FAIRBANKS — At East Ramp Wood-fired Pizza, you can watch planes taxi down the runway and meet local aviators, all while enjoying a customized pizza.
The pizza joint is appropriately airplane themed given its location next to the East Ramp’s air traffic control tower. Walk in and you will see airplane parts and aviation photos adorning the walls. You can even sit on a row of airplane seats. The customized pizza place allows you to choose everything — the sauce, cheese, meat and vegetables. Customers simply check off what they want on an order form. The pizzas are cooked at 700 degrees in a wood-fired pizza oven, and that only takes 90 seconds.
The pizza place has only been open four months, and business is booming. It’s not hard to understand why. It offers a quality pizza can in a unique setting — it’s on the second story above a mechanics hangar, with large windows overlooking the Fairbanks International Airport’s East Ramp. The marketing cliche “atmosphere is everything” comes to mind.
“People love watching planes,” owner Wendy Ehnert said. “There’s no place to eat down here, so pilots have made this their place to have coffee, pizza and watch each other’s landing.”
East Ramp Wood-fired Pizza’s roots go back to Ehnert’s backyard. The retired science teacher had a brick oven built in her backyard. For a couple of years, Ehnert would host pizza parties.
“Typically what happened is my friends made their own pizzas,” Ehnert said. “We used the same dough and same sauce. They’re pretty much the same now except for the cheese is different.”
Eventually her friends encouraged her to open a pizza shop. Ehnert said she did a lot of research before opening the shop. She even visited a pizza shop in Stillwater, Minnesota, that had a similar business model she thought would work here in Fairbanks. One of her friends was a pilot who suggested she open her pizza shop on the East Ramp where she would have a built-in clientele — the aviators.
One of the greatest challenges to starting her business was bringing the 3,600 pound oven to the second story of the building. A window was removed and expanded. And FHK Construction used a forklift to get the oven into the restaurant.
“A lot of stuff that had to come up through that window. They were fearless with the 3,600 pound oven,” Ehnert said.
Now that the business is running, she says the biggest challenge is accommodating the large amount of customers that come for pizza.
“We’ve been really successful, and we’re getting packed,” Ehnert said. “We’re trying to make sure they have as good an experience on Friday night as they do on a Wednesday afternoon. They’re waiting for their pizza half an hour sometimes on a Friday night.”
Ehnert came from Minnesota to Alaska in 1989. Her first teaching gig was in Unalakleet. She taught science 25 years including stints at Lathrop and West Valley High Schools, and North Pole Middle School. She says the teaching experience has translated well to running a business.
“One of the things teachers do is make a lot of decisions and handle a fast-pace environment every day,” Ehnert said. “Running a restaurant, all kinds of crazy things happen and you have to make split-second decisions. I’ve had student TAs and managing them has helped as well. Teachers do an amazing number of things. Teaching 25 years probably helps in doing anything.”
Ehnert is not a pilot but she has always liked flying. She knew there was potential in an aviation-themed pizza joint.
“One of the things the old Fairbanksans like to do is watch the airplanes. We’re trying to be a place for the aviation people to hang out. It’s fun hanging out with them and talking about where they’ve been. The community has been very receptive. The aviation community has been great. It has been a really overwhelming positive reception.”
Because the community is mixing well with the aviators Ehnert hosted her first Hangar Flying Night on Monday in which experienced pilots came took turns telling their stories for about half an hour. She plans on hosting these events on the first Monday of February and March too.
Ehnert says the most common feedback is that customers love the ability to customize the pizza, and they love the crust. It is the first custom pizza shop in Fairbanks.
“Some people get pizza without cheese. Whoever heard of that? well some people don’t like cheese or cannot have it,” Ehnert said.
There are 21 different toppings at East Ramp Wood-fired Pizza, and you could eat lunch there every day for three months and have more pizza combinations to try. Salads, beer and wine are also offered. It is located at 3788 S. University Ave. It is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Contact East Ramp Wood-fired Pizza at 451-7492.
Contact Kevin Baird at 459-7574. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMopinion.