Close your eyes and imagine being on a boat in the middle of the ocean and craving a New York Style pizza? You can just taste the crust, the marinara sauce, but then you open your eyes and shake the dream away…Not so fast. Our family traveled to St. John last December for the holidays and we had as my kids will say, the best pizza ever right in the middle of the Caribbean! We surprised our kids on New Year’s Eve with an afternoon charter on a sailboat. Our captain took us to Christmas Cove to explore, snorkel, and enjoy a hot pizza on the water from Pizza Pi. Chef Tara and Captain Sasha are the founders, boat captains, and Chefs of this floating pizzeria. Don’t miss a chance to float on by next time you are sailing around the Caribbean. Chef Tara spent some time talking with Sweet Travels about how they got their start and the challenges of making pizza on the water.
How did you both end up in St. Thomas?
My husband Sasha and I both left jobs in the states and met while working at a kid’s camp in the BVI (SeaTrekBVI). After meeting we decided to join the private charter industry and ran luxury yachts in the BVI for a number of years before getting married and deciding to start a family. The pizza boat was our way of staying in the marine tourism industry while giving us nights off to do the family thing.
At what point did you decide to invest in a “floating pizzeria”? How difficult was it to outfit the boat with the necessary equipment to make pizzas? I can imagine you had many environmental issues to consider. I read in a previous article you installed a do-it-yourself water maker, 260-pound dough maker, and a “hanging basket scale” for better measurement on the water. How did you know what to design, purchase and install?
We actually quit our yacht jobs and dedicated ourselves to full-time boat building for about 2 years. We even lived onboard Pi while we worked. I did the woodworking and layout design and Sasha was in charge of all the engineering. We had done a couple of big refits on yachts we’d worked on so we had an idea of what we were getting into. From working as an award-winning chef on yachts I knew pretty well what I wanted and what would work in our small galley set-up. Sasha graduated from MIT as a mechanical engineer so he had the skills to create and install all the systems. We kept a blog of the boat build as a way to journal our progress for family and friends — you can check it out here: http://aluminuts.blogspot.com/p/history.html
Chef Tara: I read you were a teacher prior to becoming a Chef. Did you go to culinary school or are you self-taught? Did you start out cooking on boats or on land?
When I was a teacher I also waited tables at night to help pay the bills. I worked in fine dining and became friends with the sous chef, who gave me cooking lessons on Sundays in exchange for a case of Guinness each week. I never cooked professionally on land– only on yachts.
Chef Tara: Cooking on a boat is a totally different experience as a chef as it presents a host of challenges in terms of space, equipment, availability of ingredients, temperatures, and humidity. What are some of your favorite dishes to cook on a boat?
You can cook just about anything on a boat — you just have to plan everything out and be open to plans changing half way through cooking. It can be difficult to source all the ingredients called for in recipes so you have to learn to improvise. On of my favorite things to do was talk to the old ladies in the grocery stores who would sort through root vegetables I’d never seen before. I’d ask them what the veggies were, how they liked to cook them, and what they served with them. Then I’d buy a few and play. Knowing how to use local produce was key to finding workable substitutions. Before I was making pizza all day, I liked to cook food that made people feel good. I’d buy produce and proteins from local farmers and fishermen and show off the freshness whenever possible. I tried to keep the food light because I’m feeding people who are active in the sun all day.
Chef Tara: You received several awards while working as a gourmet chef on charter yachts. What dish, in particular, were you recognized for?
The competition was always for a starter, main and dessert and there was a push to use local ingredients in the culinary competitions. Some of the local proteins I used were wahoo, oxtail & rabbit and some of the produce included cassava, mango, coconut, pumpkin, dried hibiscus & collared greens.
Do you offer any desserts onboard Pizza Pi? Have you thought of offering a floating ice cream parlor at all?
Everyone loves ice cream and pizza so I buy pints of ice cream from Up Island Homemade Ice Cream. Barb owns the place and has an ice cream stand in Tillet Gardens on St. Thomas. It’s a great opportunity for me to partner with another small company and it helps extend Barb’s reach into the boating market.
What is your best selling pie?
I hate to admit, but my numbers follow the national trend in the US. My best-selling pie is cheese & pepperoni. Of my signature pizzas, the Madd Mushroom is the top seller.
What has been the most challenging customer order?
Volume is my biggest stressor. My most challenging customers are the large boats (50+ guests) who show up in the bay and want 20 pizzas delivered in an hour. This order usually comes in while we are already busy with lots of other orders. Because the galley is small (12’x12′) I’m limited on cold storage. I usually store about 30 dough balls at a time in the fridge. We have a mixer on board and we make dough on the fly as needed, but having large orders walk in always ramps up the energy level!!
What is a typical day like on the water in Christmas Cove? Do you move locations at all? What is your busiest season? How many staff do you need on the boat for a typical day? Where are most of your customers coming from (BVI’s, St. John, St. Thomas)?
A typical day in Christmas Cove starts for the crew at 8:30a, we open the stern hatch for business at 11a. We have a strong lunch rush from 11:30a – 2p. We start with a happy hour bump from 3p-4p and that usually flows into dinner rush from 4:30p-6p. We pull down the “open” flag at 6p sharp. The crew then cleans up from the day and usually locks up and heads for shore around 7:30p. We average about 45 pizzas per day. We traveled a lot during our first year in business but it was hard for boat captains and tour operators to keep track of us so we decided to be in the same location each day. We are open seven days a week from mid-November through the end of July. We have 6-7 crew who work PiZZA Pi plus myself and Sasha. We have 2-3 people on board every day. For special events, we will have a few more people onboard to help with the added volume. Our customers come from all over the USVI and BVI.
Are there restrictions in terms of when and where you can operate in the BVI’s?
We are not allowed to operate in the BVI unless we enter the territory on a private contract.
Have you thought of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant on St. Thomas?
After operating a food boat, I can’t imagine running a brick and mortar restaurant. I have taken the best of restaurants and put it in a much more enjoyable location.
Captain Sasha: You are a graduate of MIT and worked as a computer programmer at Standard & Poors in Manhattan prior to moving to the Caribbean. What was the triggering event to cause you to pick up and move?
The day I was given a letter thanking me for five years of service was the day I knew I was throwing my life away.
You grew up sailing in Long Island and you were on the sailing team at MIT. Where in Long Island did you sail? What type of boat did you sail: sunfish, opti, 420, Laser? What is your favorite boat to sail now? Do you sail in any regattas in the Caribbean?
I learned to sail at my family’s house on Gilgo Beach – near Jones Beach. My dad and I had a 16′ Hobie. My wife and I belong to the St. Thomas Yacht Club and there is a fleet of Hobie Waves that we sail out to Christmas Cove. They are not built for technical sailing, but they are a lot of fun to take the family out!
How do you use social media to help market your business?
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have been our main source of marketing. This season we will be adding SnapChat to the mix to see if we can reach a younger audience. Tara is constantly posting or searching for material to post. It’s a constant in our lives, but it’s the cheapest form of marketing and for a small start-up that’s what counts.
Where is your favorite place to visit in the BVI’s or US Virgin Islands?
PiZZA Pi is our favorite boating destination! For real, we built the boat because we wanted lunch on the water and we are one of our best customers!!
Photos Courtesy of Jody, WHERETHECOCONUTSGROW.com.