Flying the Hungry Skies

Nome, Alaska, is located on the coast of the Bering Sea, and it’s closer to Russia than it is to the lower 48 states. It’s at the red flag on this map, and it’s not surrounded by much. The city of Nome itself is home to about 3,700 people, and it’s easily the biggest city in a huge region known as the Nome Census Area, the red-shaded region seen on this map. The Nome Census Area is about 22,000 square miles — about the size of the entire state of West Virginia. But unlike West Virginia (home to 1.8 million people), the Nome Census Area has only about 10,000 residents. They live in cities (to use the term loosely) like Koyuk (population 332), White Mountain (population 190), and Savoonga (home to 835 people). And you don’t need to know much about those cities to know there’s not much going on in any of them. For example, if you want a slice of pizza, you’re probably out of luck.

But for almost a decade, it actually wasn’t all that hard to get a pie delivered.

In August of 2005, a former bush pilot named Matt Tomter wanted to bring pizzas to the people of the greater Nome area. His pizzas were a bit different than the standard fare of peppers and onions or mushrooms and even anchovies; as Tomter told NPR in the fall of 2006, “probably the most popular pizza out here is the reindeer pizza, which we do. It’s made with, you know, locally herded reindeer or locally grown reindeer. And yeah, it’s reindeer and feta cheese, red peppers; it’s a good combo.” 

But the goal wasn’t just to make specialty pizzas. It was to bring them to people far and wide — and quickly. The restaurant, called Airport Pizza, was a takeout-only joint located at the Nome airport. That wasn’t an accident —  Tomter had created the restaurant because he wanted to cater to customers outside of Nome. He dreamed of a pizza place that could deliver pies, by plane, to people even a hundred or 200 miles away. And he succeeded, 

At the time, Frontier Flying Service provided air travel for the Nome Census Area and points beyond, transporting mail to and from these otherwise-isolated tiny cities and also helping people commute to work in Nome (or reverse-commute as need be, too). Tomter was one of their pilots and, after opening the pizza place in Nome, asked his old employer for a favor. They were flying to all these remote locations anyway — would they be willing to occasionally take a pizza out to a customer while they were at it? And Frontier said sure, why not. In April of 2006, Craig Kenmonth, Fronteir’s general manager told the Los Angeles Times that it was a good deal for them — “the free delivery helps the carrier market itself in a way that benefits customers in the largely Yupik and Inupiat Eskimo villages.”As CBS reported, as of October 2006, the pizzas cost $30 (delivery included) and the service was popular — “an average of 10 pizzas each day goes flying out to the villages.”

Unfortunately, the business ran into two big roadblocks over the years. In 2011, the state department of transportation realized that Airport Pizza, as a tenant at the airport, owed the state 8% of gross revenues, which wasn’t something the business could afford. Tomter moved the business away from the airport to a nearby location, telling the Alaska Journal that service wouldn’t be impacted, but quality could be: “the pizzas just might not be as hot when they get to the aircraft.” And in 2014, a much worse problem hit the business — Frontier Flying Service went out of business, destroying the pizza place’s ability to bring hot (or lukewarm) reindeer pizza to places like Savoonga. 

Airport Pizza still exists but doesn’t seem to cater to the hard-to-reach communities. Rather, it’s more of a sports bar. The venue,¬†as of last year, has several large screen TVs, a decent selection of beers and liquor, a wedge salad that one Yelp reviewer called “great,” and of course, the non-standard pizza menu. Unfortunately, if you want a slice, you need to go to Nome; they no longer can bring it to you.

Bonus fact: As COVID-19 spread, restaurants looked for ways to adjust; you can’t eat with a mask on, and many patrons didn’t want to dine so close to strangers. Outside seating in tents and the like have spread since, and if you’ve dined in an igloo-shaped one, you may have Nome delivery-by-air pizza to thank for it. Tomter, the entrepreneur who started Airport Pizza, has continued on his new career path as a restauranteur, and in 2020, bought some clear tents for his Anchorage, Alaska brewery. But the tents didn’t work — they kept toppling whenever strong enough winds hit. So he sketched a more local design: an igloo-shaped dome tent. As Alaska News Source reported, Tomter drew a rough sketch on a bar napkin and sent it to “an old friend he had met at a pub in Paris a few years back [who] owned an Aerospace factory in Romania,” and the friend realized it would work. By mid- 2021, the pair was selling their igloos, as seen here, to restaurants throughout the world.

From the Archives: Alaska’s Super Hero Dogs: Meet the famous Nome dogs.