- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

NOME, Alaska — Last Christmas, residents of the Yupik 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 icy Bering Sea wanted a special holiday treat for young families in the village. It ordered 50 pizzas, half of them topped with chicken and ranch dressing and the other half with Canadian bacon and pineapple.

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 villages.

“Our success is directly tied to the success of the communities we serve,” Mr. 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. Mr. Tomter’s wife, Jeri Ann, owns the business. Freight is charged 40 cents 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 Mr. 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 community, Mr. 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. Mr. Tomter said an order for six reindeer sausage pizzas once came in from the Arctic Ocean town of Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States, 500 miles to the northeast.

“Any time they bring a lot of people into the village, it’s an easy way to feed everybody,” Mr. 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.

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

“We met right here, where we’re making the pizzas,” Mr. Tomter said.

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 barbecue chicken, Mexican enchilada, and Mediterranean.

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.

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