By Rick Hynum
Deep in the wilds near Fairbanks, there’s an old school bus, painted bright red against the tall, green pine trees. Scattered nearby are a few picnic tables. Two flags—one for the U.S. and one for Alaska—flutter in the chilly arctic wind. Stand there for a moment, take a deep whiff, and you’ll catch the soul-lifting waft of cheese and pepperoni floating on the bright, clear air.
It seems an unlikely place to find any pizza at all, much less a St. Louis-style pizza with a cracker-thin crust. Or a Philly Tomato Pie. Or a New Haven-style apizza. But Mike and Diane Wagner, the owners of Wagner’s Pizza Bus, know something about Alaska that most of us rarely consider: Not unlike Florida, its hotter, sunnier obverse in the continental U.S., the state known as The Last Frontier pulls its own share of cosmopolitan types from around the country. They just tend to be a good deal more rugged and adventurous than the aging snowbirds of Miami.
And, wherever they come from, these free-living expatriates still love the pizza they grew up with.
The Wagners get it. Like so many, they came to Fairbanks because they like snow. Now they’re running a mobile pizzeria that braves the elements year-round—we’re talking temps as low as minus 40° degrees in the dead of winter—and produces the widest range of pizzas you’ll find at any pizzeria anywhere on the planet.
“What brought us to Alaska was chasing snow,” Mike says. “We started dog mushing in Pennsylvania with a crazy team of Siberian dogs and a couple of Malamutes. We would drive over an hour to find snow to run them. So my wife, Diana, started looking into Alaska.”
After Diana found a place to rent in Ester, a historic mining town eight miles west of Fairbanks, the Wagners packed up their kids, sled dogs and eight puppies and made the move west in 2007. They’d never even set foot in Alaska before. “People thought we were crazy,” Mike recalls.
Mike took a job as a lube technician at a Fort Knox gold mine, and in 2010 he and Diana bought 50 acres of land and built a house. They eventually bought the school bus that they transformed into what Mike says is Alaska’s smallest pizzeria, which opened in 2013.
Wagner’s Pizza Bus mostly stays parked in a private lot in Two Rivers, about 30 miles outside of Fairbanks, although the Wagners recently built a food trailer so they can serve pies at the local county fair. In the summer, they offer a mini-golf course for a little fun in the Alaskan sun.
But what they’re really known for is offering virtually every style of pizza under the sun, even on those long, cold days when the sun’s nowhere to be seen.
Pizza Styles in the Wild
The Wagners started out as true pizza newbies. “I never had any schooling [in pizza-making],” Mike said. “I never thought I would be making pizzas. Everything I know about pizza is from eating it back in Pennsylvania and doing lots of research online.”
“We do a cold rise with our dough, and pizzas are made to order,” Mike continues. “As an order is made, my wife hand-stretches the dough to the size of the pizza for order. We par-bake it, then top it and finish it on a stone in our Blodgett gas oven. We have a blanket heater on our propane tank to keep it from freezing, and we have heat trace on our water lines.”
Now get this: Wagner’s Pizza Bus fires up more than 30 styles of pizza—Detroit, New York, Old Forge, St. Louis, New Haven, Brier Hill, you name it. The menu boasts a D.C. jumbo slice, a Quad City pie, a Denver Mile High, a Grandma and even a Grandpa. If you’re really hungry, you can feast on all three major Chicago styles—the thin-crust tavern, the deep-dish and the stuffed-crust.
“We started doing regional pizzas a few years ago because no one up here did that,” Mike says. “It only made sense because most of the people up here are from all over the country, so why not offer pizzas they remember eating while growing up? We also offer hoagies, like Philly cheesesteaks, and cold cuts, wings and salads with a pickled egg—that’s a Pennsylvania thing—on top. We sell Middleswarth chips and birch beer, which are only found in Pennsylvania.”
