest since 1950 when the franchise was initially formed in the United States.
Owens, 65, has owned that particular Tastee Freeze at Jewel Lake since 1994, and though he might not have predicted the ice cream accolades that have recently befallen him, there are a few spiritual ingredients that he has carried with him since he was a kid in Montana.
Most prominent among those has been giving back to the community, and in Owens’ world that has ranged from founding St. Therese’s Camp in Wasilla to integrating hundreds of youth into positions at his fast-food restaurant.
“We learned from watching our mom and dad that this is the way that you live your life,” Owens explained. “This is the rule, not the exception.”
Owens’ arrival in Alaska stems from a career in hotel management in Montana and elsewhere across the West. In the 1980s, the newly constructed Millennium Hotel in Spenard needed a start-up manager, and Owens signed on. As the years unfolded, Owens’ fascination with running businesses and his love for Alaska led him to look for an operation of his own.
That family friends owned a Tastee Freez in Montana where he grew up played a sentimental hand in his search.
“I’ve been eating Tastee Freez for 60 of my 65 years,” Owens noted of his familiarity and favor with the franchise. Though there were opportunities to acquire retail businesses in Montana, Owens said he preferred to try a venture in Alaska. What started as a casual conversation about the purchase of commercial property serendipitously transpired to the sale of the Tastee Freez.
“It took two weeks to do the whole thing,” Owens said of the transaction.
In the years to follow, he expanded his operation to offer seating for 85 indoors with room for another 65 patrons in an outdoor picnic area. Besides earning notoriety for owning the largest of 23 Tastee Freez restaurants among 12 states in the country, Owens won recognition as the franchise’s Operator of the Year in 2006 and 2015. More recently, he was featured on the Senate floor by Sen. Dan Sullivan as “Alaskan of the Week.”
As Owens settled into the rhythm of his new business, he recognized it as a conduit to live his Catholic faith through community service. Owens partnered with the National Guard to form Operation Santa Claus, which delivers thousands of 5-ounce ice cream sundaes to more than 60 villages during the Christmas season. Closer to the home front in Anchorage, Owens used his ice cream shop to support local schools and as a job skills center for some 700 employees, many of whom first approached him for work as 17-year-olds.
“Some of these kids come from some pretty hard situations,” Owens confided. “It doesn’t cost anything lots of times to be that individual, and you can have an impact on communities by being a good mentor.”
Some of those kids have become mainstays among his 28 employees, and two of them have married.
In 2012, Owens was an instrumental member of a nonprofit group that agreed to purchase what is now the 57-acre St. Therese’s camp in Wasilla. Owens, who relished attending Catholic summer camps as a kid, notes that it was the perfect opportunity to acquire a venue that draws youth and adults closer to God.
While time will tell what comes next on Owens’ entrepreneurial calendar, he says it’s a given that the Catholic Church will put a spiritual spin into his business decisions.
“I think that being raised in the church aims us in the right direction,” he said of his commitment to mentoring youth in the community.
Owens added that living the Catholic life also calls us to rectify social situations for the better.
“It just makes it apparent when things aren’t right,” he said.