Rocking the boat: How a couple of landlubbers built a family-friendly “floating food truck” in the Virgin Islands

Pizza Pi VI is more than a pizza boat—it’s the highest-rated restaurant in St. Thomas, according to TripAdvisor.



Pizza Pi celebrates Pi Day in March with a raft-up

Photos by wherethecoconutsgrow.com

 

Living in paradise  is harder than you think—if you’re paying for it with pizza. For Tara Bouis, co-owner and head chef of Pizza Pi VI, it means 10-hour workdays, toiling in a cramped, hot little kitchen with the oven running full blast, slipping and sliding over slick, wet floors, and plating handcrafted New York-style pies by the dozens for choosy customers with high expectations.

Then, again, it’s mid-February in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a balmy breeze is wafting across the little Caribbean cove, and Tara is sporting a bikini. Things could be worse.

Tara Bouis, co-owner of the Pizza Pi VI pizza boat, notes that anchoring fees are cheaper than rent for a brick-and-mortar building in pricy St. Thomas, thus boosting their bottom line.

 

After three years in business, Tara and her husband/business partner, Sasha, know a thing or two about keeping a pizzeria afloat. Anchored in Christmas Cove, Pizza Pi VI rocks and bobs in the waves off Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. Housed in a refurbished 37’ sailboat, it’s a wildly popular “floating food truck” for the water sports set that’s also the highest-rated restaurant in St. Thomas, according to TripAdvisor.

It began as a humble effort, Tara recalls—just a young expat couple from the mainland, living on a boat and baking pies to pay the bills. But their skills, as it turned out, exceeded their modest ambitions. “We originally planned to live this leisurely lifestyle,” she says. “But demand went through the roof, and now we’re doing an average of 50 or 60 pizzas a day. We needed a lot more product on hand than we’d expected, and our living quarters soon became dry storage. So now we have to live on land again, but it’s a good problem to have.”

“Food trucks were taking off, so we thought, why not do a food truck on the water?”
—Tara Bouis, Pizza Pi VI

As Pizza Pi’s chief engineer, Sasha Bouis keeps the equipment in tip-top shape and also acts as a roving social ambassador

 

Swapping Beer for Cooking Lessons

The Bouises’ escape to an island paradise is hardly unprecedented but nonetheless inspiring to every cubicle-bound drone tired of the rat race. Tara taught special education in Indiana and waited tables at night to make ends meet, while the Manhattan-born Sasha sold his soul daily on Wall Street, working for Standard & Poor’s. They met in the British Virgin Islands in 2007—Tara spent her summers there teaching scuba diving lessons, while Sasha taught sailing to kids. “We hit it off and dated long-distance for one winter,” Tara says.

Back home in cold, snowy Indiana, Tara mulled over a new career, as a chef on a charter boat in the tropics. But she had no formal culinary training, just a natural gift for cooking. Eager to learn the basics, she sweet-talked a sous-chef friend into giving her cooking lessons for a case of Guinness beer every week for nine months, then made a beeline back to the islands for good the next summer. There, she and Sasha became business partners as well as paramours. “He was the captain/engineer of a 60’ catamaran, and I was the chef/housekeeper,” Tara says. “We would take groups of eight guests out for a week. We’d take them snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, drinking at the beach bars—it was a floating guest house.”

Now on her own in the kitchen, Tara taught herself as she went along. “The beauty of vacation charters is that you have a new group of guinea pigs every single week,” she notes. “So if a recipe didn’t quite work last week, you can tweak it and try it again.”

Pizza Pi VI’s galley is equipped with a Bakers Pride oven with two baking chambers, a 20-quart Hobart mixer, and refrigeration and freezer units. The facility is so small, Tara Bouis says it’s “like making pizza in a compact car.”

 

A Crash Course

After getting married, Tara and Sasha had to tweak their lifestyle, too, before they could start a family. The charter boat “was a lot of fun and a great job, but no one wants to go on vacation with you and your screaming child on board,” Tara says. “At the time, food trucks were taking off, so we thought, why not do a food truck on the water?”