Mike admits that the remoteness of his location presents some challenges. “It’s next to impossible to get brick cheese for our Detroit pizza in Fairbanks, so we have to substitute another cheese to get the same result,” he notes. “It’s the same with Provel cheese for our St. Louis-style pizza.”
Even so, Wagner’s Pizza Bus has every type of pie that a connoisseur could hope for. In addition to the numerous regional styles, the Wagners offer nearly 20 signature pizzas, including the Pickle Pizza, the Chicken Bacon Ranch, the Spinach & Tomato Pesto, and the White Garlic & Herb.
If you’re hankering for a real culinary adventure, toppings include reindeer sausage, Spam and pink salmon. They also offer hoagies like the Chicken Parm, Philly cheesesteaks and the BBQ Meatball and Mozzarella, to name a few. And if you left room for dessert, they’ll ply you with cannolis, zeppoles, floats and sundaes.
All made by just two people—Mike and Diana—in a school bus that’s way, way off the beaten path.
Turning 10 Years Old
Last fall, the Wagners added a new signature pizza after a friend, Shaynee Traska of the Howling Ridge Kennel, signed up for the famous Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. The race travels from Anchorage to Nome over eight to 15 days, and the sledders do get hungry on the trail.
“Shaynee wanted our pizza to eat on the trail,” Mike says. “So we made a deal. We would sponsor her with our pizza if, when she finished, she would take a picture of our pizza under the arch at the finish line, which she did. So our pizza made it to Nome, Alaska, on the Iditarod trail. For the most part, [she and her husband] always order one of our pan pizzas and add pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms and banana peppers, so we now call that our Musher Special. It’s a good, hearty pizza to fill you up on the trail at 30° and 40° below. You freeze each piece in a zip-lock bag. Then, when you’re ready, you throw it in the hot bucket with the dog food. After a few minutes it’s all warmed up.”
Wagner’s Pizza Bus will celebrate its 10th anniversary in June. And the business has thrived without a website, although their Facebook page has more than 3,800 followers. The little pizzeria weathered the pandemic, Mike notes, without applying for any government funding. “Because we are a food truck and set up for all takeouts, we were ready for COVID and all the regulations, and we stayed open. Prices on supplies don’t really hurt us most of the time; it was more a matter of not being able to get the items we needed. But towards the end, we had no choice but to raise some of our prices. For us, a 50-pack of pizza boxes went from $25 to $40. Gloves went from $8 for a box of 200 to over $22.”
To keep providing value for their customers, the Wagners made their pies one inch bigger when they raised their menu prices. “So our 12-inch is now 13 inches, our 16-inch is now 17 inches, and our 18-inch is now 19 inches,” Mike says.
But inflation continues to exact a painful toll. “With the high cost of gas and everything else, we are on the spot again. Because of this inflation, a 50-pack of boxes is now $55, and gloves are $30. So we are at the stage where we have no choice—to stay open, we have to raise our prices again. We are cheaper than all the pizzerias around us now. Most sell a large 14-inch pizza at around $18 to $20 and $3 per toppings. We sell a large 17-inch pizza at $17 and toppings at $2.50.”
Mike worries that another price hike will cost him some customers, especially since the competition in his area is tougher than you might think. “What’s funny about pizza in Fairbanks is that every restaurant and food truck owner think they need to sell pizza,” he says. “So, with a population of around 33,000 people, there are over 50 different places to get pizza.”
But a diverse menu—one that truly offers something for every pizza connoisseur from every region of the U.S.—remains a big advantage. Even the much larger and more famous Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria in Anchorage can’t touch Wagner’s Pizza Bus for sheer variety.
The bus might not be easy to find, but once customers find it, they keep showing up again and again. “We’ve had customers come by on four-wheelers, snow machines, dog sleds, cross-country skis,” Mike says. “We even had one guy come with his motorcycle with a side car on it in the middle of a snow storm.”
“Living in Alaska has it challenges but it becomes a way of life at 40 below with seven-plus months of winter and four hours of sunlight,” he says. “It’s not for all, but it’s what we do.”