By Mike Wagner

I recently read an article on PMQ’s website about a Houston pizzeria closing its doors for good because the owner didn’t want to charge $30 for his pizza. I’m not sure what a meal costs in Houston, but here in Fairbanks, Alaska, the average burger meal will run you more than $16. A dinner salad meal will cost over $15. If you’re talking about a small steak dinner, you’re looking at close to $60. And that’s per person.

Our kids took my wife, Diana, and me out for dinner this past Mother’s Day, and the bill came to $189 for five people: two salads, two burgers, one soup and five soda pops, which included a back-of-house fee of 2% to 3% added to the bill.

Years ago, pizza was known as the cheapest way to feed a family. Customers still believe that should be the case, even though every pizza restaurant’s costs have gone up dramatically. Many think pizza should still cost the same as it did 10 or 20 years ago. But it’s just not cheap to make anymore.

Related: Wagner’s Pizza Bus serves 30 regional styles in wild Alaska

When Diana and I opened Wagner’s Pizza Bus in a rural area of Fairbanks, Alaska, in June 2013, our pizza boxes cost $19 for a case of 50. Now we spend more than $50 for a case. The price of cheese has doubled. The cost of meats has gone through the roof. We pay almost $3 for a single tomato. Every time we drive into town to get supplies, the costs have gone up—even for propane, which now costs $4 to $5.50 per gallon, depending on where we can get it. We used to drive into town every other day. Now we only go twice a week.

Additionally, we just received a notice that the insurance company we’ve had since we opened won’t be operating in Alaska anymore. So now our new insurance plan costs twice as much as last year…for the same coverage.

Wagner’s Pizza Bus is locally famous because we offer more than 30 styles of regional pizzas and just as many specialty pies—the kinds you cannot find anywhere else in Alaska, all in a single food truck. Those regional styles include Chicago deep dish, stuffed and tavern, Detroit, New Haven, Old Forge, Philly Tomato Pies, New York, St. Louis, Quad City, Ohio Valley and many others—if you’ve read about the style somewhere, we’ve got it.

To cope with rising food costs, Wagner’s Pizza Bus increased its pizza sizes by 1″ and raised prices by $1, offering greater value for a slightly higher price.

With so many unique styles on our menu, how are we coping with rising operational costs? By raising our prices strategically. Around June 2022, as the pandemic was waning but inflation was skyrocketing, we bought new pans from LloydPans and started making all of our pies 1” larger. The 12” size increased to 13”, and our 16” pizza went to 17”. For our New York and New Jersey-style pizzas, we increased the size from 17” to 19”. Then, we raised our prices by $1, offering every customer a larger pizza with just a bit more sauce and cheese. But when you open the box, it’s stuffed full of pizza.

During our 11 years in business, our price hikes have amounted to a total of just $4—that is, we have raised prices by just $1 every few years. Today, we charge $33.50 for our most expensive pizza—a large (17”) six-topping Supreme. It’s still one of our biggest sellers. For a small 13” plain pizza, we charge $14.

In short, you should sell your pizza for what it’s worth. And I will add that, when we have had to raise our prices, most of our customers understood. They have told us they will continue paying us the price it takes to make our pizza because they enjoy it so much.

We look at it this way: If you have four people going out to eat at another restaurant, it will cost more than $100. Our large pizza will feed four people at a price of $33.50. So that’s not bad at all.

Moreover, Wagner’s Pizza Bus is located in a rural area 30 miles outside of Fairbanks. It’s hard enough to run a business successfully in a busy city or town or even on a main road. We don’t have any of those advantages. In fact, if you could see where we are located, you would probably ask, “Why?” But we must be doing something right because we’ve been doing it for 11 years now!

It simply costs more to make a high-quality pizza today. It’s not the cheap Friday-Saturday college or movie-night meal anymore. It’s a big-time food. You see that all over the world. People today judge pizza more than any other food out there, and they judge it harshly sometimes. Everyone claims to be a pizza connoisseur or critic. If you want to put the blame for rising prices somewhere, in my opinion, you can put it on some of the pizza bloggers and pizza reviewers. When you’ve got a true ma-and-pa pizza shop like ours—one that doesn’t necessarily claim to be “the best” but offers something that your little community was missing and needed—it’s hard to deal with reviewers who want to compare you to all of the other pizzerias that do claim to be “the best.”

So I have seen a lot of pizzerias’ costs go up for the same reasons. But if you look at any other restaurant and the prices they charge for a meal, you should realize that it’s OK and makes sense to raise your prices. Pizza sells itself. It always will. You don’t need to play games or use gimmicks to sell it. It’s the ultimate comfort food, a food that brings people together.

Our pizzeria is serving a food that kids will remember fondly when they grow up and start their own families. And that’s how I hope our young customers will think of us when they’re older: How they got a delicious pizza that was made in a big red bus in the middle of nowhere Alaska.

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