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These Made-to-Order Pizzas Come With Wings

Nome's first and only free air delivery service does a robust business, carrying pies to dozens of remote subarctic villages in Alaska.

April 16, 2006|Jeannette J. Lee | Associated Press Writer

NOME, Alaska — 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.

Nome's first and only pizza delivery service does a robust business in the western Alaska town of 3,500. But it 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 icy Bering Sea, wanted a holiday treat for young families in the village. It ordered 50 pizzas, half topped with chicken and ranch dressing, the other half 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'd tasted the popular chicken ranch pie, which also comes with bacon, red onions, tomatoes and mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.

"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 gold rush.

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

"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, said Dorothy Barr, village travel coordinator.

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 charges range from 40 to 60 cents a 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.

The Christmas pizza order cost Savoonga anyway after a snowstorm grounded Frontier, said Noongwook, who handled the order for the city.

Before the weather closed in, 25 of the pizzas had made it out on Frontier. The council wanted to make sure no one felt left out by getting late pizzas on the holiday, so it paid freight charges of almost $100 to have another airline fly them in when the weather cleared later in the day.

About 40% 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. The prices range from $16 for a 15-inch cheese pizza to $32 for a 19-inch specialty pie, such as chicken Rockefeller or gyro.

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.

The one-room business is all kitchen, with a 2,500-pound dough mixer salvaged from a bakery that went out of business, and a cavernous hand-me-down oven from a pizzeria turned Chinese restaurant.

Along a spotless steel counter sit about two dozen small bins filled with colorful ingredients that are rare in this faraway region -- garlic, red and green peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and chorizo.

Five staffers show up each day to make more than 30 types of pizzas, including Polynesian barbecued chicken, Mexican enchilada, and Mediterranean.

"We tried pizzas from all over, in Washington and Anchorage, and found some we liked, and made some up ourselves," Matt Tomter said.

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.

"I think that would be a little strange" to use these meats, 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.

He can count on more orders from Savoonga.

"I was thinking of doing it for Mother's Day refreshments," Noongwook said.

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