MAKing It: Beloved Juneau pizzeria celebrates 49 years in the 49th state

SPONSORED: Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor has covered hundreds of local students’ college tuition during its long legacy in Alaska.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

In mid-July, Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor owner Mitch Falk received an email from a former Juneau resident, now living in Kentucky, asking if he could ship some of the restaurant’s pizzas to Louisville.

“I grew up in Juneau, and Bullwinkle’s pizza was my favorite pizza by far,” wrote Anibal Figueroa, who spent his teen years in Alaska’s capital city in the 1990s. “My question is if you guys would ever consider sending a pizza to another state via the mail, on dry ice … I would love to have a slice of your pizza again.”

Falk replied that he could mail “a pizza or six,” par-baked and frozen, via overnight shipping.

Falk has received such requests before, a sign of Bullwinkle’s role in the Southeast Alaska community. At the downtown Juneau pizza spot, kids celebrate their birthdays and sports teams unwind after games. Locals and tourists play arcade games while enjoying free popcorn alongside their pizza and beer.

“I can still remember how weird we all thought it was to eat popcorn with pizza,” Figueroa said. “What’s funny is that 30 years later, I still eat popcorn with my pizza.”

Bullwinkle’s pizza, popcorn and arcade combo is just one reason the restaurant is so well-loved by the Juneau community. Falk, who bought the business in 2008 from founder Bill Adair, has carried on Adair’s mission of giving back to local youth.

Falk has donated pizza, advocated for drug testing in schools during the early stages of the opioid crisis, and gained national recognition for his college tuition program that pledges full tuition to employees who get good grades.

Falk estimates the program, started by Adair, has paid tuition for about 250 Juneau students over the decades.

Bullwinkle’s “has been a mainstay of the community and supports the high school,” Falk said. “And we get a lot of support from the community because of that.”

A local legacy

Bullwinkle’s is celebrating its 49th year in the 49th state.

The pizzeria’s first location opened in downtown Juneau in September 1973. A second spot opened in the Mendenhall Mall in 1980. Since then, Bullwinkle’s has made a name for itself, even landing on trade magazine Pizza Today’s annual list of the 100 hottest independent pizzerias in the country.

One part of the eatery’s continued popularity over the years is its arcade games that are hard to find elsewhere in the city.

“There’s no place else in Juneau to play new, modern games,” said Tom Sullivan, First National Bank Alaska Vice President and Southeast Regional Branch Manager. “So that’s one of the reasons it continues to be such a huge draw for kids, and birthday parties.”

As a banker, Sullivan has worked with Bullwinkle’s for more than a decade, but his history with the restaurant reaches back much further. In 1984, when he was a student at Iowa State University, he and three friends decided to drive to Alaska, with their sights set on getting jobs as deckhands on fishing vessels or working on a slime line at a fish processing plant. Instead, Sullivan wound up working at Bullwinkle’s that summer.

In 2008, Sullivan helped Falk finance the purchase of Bullwinkle’s. In 2016, when Falk decided to move the second pizzeria out of its leased location in Mendenhall Mall to buy property across the street, First National helped navigate the building purchase and renovation. The building, an old Blockbuster, was transformed into a pizza parlor with new equipment and an overall remodel. With Bullwinkle’s modernized, larger location up and running, the bank helped with the renovation of the downtown spot.

Today the business has about 50 employees. In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, Bullwinkle’s was well positioned to adapt to new challenges, as delivery orders already represented about half of the restaurant’s business, Falk said.

Even though he isn’t the restaurant’s founder, Falk is proud that Bullwinkle’s has survived so long in such a unique city. From Alaska’s recession in the mid-1980s, where one in every ten jobs was lost, to having enough revenue to provide full scholarships to hundreds of local students, “there have been lots of ups and downs,” he said.

Supporting generations in Juneau

Bullwinkle’s tuition program garnered national recognition in 2016. It was one of four finalists in the ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign, which involved a “countrywide search for businesses that support higher education in their community,” KTOO reported at the time.

The scholarship program has parameters. Students must go to college in state, and they need to have a B grade average in high school to be eligible. Both full-time and part-time employees are eligible.

The restaurant supports a variety of other youth programs in Juneau, with the general rule that kids talk to Falk themselves about what they are trying to achieve and which goals they might need help with.

“I don’t give checks to parents,” he said. “I have kids come in and tell me about themselves, so they have a bit of skin in the game.”

Those types of efforts also feed back into support for the restaurant, especially given the importance of word-of-mouth in a town of about 32,000 people.

Falk’s “genuine concern for the well-being of the community” is part of what has made Bullwinkle’s a local fixture for decades, according to Sullivan.

“I think almost everybody in Juneau feels a little bit of ownership or kinship with Bullwinkle’s, because it’s gone up through generations,” Sullivan continued. His oldest daughter is 33 and starred in a Bullwinkle’s commercial with her softball team when she was nine years old. Now “she takes my grandkids to Bullwinkle’s all the time. It’s really become ensconced within our community as a very special spot.”

For Figueroa, who asked Falk to ship pizzas to Kentucky, Bullwinkle’s was the first sit-down restaurant his family visited when they moved to Juneau in 1990 from Puerto Rico.

“In a way, it was a bonding moment for our family, in a new place and a new season of life,” Figueroa said. “Bullwinkle’s really did become a meeting place for any special occasion.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.