They bought an old aluminum boat and made it their home. They spent the next two years refurbishing it and telling little white lies to anyone who asked what they were up to. “I was scared that, if people caught wind that we were [building a pizza boat], someone with a bigger budget could build one faster and open before us,” Tara says. “So we told everyone we were going to sail around the world. People around here do that all the time.”

After several years of running term charter boats all over the Virgin Islands, Tara Bouis and her husband/partner Sasha welcomed their first daughter, Fiona, now 1½ years old, and decided they needed a more family-friendly occupation. Before long, they set sail on their new floating food truck.

 

Shortly before launching their business, the couple returned to the States for an intensive, four-day crash course at Goodfella’s Pizza School of New York. “It was taught in a functioning restaurant, and we made pizzas for their customers in the evenings,” Tara says. “I had never worked behind the line in a restaurant, but I’d worked front-of-house long enough to have a feel for it. Sasha hadn’t worked in the front or back of the house, so as tickets are printing and more pizzas are being ordered, he’s running around like his hair is on fire. But you have to put your head down and get through it.”

 

Traditional Meets Tropical

To hear the story of Pizza Pi’s origins, it sounds like a great idea that never stood a chance, yet their business—which stays open seven days a week from December through July and closes during hurricane season—has grown every year since opening in 2014. Making her own dough with a Hobart mixer and using a Bakers Pride oven powered by a diesel generator, Tara serves only one size, a 16” pie, with a New York-style crust. Her pizzas incorporate traditional ingredients with exotic tropical flavors. The Mango Mami features a tangy mango chutney base topped with fresh mango slices, red onions, bacon and goat cheese. El Cubano, inspired by the sandwich, has a mustard sauce base and comes with cold, brined pickles, pulled pork, ham, and Swiss and mozzarella cheeses. And the Blumin Onion starts with a lemon aioli sauce and gets topped with leeks, radicchio, mozzarella, blue cheese and a post-bake drizzle of local honey.

Pizza Pi’s New York-style pizzas come in just one size, 16”, but customers rave about the artisanal quality of Tara’s recipes, such the Daiai Lama, made with tomato curry sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, pickled sweet corn and spinach.

 

Keeping the pies light and relatively healthy is important when your customers spend their days swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. “Some customers come in a powerboat and tie up to us,” Tara says. “When we’re busy, we’ll have a string of boats rafted up, one tied to the next one. If you have a larger sailboat, you come up in a dinghy and place or pick up your order at the stern window.”

Pizza Pi uses its own dinghy for deliveries, with a $10 fee for orders under $60. Some determined customers have been known to swim up to the boat to place an order, in which case Tara will usually let them eat their pizzas on the spot—as long as they wait 30 minutes before getting back into the water.

 

Hip But Wholesome

Although pizza in paradise sounds like a no-brainer, hungry tourists in St. Thomas aren’t exactly hurting for choices, and Pizza Pi has to work for its market share. Beach bars abound, and catered party boats offer a rowdy good time to vacationers looking to shed their inhibitions. Tara and Sasha have one toddler and another baby on the way, so Pizza Pi offers a different experience. “I try to walk this hip but wholesome line,” Tara says. “We have kind of a funky New York vibe that’s hip to the culture, but we’re still very Midwest, wholesome and family-friendly.”

Building relationships with St. Thomas’ boat captains was a crucial first step to success. “They take the tourists out and recommend places for snorkeling, sunbathing and eating,” Tara says. “So whenever a boat came near Christmas Cove, I was out there in my dinghy with laminated copies of our menu for the captains.” Area hotels also organize day trips on catamarans for their guests, so Tara developed a special catering option for them, feeding up to 50 people in a single half-hour lunch period. “That’s 16 to 20 pizzas, which is a lot, but we have it down to a science now. We make two trips out to the boat. We deliver the pizzas, give them some time to eat, then go back over with merchandise—T-shirts, hats and other swag—and do a little spiel. They get as much of the Pizza Pi experience as they can; it’s not just a lunch stop.”

