METLAKATLA, Alaska – After a seven-year pizza famine in Metlakatla, the itch by residents for oven-baked dough can now be scratched.
Re-opening under the management of two teenaged siblings, Chris and Aja Bryant operate Purple Mountain Pizza, a home-based eatery, on Alaska’s only Indian Reserve. So starved was this community of 1,400 for PMP’s handmade-to-order and gourmet style cooking, there were eight orders just after the doors swung open at noon on May 31.
“This was nothing like what I expected because you’re constantly under pressure and busy,” Chris, 17, said.
On opening day, the pizzeria served about two dozen pies in six hours. Not bad for the two novice chefs when the store’s record was 33 in a day so many years ago.
With the assistance of their mom Lisa, the trio required about a month to restore the preparation area that already came with the oven and dough mixer. It was she who convinced the previous owners, whom the Bryants are renting from, that this store provides a viable opportunity for her kids to get a hands-on experience operating a business.
The challenge of running a food establishment in an isolated area, as Metlakatla is a 90-minute boat ride from Ketchikan, itself dependent on marine traffic, is the necessity of ordering supplies well in advance. In order to justify the shipping charges from Seattle, purchases must be large.
“It will be in bulk to last longer so we can get more for our money,” Aja, 15, said, noting when the family buys personal items, receipts easily total several hundred dollars.
Generally there were no opening day jitters with the exception of closing a little earlier than the posted hours because of running out of cheese. With four days before the store opened again for its Wednesday through Saturday run, Purple Mountain Pizza had the time to prepare for a full work week.
All the pies are named after geographical points on Annette Island with the house specialty, the Purple Mountain, named after the rock formation. This whopper of a pie comes with 10 toppings and pre-cooked, weighs in at eight pounds.
With the word out that pizza can be had once again on the island, Bill Schoolcraft, PMP’s previous owner, says based on the company’s reputation the kids will be busy throughout the summer.
“We still got calls after seven years for pizza and it was their mother who talked me into re-opening this,” he said pointing out there were others in the past that inquired about taking over Purple Mountain but were refused.
As these teens are cutting their teeth dishing out the pizza in Alaska, another home-based food shop is experiencing success in the region. Sweet Treats enters its first summer serving up iced desserts at the northern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.
Upon stepping into the cozy 280-square foot attachment to the home of Brandie Hill, guests can almost be overwhelmed by the massive menu board listing more than 60 flavors. Besides choices from chocolate to cherry and butterscotch to butter rum, the iced treats are lactose-free with no cholesterol.
Even during nights when the weather isn’t conducive to savoring frozen refreshments, there continues to be a stream of customers flowing into the store on the reservation in Old Massett.
“We don’t stop for nothing around here and the wind isn’t (even) blowing sideways yet,” owner of Sweet Treats, Brandie Hill said. “Even if it’s like this, it’s usually busy.”
Raining, gray and maybe 50 degrees, Hill has developed a loyal clientele for her desserts regardless of the weather since being in business for almost a year. Likely because the store is the only one on the north end of the Queen Charlottes specializing in ice cream, she almost has a monopoly. However she hasn’t taken advantage of her solitary status because, especially in light of the shipping expenses to the Islands, no item is more than five dollars, with many treats priced under two.
“I’ll offer items for a dollar so that anybody can come in and order something,” Hill said, referring to the fact many of her customers that are kids. “There are even two (pieces of candy) for five cents.”
Dishing out desserts and meeting a lot of happy faces provides a lot of job satisfaction but Hill mentioned she has had some struggles, especially convincing money-lending institutions that her business was viable. Denied assistance from the local credit union, in part because of the store’s location on the reserve, the business finally obtained a $27,000 loan from a provincial program to complete the renovations constructed by her husband Edward and for six pieces of equipment including a syrup mixer and confection oven.
However it was frustrating to wade through months of paperwork, thus delaying her opening until last August, so it’s this summer when she expects sales to soar. Besides the locals, Hill has started to notice the tourists in their campers pulling up to her door, directed by the numerous signs, and she also hopes Sweet Treats increases its traffic of non-Native residents, some of whom will walk the two miles on a nicer summer night.
On this particular Sunday, 20 people dodged the rain during just one hour alone between 6 and 7 p.m. Open seven days a week until 10 p.m., Sweet Treats offers the latest hours of any family-based establishment on either the reservation or the nearby village of Masset.
“People don’t have any place to go at night and they’ve got to go somewhere after hours,” said Hill, who notes one of her busiest periods is between 9 and 10 p.m.
She said this just before serving her last customers of the night, a mother and two kids adorned in raingear who raced from a nearby beach to beat the closing hour.