Pizza joint delivers to the Bush

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

NOME - Last Christmas, residents of the Yupik Eskimo village of Savoonga added a special dish to their everyday fare of whale, walrus, reindeer and berries - fresh pizza flown in from Nome, 170 miles away.

A tiny delivery joint, Airport Pizza, had opened several months earlier just steps from Nome's busy runways, and many of Savoonga's 700 residents were eager to try more than conventional pepperoni and plain cheese.

Nome's first and only pizza delivery service does a robust business in the western Alaska town of 3,500. But it really stands out for its free deliveries via commuter plane to more than a dozen other remote subarctic villages spread over a region about the size of Washington state.

The village council in Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, wanted a special holiday treat for young families in the village. It ordered 50 pizzas, half topped with chicken and ranch dressing and the others with Canadian bacon and pineapple.

Julia Noongwook, 41, swapped some of her bacon and pineapple for a slice of chicken ranch from a relative. Noongwook said it was the first time she had tasted the popular chicken ranch pie.

"It was good," she said. "I like chicken."

Frontier Flying Service, an intrastate airline, volunteered last year to fly the pizzas at no charge to every village on its regular flight schedule out of Nome, a Bering Sea town settled in 1899 during a massive gold rush.

Craig Kenmonth, general manager of Frontier, said the free delivery service helps the carrier market itself in a way that benefits customers in the largely Yupik and Inupiat Eskimo villages.

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"Our success is directly tied to the success of the communities we serve," Kenmonth said. "And it's a fun thing to do."

The savings can be enormous for Nome's largely impoverished satellite communities, which pay some of the highest fuel prices in the nation. In White Mountain, gas cost $3.39 a gallon at the beginning of April, according to Dorothy Barr, travel coordinator for the village.

Delivery of three or four pizzas would normally cost a village about $25, said Matt Tomter, who manages Airport Pizza. Tomter's wife, Jeri Ann, owns the business. Freight is charged 40 to 60 cents per pound, depending on the village's distance from Nome, with a $10 minimum.

"They fly the pizzas for nothing, which is huge for people out in the villages," said Tomter, who quit his job as a pilot at Frontier to run the thriving pizza joint.

About 40 percent of Airport Pizza's business comes from villages that get their supplies by plane through Nome, the region's hub city, Tomter said.

The Savoonga order was one of Airport Pizza's largest, but it isn't rare to get calls for bundles of 10 or 20 pizzas from villages nearly 200 miles away. Tomter said an order for six reindeer sausage pizzas once came in from the Arctic Ocean town of Barrow, the northernmost community in the U.S., 500 miles to the northeast.

"Anytime they bring a lot of people into the village it's an easy way to feed everybody," Tomter said. Most big orders have come from Native organizations or schools hosting regional basketball tournaments.

High shipping costs into Nome already push Airport Pizza's prices above those charged by pizzerias in less remote spots. They range from $16 for a 15-inch cheese pizza to $32 for a 19-inch specialty pie, such as chicken Rockefeller or gyro.

They make 30 varieties. Meat-lovers, pepperoni, bacon-pineapple and chicken-ranch are among the most popular flavors, said Jeri Ann Tomter, who is Inupiat.

The pizzas are assembled and baked in a former airport terminal where the Tomters first laid eyes on each other. Jeri Ann was a customer service agent and Matt was a pilot for Cape Smythe Air Service, which Frontier bought in August.

After wrapping the pizzas in foil and securing the boxes with tape, an employee carries them about 80 feet to Frontier's terminal.

Nearly all the 11,000 village residents in Airport Pizza's service area consume Alaska Native subsistence foods, such as whale, walrus, seal and caribou, but laws bar Airport Pizza from using those meats on its pizzas, and there doesn't seem to be much demand.

"I think that would be a little strange," said Savoonga Mayor Jane Kava.

Reindeer sausage is legal because the animals are raised domestically.

The Tomters wouldn't disclose numbers, but said Airport Pizza has been profitable since it opened in August.

"We're not going away," Matt Tomter said. "I think we're just going to keep growing."

He can count on more orders from Savoonga.

"I was thinking of doing it for Mother's Day refreshments," Noongwook said. "I'll probably look through the menu and try to taste different flavors."



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