Moose's Pub and Pizzeria

Most pizzeria operators have to work throughcertain obstacles—a less than ideal location, uninspiredemployees or excessive competition. But Dan Fiacco,manager of Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria inAnchorage, Alaska, has a unique business hindrance:the state’s notorious dark winters. From Novemberuntil March, the sun doesn’t come up until about 10a.m. and promptly sets before 4 p.m. With no otherchoice, Fiacco says, Moose’s Tooth responds in the onlyway it can: “We sell pizzas in the dark.”

All About Pizza

So if the extended darkness is no problem (“Peoplehere are used to it,” Fiacco claims), what is the biggestchallenge at Moose’s Tooth week after week? “Keepingup with our customers,” Fiacco says. “It’s extremely fastpacedand very busy. It’s go, go, go—very demanding onthe employees, day in and day out. We’re pretty muchbusy every single day.”

Indeed, despite those long nights during the winterseason, the cash register rings on at Moose’s Tooth.One tends to envision Alaska as a land of frozen tundraand dog races (the famous 1,150-mile Iditarod racestarts here), but snow plows keep Anchorage roadsclear, and even in winter the temperatures rise intothe low 20s during the day—frigid, for sure, but notinsurmountable. And, with 100 miles of cross-countryski trails, the city leads the nation in that sport, andsuch activity apparently works up quite an appetite.Fiacco declines to give sales figures or provide a weeklycount but flatly claims, “We’re the No. 1 independent inthe country.”

Moose’s Tooth seats 250 and employs 150 people,with 50 employees working each shift. The extensivemenu offers variety, but the focus is definitely pizza. “We’re all aboutpizza,” Fiacco declares.

That dedication has led to boundless creativity in the kitchen:Though Anchorage is something of a far-flung locale, its nearly 300,000residents enjoy the pizzeria’s variety of gourmet pies with toppings suchas shrimp, halibut and smoked salmon. “Those are our local fish,” Fiaccopoints out. “The shrimp are seasonal; we get those fresh in the summer.The fish toppings are very big sellers for us.”Fiacco also notes that Moose’s Tooth has dealt with the same supplierssince the store opened in 1996. “That really helps; it not only gives yousome comfort but, for the customers, it allows for continuity. They knowthat they can come in and get a spinach garlic pizza, and when theycome back a month later it will be as delicious as it was the last time.That continuity is crucial in the food business.”

Moose’s Tooth offers 38 different kinds of pizza on its regular menu,and the store runs three specials per week, which amounts to 41 differentstyles of pizza. The Spicy Thai Chicken pizza (with peanut sauce, chicken,red onions, bean sprouts, carrot threads, cilantro, mozzarella, garlicand oil) sells for $23.50. Also popular is the Avalanche (pepperoni,blackened chicken, bacon, red onions, parsley, cheddar, mozzarella,provolone and barbecue sauce), whichis $23.95 for a large. A build-your-ownoption (on average, $24 for a large) withDenali Sauce (a puree of spinach, ricotta,herbs and spice) is another customerfavorite. Fiacco says he monitors salesto see what’s working and what’s not,keeping the menu on target at all times.“We look at the menu twice every year,and if there are pizzas that aren’t moving,we swap them out. But we pretty muchstick to what we have.”

Moose’s Tooth doesn’t offer deliverybut employs 10 to 12 servers per shift.Fiacco says he understands that manyoperators cite employee retention as oneof their most vexing problems. Not at theTooth, he says. “We have great ownershipthat takes good care of the employees, soturnover is very low.”

Moose’s Music

The success of Moose’s Tooth hasspawned two sister businesses locatedonly a five-minute drive away. The BearTooth Grill and the Bear Tooth TheatrePub offer patrons beer freshly brewed onsite,a wider menu and first-run movies,often as many as six or seven films perweek. Admission is a bargain at $3, butpatrons are encouraged to bring a mealand drinks into the theater, which is setup with tables. Recently, dramatic playshave also been performed in the space,and the theater is also available forrental. “The Grill and the Theatre Pubare completely different entities, thoughowned by the same people,” Fiacco says.

The original location, Moose’s Tooth,pioneered the idea of live music years agoby staging large concerts in its parkinglot. “The first one was 11 years ago,” saysFiacco. “We started out doing every showhere. Then, as it grew, we moved someover to the Bear Tooth, so now we domost of the music over there. Whenwe do our outdoor concerts, weget anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000people. We set up a tent and sellpizza.” The concert series has grownto host four major shows everysummer. Last year, the band Cakedrew 3,000 attendees to the venue;other visiting artists have includedthe Wailers, Indigo Girls, LeftoverSalmon, and G. Love and SpecialSauce. Future plans even call for areggae festival.

“Pizza is what we do, but we alsowanted to open up the communityhere to some different things,”Fiacco notes, “while at the same timedriving people to the restaurant.”And the community has certainlynoticed, judging by music promoterMike McCormick’s comments inthe Anchorage Daily News thatclaimed the Moose’s Tooth hasupped the ante for live music inthe area. “They’ve basically createdtheir own scene,” McCormick toldthe newspaper. “And if the musicdoesn’t do it for you, what’s there tolose? You can have a good beer, hangout and have a good time. The musicisn’t the total package.” McCormickgoes on to note that booking musicalacts in Anchorage has been a diceyproposition in the past: “Anchoragemusic culture has never been sovibrant, and the Tooth is a big partof it. They offer a venue, and there’sa shortage of good venues in thistown. They are willing to take risksand have discovered that it works.”

Bread and Butter

Even with three facilities in fullswing, Fiacco says the companydoesn’t have franchising plans atthis time. “We’re sticking to whatwe’re doing now,” he says. “We’llput out some pizza and do our fourshows in the summer.”

But, Fiacco remarks, the operationhas grown a lot since those carefreedays in 1996 when the business wasonly beginning. “It was just a coupleof friends who came up with theconcept,” he recalls. “That got the ballrolling, and it’s grown from there.It’s not necessarily that we had thepassion per se, but we served qualityfood and hired quality people.”

The once-humble pizza pub hasnow reshaped the entertainmentand pizza scene in Anchorage, butFiacco says the accolades won’t goto his head. For him, even up in thesnowy environs that’s almost a worldof its own, it’s still all about the pie.“We’re different. We’re strictly arestaurant, and pizza is very muchour signature item. Our No. 1 focushere is pizza. Over at the Bear Tooth,they offer pizza with the same doughand ingredients, but just don’t offeras many as we do.”

Even while cementing its namein the pizza world, Moose’s Toothwas able to expand the definition ofits brand to include rock and roll,bringing new life to music-lovingAlaskans. Still, Fiacco keeps his eyeon the ball. “Our bread and butter ispizza, not music.”

Jim Dees is a PMQ managing editor.