PepperOni, Island Style
Ambergris Caye, Belize
|Dave Sokup, and his first employee, Melrose|
Dave Sokup's most recent dilemma isn't common for a 17-year veteran of the pizza delivery business. He left the battery charger out on his golf cart when the season's first thunderstorm swept over his cabana-style restaurant on Ambergris Caye, the largest and most popular of Belize's Caribbean islands.
"I didn't even think about bringing it in," Sokup says. "It hadn't rained in two months." The charger was completely fried, taking his golf cart – and only pizza delivery vehicle – out of commission until he paid $200 for replacement parts.
Ambergris is 25 miles long but just a little over a mile in its widest spots. San Pedro, the only real town on the island, is a mere seven by three blocks in size, and has a permanent population of approximately 3,500. Here, everyone – from generations-old locals to vacationing tourists (the area is famous for its coral reef diving) to recent transplants like Sokup – travels by foot, bike, water taxi, or golf cart.
Sokup, who began setting up shop on Ambergris last January, wasted no time adopting the local mode: His own golf cart is stenciled with "PepperOni's Pizza – We Deliver" plus a phone number, and is used to make deliveries all over town. Sokup runs his small pizza joint from a bamboo-covered trailer on a 50- by 75-foot plot of land just south of San Pedro. It's conveniently located near the Barefoot Iguana, a popular island nightclub, and across the dirt road from Hotel Playador resort and Crazy Canuck's Bar. It's also just a few hundred yards from the Caribbean Sea.
Sokup opened shop just four weeks ago, after nearly three years of preparation that brought him from his long-time home in the state of Washington to this still little-known island just south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
Right now he has one employee, a young woman named Melrose, who he found on the island. "Yeah, when I first moved here she bugged me [for a job] for a while," Sokup jokes. "So I finally hired her."
It's all a far cry from managing three stores and 40 employees, which is what he was doing just one year ago in the Tri-Cities area in southern Washington.
I discovered Dave's restaurant and part of his story while munching piping hot pizza with friends en route to see a reggae band at Crazy Canucks. Still vacationing on the island a few days later, I decide to return to hear the rest.
I find Dave and Melrose in the middle of their early evening rush. Dave shouts a few orders at Melrose, then invites me into the trailer to chat while he rolls his signature whole wheat dough. Late afternoon on Ambergris brings stifling heat and humidity closing in on 100 percent. Inside the trailer, ovens only intensify the heat and four metal walls block any cooling breeze. I am immediately drenched in sweat, but Dave is reeling with excitement.
"I turned 40 and I wanted to do something different," Sokup explains. He and his wife had also spent some time on Okinawa when he was in the Navy, so knew they had an affinity for island life.
"My brother introduced me to Belize and Ambergris four years ago." He says this is what drew him to San Pedro in particular.
Once the decision was made, it was merely a matter of logistics. It took the couple over two years of planning, working, and building to make their vision a reality. They had to sell their three pizza shops in Washington, restaurants they'd been running for 17 years. Last August Sokup purchased a small plot of land on the island. Then he counted on his sister-in-law, who lives in Belize, to run the commercial paperwork through the system.
"I was denied twice and accepted on the third try," Sokup recalls.
I ask whether it's difficult for foreigners to get a commercial license in Belize. He shakes his head. "Nah. They just wanted to make sure I was serious."
From the moment he was approved Sokup had ninety days to set up shop. "Then it was crunch time."
He arrived in San Pedro on January 30. His trailer arrived two weeks earlier, on the 15th.
"It's a 1960 Boles," he says of the trailer. "They don't build them this sturdy anymore."
|Dave takes an order from a local San Pedro family|
He had assembled his industrial-strength kitchen inside the trailer while still at home in Washington before pulling it to Houston, where he put it on a boat to Ambergris. Once the trailer arrived on his plot of land, he had to jack it up on stilts, then hook it up with full electricity and water. He then covered the trailer with a façade of bamboo, making it fit right in with island décor.
"We're getting the palapa next week." Sokup points to the thatch-roofed cabanas across the road at Hotel Playador. "That's the fancy roof like you see over there."