“I try to walk this hip but wholesome line. We have kind of a funky New York vibe that’s hip to the culture, but we’re still very Midwest, wholesome and family-friendly.”
—Tara Bouis, Pizza Pi VI

Concerned that someone would steal their idea for a floating food truck, Sasha and Tara Bouis told people they were refurbishing their boat in order to sail it around the world.

But the Bouises aren’t just there to score a quick buck off tourists. They’ve made Charlotte Amalie their home. Last spring, they hosted an underwater Easter egg hunt for local preteens and teenagers; for the eggs, Tara bought a bunch of fastener nuts from the hardware store and spray-painted them in pastel colors. “My husband was the Easter Bunny—he was not thrilled about the idea,” Tara recalls, with a chuckle. “He paddled around in a bunny suit with a bucket of ‘eggs’ and dropped them into the water as the kids were out there snorkeling. A pink nut would get you $2 off your next pizza. A purple one got you a box of Girl Scout cookies.”

Pizza Pi also partners with the St. Thomas Yacht Club to host regular Family Cove Outings for locals learning to sail. And in a fun-for-all-ages event last February, customers spent a Saturday afternoon lounging on a giant pizza raft and posing for pictures with mermaids from the Caribbean Mermaid Academy.

 

Meeting the Pinup Girls

Unlike some local party boats, Tara doesn’t hire deck hands based on their sex appeal, but they have to be fairly young and fit to handle the job, and front-of-the-house experience is required. “There are so many different aspects of foodservice on the water that you have to learn,” Tara says. “We’re looking for someone who can not only stay on their feet for 10 hours straight, but someone who’s agile enough to hop from boat to boat with drinks and pizza in their hands. And once we find people we like, we have to bring them out on the boat and find out if they get seasick. I also look for someone who’s really personable and doesn’t mind telling their story of how they ended up in the Caribbean 15 or 20 times in one day. Tourists want to live vicariously through you, so you have to tell that story again and again with the same enthusiasm.”

Tara celebrates these aquatic ambassadors every year with a retro-themed Pizza Pi wall calendar, which leads to even more promotional opportunities. Using professional hairstylists and makeup artists, the deck hands transform into pinup girls for an annual photo shoot, then appear at signing parties in bars around St. Thomas when the calendars go on sale. “The girls get all dressed up and come in with calendars and permanent markers,” Tara says. “It’s turned out to be a great promotion for Pizza Pi—our logo is on every page, plus food and drink specials for different days, so you put it on your wall and every day you’re seeing Pizza Pi. We also offer product placement sponsorship to some of our local partner businesses—for a certain amount of money, we feature their products in the photos.”

Pizza Pi VI hires personable, wholesome servers who can stay on their feet for 10 hours a day. To honor its female deck hands, the company created a pinup-style Pizza Pi calendar, giving the women a chance to dress up, get their hair styled and take part in a professional photo shoot.

 

Even with their second child due in October, the Bouises show no sign of slowing down, but Tara knows paradise is never permanent. “We take it one year at a time,” she says. “We always ask, is this still a good fit for us? Does this lifestyle make sense with a growing family? We still love it, but I don’t know what the juggling act will look like with two kids.”

In the meantime, the marketing ideas keep coming—spotlighting captains in Q&As on Facebook, sponsoring a local boat racing team—and the Pizza Pi boat keeps rocking in Christmas Cove. Tara is proud of her company and hopes the community takes pride in it, too. “I would like to become one of those staple destinations—if you come to the Virgin Islands, you have to go to the pizza boat,” she says. “One of my goals is to become a pillar of the tourism economy, and I don’t know how else to do it except to keep putting myself out there.” 

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.

 

 

 

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