HOMER -- The only pizza factory in Alaska opened quietly on East End Road in Homer recently when Starvin Marvin's Pizza owner became the first in state history to win U.S.D.A. approval.
Larry Albertson, who answers to the name of Marvin even if it's not his real name, spent the past five years gaining U.S.D.A. certification. It wasn't easy, and at least twice he grew so frustrated he almost quit. He now has the distinction of being the only pizza vendor who can sell pizzas wholesale to grocery stores and grocer chains.
"They're very strict, but I can see why they do it. It was worth it because now I could sell pizzas anywhere in the U.S.," Albertson said.
On Friday, his crew of four made and boxed 200 pizzas destined for customers at Three Bears Grocery and Country Foods in Soldotna, Save U More in Kenai and Kachemak Wholesale in Homer. Called Starvin Marvin's Pizza Factory, Albertson gutted the former Pudgy's Store and remodeled it. Now he sells pizza for local orders out of the front while using the back for his factory.
He also supplies space for the U.S.D.A. inspector who moved to Homer especially to fill a requirement at the pizza factory. Randy Cooper came from Idaho.
"I was told by the previous U.S.D.A. inspector who came here that they had a guy in Idaho who had been wanting to relocate to Alaska. So now he's here, and he's a great guy." Albertson supplied Cooper with a desk, a filing cabinet and phone in the same building, as required by the U.S.D.A.
"He needs to be there whenever we are making pizza as a factory. My workers wear hairnets and special covering on their clothes. My kitchen is all stainless steel. It's shiny. You can eat off the floor in my kitchen it's so clean."
The U.S.D.A. requires a list of activities in order to be in compliance. The kitchen has to be sanitized each day upon closing. Then it needs to be sanitized again in the morning before food operations commence. Freezers must be kept at a certain temperature. Foods are checked for a variety of conditions. Albertson had to pass eight tests, achieving a passing score of 80 or above.
"I was told from the start that it would take a long time to get licensed. They tell you people get disinterested and quit. It takes a lot of money. You have to fill out a lot of paperwork and go through a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of frustration," Albertson said. "But if you keep plugging along, you get it done."
A few times when Albertson was about to give up, his granddaughter, Crystal Harrington, said, "Grandpa, you can do it. You can do it."
Harrington was raised by her grandfather from the time she was 5 weeks old. Now she runs Starvin Marvin's at the Lighthouse Village, as she has done for several years. Albertson's plan is to turn that pizza operation and the pizza factory over to family in a few years. Then he's going to retire to a 28-foot fishing boat he hasn't purchased yet and enjoy his three great-grandchildren, he said.
"I did this because I want my family taken care of," he said. "I've been in the restaurant business for 34 years. I've built 17 restaurants."
Albertson started learning about pizza when he owned Pizza Neopolitan in Wasilla 25 years ago. "I didn't know how to make pizza. I went into partnership with Zoran Antosky at Pizza Neopolitan, and he knew how to make pizza. I learned from him, then I developed my own recipe, and I kept changing it."
Albertson didn't like the name of his restaurant though, so he held a contest to find a new one. A 12-year-old girl in Wasilla won herself $175 by handing in "Starvin Marvin's Pizza." So that was the establishment's new name. He eventually sold it, then, in 1995, he opened the place at the Lighthouse Village and opened Starvin Marvin's. He has been there 17 years, and that restaurant will continue in addition to the new factory.
The popularity of Albertson's pizza was spread by the tourists who descend on the Homer Spit each summer, by the kids whose birthday parties were celebrated at Starvin Marvin's and by locals who regularly get takeout or take-and-bake. Now he's hoping the name recognition will help when people in Anchorage or other towns spot his pizza in the frozen foods case alongside national brands.
Costco is going to give Starvin Marvin's pizza a trial run. Albertson said he may have to hire more people. There's more to figure out ahead in terms of gauging the factory's capacity. For now, he's learning what it takes to manage Alaska's first pizza factory.
"We try hard. We try very hard. I think we make a good pizza," Albertson said.