Alaska Media Link

P.O. Box 102156, Anchorage, AK 99510
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Rachel D’Oro





   Rod Hancock and Matt Jones passed up the corporate world for pizza and beer.

   Fellow rock climbers, they had virtually no restaurant experience when they launched Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria 21/2 years ago. The 30-table restaurant at 3300 Old Seward Highway opened to a full crowd, and business has never let up, according to Hancock, a friendly young blond who wears his hair in a ponytail.

   ''We never fathomed it would be like this,'' he said above the din of lunchtime diners during a recent interview. ''When we first started, we didn't think we could fill a restaurant this size. Now it seems funny.''

   The Portland, Ore., native said he had studied computer science in college and was considering a job offer from Microsoft Corp. four years ago. Jones, who grew up in Anchorage, had a law degree and had passed the Alaska bar exam. But neither was excited about working for somebody else. So they decided to go into business for themselves, making draft beer and stone-baked pizzas with toppings like traditional pepperoni and sausage to more Epicurean ingredients like artichoke hearts, eggplant, spinach and grilled salmon.

   Hancock had a passion for cooking, and Jones had mastered the art of making beer in a bathtub. Both had spent many nights enjoying good microbrews and designer pizzas at Portland pubs, and believed Anchorage was ripe for the same combination. They spent a year planning the business, which is named after a climbing peak that rises out of The Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier in the Alaska Range.

   All along, people warned them about the site they chose, saying it was a loser. Wedged in an awkward spot where the Old Seward dead-ends near the New Seward, many restaurants have failed there, including Luigi's Pizza, which went under only months before Hancock and Jones signed the $2,700-a-month lease.

   ''Planning was a real stressful time,'' said Hancock, 30. ''Our parents would call us up and say, 'Why don't you guys get a real job?' ''

   The owners have spent very little on marketing the Moose's Tooth. But try eating there without waiting for a table.

   ''There are always piles of cars in the parking lot,'' said Maurice Byers, a Peters Creek resident who eats at Moose's Tooth at least twice a month. ''I like the tie-dyed atmosphere, and the servers are energetic and friendly. I don't like the wait. But the pizzas are worth it.''

   Other places that offer some of the same fare are the Glacier Brewhouse downtown and L'Aroma, a bakery and deli featured in both New Sagaya specialty markets. Chris Anderson, co-owner and general manager of the Glacier Brewhouse, said he doesn't see the Moose's Tooth as a rival because it serves a different market. He's more concerned with closer competitors, particularly Sullivan's Steakhouse, which recently opened in the Anchorage 5th Avenue mall.

   Lara Manrique, co-owner of L'Aroma, said business dropped off for a few weeks when the Moose's Tooth opened a few blocks away. Now she welcomes the competition because it keeps her own menu fresh.

   ''It keeps you on your toes,'' she said.

   The Moose's Tooth employs 60 people between the restaurant and the brewery. It grew from serving 80 pizzas that first night to up to 500 pizzas a day now for lunch and dinner, said Hancock, who oversees the restaurant. Salads, soups, sandwiches and desserts also were added, besides the 37 kinds of pizzas. In the beginning, only a few beers were available. Today, beer lovers can choose from among 20 custom brews developed by Jones, 31, who runs the beer-making side of the business. Draft root beer, ginger ale and cream soda are also on tap.

   The owners recently added 15 tables to the restaurant by enclosing a patio inside a tent decorated with India tapestries and paper lamps. Last summer, they moved the brewery in the Ship Creek area to an 11,000-square-foot warehouse, replacing the makeshift beer-making tanks with huge new stainless-steel equipment. Since the move, the Brown Jug liquor store warehouse just south of the restaurant has carried kegs and half-kegs to meet customer requests for Moose's Tooth beer.

   Don't look for a pizza delivery service or bottled beers in the company's future, however, Hancock said. It just couldn't handle the extra load. A second Moose's Tooth could happen, though, in the next year, he said.

   Last week, Hancock shared some of the tactics he's picked up for running a business:

   * Keep costs low. Hancock and Jones borrowed $130,000 interest-free from parents and friends, and repaid it during the first year of business. Hancock's brother, Warren, owns 7 percent interest. The partners refurbished the restaurant's rustic wooden tables and spruced up the bare walls with a New Age mural and Grateful Dead posters.

   They started with one employee, a cook to turn out the pizzas developed by Hancock. They bought old dairy vats for their brewery, and located the brewery in an old steam plant in Ship Creek. For marketing, they hung a grand-opening banner in front of the restaurant, and enlisted friends to spread the word and help wait tables the first two weeks.

   * Structure compensation to reward employee performance. Initially, workers pooled their tips, which was a disaster, Hancock said. Service was bad. The turnover was terrible as good employees left to look for better jobs. The owners quickly changed their system, letting servers keep the tips they earned. People hustled more, and stayed.

   ''Everyone was more motivated to do a good job,'' Hancock said.

   * Don't be blind to your mistakes. The partners have made plenty of errors along the way, Hancock readily admits. Buying used kitchen and bar equipment wasn't such a good idea. Everything broke and had to be replaced within six months. Another early gaffe: there was no ordering system, and food tickets haphazardly landed in front of the cook. Orders got lost on opening night. Some people never got their pizzas. Others got theirs long after customers who arrived later.

   The restaurant once featured a weekly jazz night. It flopped, Hancock said. Moose's Tooth is a place where people go to talk and hang out with their friends. And they were leaving in droves, Hancock said. The jazz experiment was short-lived.

   ''You're going to make mistakes,'' Hancock said. ''The most successful people will tell you they've made as many mistakes as correct decisions.''

   * Leverage your know-how. Hancock and Jones gave up careers in computers and law but not the knowledge. Hancock used his programming skills to design the Moose's Tooth menus and customize software for the restaurant's computerized ordering and bookkeeping systems. Now he's overhauling the restaurant's web page. Jones did the legal legwork in setting up the business, and he's in charge of contracts with vendors and suppliers.

   * Compete on quality. Everything at Moose's Tooth is homemade, except the chips and pretzels.

   ''Offering a quality product had a huge impact,'' he said. ''In the early days, people put up with a lot of lost tickets and bad service because they liked the product.''


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