The trailer itself holds only the kitchen, so Sokup has set up a couple of plastic patio tables and chairs in the small dirt plot next to the semi-permanent structure. He uses old signage, originally from a Little Caesar's chain in the States. Orange neon "Pizza Pizza!" juts out from lush green palms and calls the attention of hungry walkers on the dusty road. Sokup also uses his stenciled delivery golf cart to help advertise.
PepperOni's opened just four weeks ago, and business is going better than expected.
"She brings in 30 or 40 dollars a night in tips." Sokup motions towards Melrose.
"No, 40!" Melrose pipes in.
"I get a lot of locals," Sokup adds. Tourists are also starting to filter in. His prices are cheap, and the food is good. Sokup attributes the latter to specializing. "A lot of tourist restaurants on the beach serve pizza. But we're the only ones doing just pizza," he says.
Sokup plans to build a three-story house, "25- by 25- feet, straight up," with the restaurant on the bottom floor, in about a year. But he's in no rush. For now, he's enjoying the newfound pace of island life.
"This is it. Just make a living, pay the billsï¿½This way's a lot easier [than running three restaurants in the States]. I just do it at my own pace." He opens each afternoon at 4 p.m. and closes by 10 or 11 p.m., depending on the crowd and delivery orders. The night we met him, he was trying to make it out in time to catch the reggae band across the street at Canucks.
"Of course I have an 18-year-old daughter who thinks I'm a little crazy," Sokup reflects.
In fact, just four weeks after the grand opening he's closing temporarily to fly back to Washington for his daughter's high school graduation. His wife, who just gave her two-week notice at work, will return with him.
Before I leave, Sokup shows me how he closes up shop each night. Besides locking the one trailer door, he pulls a corrugated metal cover over the order window. A tropical beach scene is painted across the sheet.
"I got an El Salvadorean to do it after I got down here. My wife hasn't seen it yet." Sokup then points to the lower left corner of the painting, and to the words: "For my wife. Love, Dave."
When to Go
No time is a bad time to visit Ambergris, but keep in mind the following when making plans. Sub-tropical Belize has just two seasons: rainy (June through October) and dry (November through March). The dry season provides the best climate – but also the highest prices. April and May are often the hottest months, with few cooling afternoon breezes or tropical rains to relieve the heat. Late summer and early fall are also hurricane season.
Small shuttle flights to San Pedro operate every hour out of Belize International Airport. Flight time is roughly 13 minutes, and cost is approximately $90 round trip. Many San Pedro hotels and resorts will reserve your island flight for you when you book your room.
Where to Stay
Ambergris is the most expensive of the Belize Cayes, but is still relatively affordable and undeveloped compared to other Caribbean destinations. You won't find high-rise, condo-style hotels here, but rather small, cabana-style resorts on the high end and basic, beachfront hotel rooms in the budget-to-moderate range.
We stayed at Ramon's Village, a beachside resort of 60 palapa-style cabanas just south of town. Deluxe; highly recommended.
Check the Ambergris websites listed below for the most up-to-date information.
Where to Eat
Numerous restaurants – from casual bars with snacks to romantic seaside venues – line San Pedro's beachfront. I recommend Mango's, next to the San Pedro Public Library, and of course PepperOni's. I also suggest asking around, and taking it upon yourself to try out a new place each night.
To get to PepperOni's, head south on the main road (Coconut Drive) from the airstrip. You'll pass by Ramon's Village, then walk five or 10 minutes before seeing the Hotel Playador and Crazy Canuck's Bar on your left. Look for the orange neon "Pizza Pizza!" sign to your right, just past the Barefoot Iguana.
What to Do
Most people come to Ambergris for its diving. (The coastline boasts the world's second-longest barrier reef.) Many island resorts operate dive shops that offer everything from one-day excursions to full certification.
Ambergris has plenty to offer beyond diving. Many people don't make it past the beach by day and tiki bars and small town by night. Tour operators up and down the beach also offer excursions ranging from half-day snorkel trips to day-long and overnight trips to Mayan ruins on the mainland. (The most extravagant of these is Tikal, located in Guatemala.)