O'Malley: Moose's Tooth owners scramble to feed always-hungry city

commentFebruary 24, 2013 

Ask Rod Hancock, Warren Hancock and Matt Jones how they see Anchorage, they'll answer with one word: hungry. Endlessly hungry. This city wants pizza. Moose's Tooth pizza. And local beer. It wants margaritas and homemade chips, Mission-style burritos, second-run movies and hip-hop bands.

From where Jones and the Hancocks sit at the helm of the food and entertainment empire that is the Moose's Tooth, the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, Bear Tooth Grill and the newly named Broken Tooth Brewery, the city never seems satisfied. Trying to keep up with the demand without taking on too much risk has always been their biggest challenge.

Moose's Tooth served its first pie and pint almost 17 years ago and they've worked to get ahead of the city's appetites for food and entertainment since then, expanding their businesses almost constantly, adding new projects. Between the brewery and the restaurants, the three partners now manage about 500 employees. The Moose's Tooth is one of the highest-grossing pizza restaurants in the country.

Chicago has deep dish. Seattle has signature lattes. In Anchorage, we have Moose's Tooth pizza and local beer. Like salmon on the grill or Mat-Su carrots, it has become part of the flavor of the place. Tourists look for it. It's the first thing college kids want to eat when they come home for the summer. The atmosphere and the food appeal to a wide segment of the city. People crowd the entrances of Moose's and Bear Tooth on Saturday nights holding buzzers.

Patrons will wait and hour or more to eat pizza and drink beer in the summer. They will wait nearly two hours for take-out at Moose's Tooth. (A new kitchen extension, the Moose's Tooth's fourth major remodel, just came online to cut that wait time and speed up in-house service.)

"It went from a very fearful new business start-up phase to more people than we could handle almost from the day we opened," Hancock said last week when I met him, his brother Warren, and Jones at Broken Tooth Brewery down at Ship Creek. The partners are deep into their latest venture there: canning their popular beer for six-packs sold at the restaurants.

"We are still always one step behind customer demand," Matt said. "That's what it feels like."

In business, that's never a bad problem to have. The men insist it isn't by design. Anchorage in general is under-served, for both the number of people living here and the level of income those people have, Rod said. People are well-traveled. They want cool restaurant concepts and food they've had Outside. When you offer that, you can tap into markets you didn't know existed, they said. And that's when things tend to blow up.

The partners' story starts more 20 years ago, with Rod, Matt and a 20-something desire not to have to wear a tie and work for a boss. The men met at the University of Washington, where they'd sit in the back of an environmental studies class and talk about their hobbies: climbing and skiing. Back then, Rod was working at Starbucks, steeping in the culture of what was then a small local business that valued quality coffee and taking care of employees even at the lowest level. That experience was important, he said. They try to emulate early Starbucks culture at Bear and Moose's Tooth. They offer health insurance to all employees, for example.

"We try and really empower the staff and let their ideas and creativity have an outlet," he said.

That has built a strong, seasoned management team, he said. Their first employee, a pizza cook named Brian King, has been with them the whole time and is now kitchen manager.

After Rod and Matt graduated from UW, they went their separate ways and reconnected when they were both in school in Portland. Their futures seemed predictable. Rod was studying computer science and looking at a job at Microsoft. Matt, who went to high school in Anchorage, was in law school and would eventually take and pass the Alaska bar.

At the time the brew-pub trend was sweeping the West Coast.

"At the end of the a long day you'd go to the brew pub and meet some friends and have a few beers and plan your next adventure," Rod said.

They wanted to make a place like that for people like them. Alaska seemed like a perfect market.

The other bonus (or so they thought), was that owning their own business would let them each take time off to ski and climb. In reality, that didn't really happen until recently. They were in their mid-20s when they moved to Anchorage and started to scout a location. In a downtown apartment, Matt obsessively brewed beer in their bathroom. Rod perfected his pizza recipes. They picked their Midtown location because it was what they could afford. All the other businesses in that location had failed. Lots of people told them not to do it.

"It's a classic moment when you look back and go, 'Wow, what were we thinking?' No wonder our parents and everyone were telling us to get a life and quit this silly project and go back to what we were trained in," Hancock said.

"Those first couple years it felt like at any minute we were going to trip over the stumbling block that was just going to bring the whole thing down," Jones said.

But it that didn't happen. A half-dozen brew pubs opened at the same. Moose's Tooth just got busier.

Hancock's brother, Warren, a teacher with a business degree, joined the operation. They decided not to duplicate the Moose's Tooth, but to keep experimenting. That's where Bear Tooth came from.

"Newness and creativity is what keeps you interested in business and just about anything in life," said Rod.

Their latest expansion is Broken Tooth's canned beer operation. It's small in the overall scheme of things. (Rumors that they might open a South Anchorage location are false, they say.) They can't distribute a lot of beer outside of the restaurant sales because of legal restrictions on brew pubs in Alaska.

"We can see the demand, we know we can meet it, but legally we can't," Jones.

They are perfecting the product so they're well-positioned to expand, Rod said.

The men are in their 40s now. They have kids. When I met them at the brewery they were dressed in worn jeans, T-shirts and polar fleece. They've grown up with their customers. The Grateful Dead poster vibe of the early days has given way to something a little more refined. Hippie jam bands don't draw the crowds they once did. (Instead, it's hip hop that fills the house). Customers have deeper roots now. They have families too.

I asked if they had advice for young entrepreneurs in the city. Keep it simple, they said. Keep costs low.

"You definitely shouldn't listen to all the advice of elders, because I even find now when people ask me, I suddenly sound so conservative," Rod said.

"You have to want to go for it," said Matt.

"If you're passionate about it, try it."

    Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

 

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