This Unalakleet restaurant is delivering hot pizza and warm messages to exhausted Iditarod mushers

a man puts pepperoni on a pizza
Bret Hanson puts Canadian bacon on a pizza in the kitchen at Peace on Earth, the restaurant in Unalakleet he owns with his wife, Davida. The couple was busy baking pizzas for mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

UNALAKLEET – They’re selling love by the slice at the local pizzeria.

Encouraging messages from all over the globe come with each pizza that the Peace on Earth restaurant delivers to this Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint, about three-quarters of the way into the 1,000-mile race. The mushers have been arriving here at the edge of Alaska, cold and tired after long stretches with only sled dogs to keep them company.

Their family, friends and fans began placing pizza orders by phone weeks ago. The calls kept coming as the front-running sled dog teams came in Sunday.

a woman is on the phone, while another two people look at a cellphone
Left to right: Davida, Bret and Joann Hanson in the family’s restaurant, Peace on Earth, as they took pizza orders for mushers. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The messages say things like “Good luck” and “Keep on mushing.” Some are inside jokes or written in a language other than English that Peace on Earth owners Davida and Bret Hanson, who cook the pizzas and write the messages in marker atop each box, don’t even understand.

“You get moms and dads, you know, ordering their kids pizzas,” Davida said. “And so you get, ‘Love, from Mom and Dad. Oh, and can you put a heart on there?’”

And, yes, they will draw a heart on the box, she said.

a woman holds a baby
Davida Hanson holds her grandson, Christopher, while looking over pizza orders with her daughter-in-law, Joann, at Peace on Earth, the family’s restaurant. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

“Some of them get pretty personal,” Davida said. “Some of them are long, you know, so you’re sitting there, and you don’t want to mess up on the message, and it might be a couple sentences, and you’re actually writing a whole note to this person.”

A few make you want to cry.

That’s what happened last year when Australian musher Christian Turner’s wife called in an order from their home in Queensland, over 6,500 miles away. She included a message from their baby daughter.

“The message on there says, ‘Love you, Daddy, from your bubby girl,’” Davida said, holding up her phone to show a picture of Turner eating the pizza. “And when he read that, he just teared up, and it got the whole Iditarod checkpoint emotional.”

Even a year later, standing in her kitchen at home, Davida’s eyes were welling up.

“It was the most gut-wrenching happiness I’ve ever seen, because it was just, when he saw that, you know, there was that connection,” she said. “Maybe they haven’t seen their family in a long time, and when you get a message like that on one of these pizza boxes, it gives you that extra push to say, ‘OK, I’m almost there. I can do this.’ Or, you know, it kind of just lights that spirit back up in them, I think.”

notes hang in a kitchen
A note to go with a pizza order for Iditarod musher Travis Beals Sunday. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The Hansons have recognized that connection for years. They’ve operated Peace on Earth since they fired up the pizza oven the day after Christmas in 1996. Their house is right next door, and when the Iditarod racers are coming through, they’re often going back and forth between home and the restaurant, taking orders and making the pizzas: rolling out dough, spreading the dark red tomato sauce, sprinkling toppings like pepperoni and sausage and firing the pies in the oven.

Bret is constantly checking the Iditarod’s GPS tracker to make sure he’s ready to cook the right pizza for the right musher at the right time, to get it to them still hot when they get here.

“It’s just important,” Bret said. “It’s important to the people that made the orders, and it’s important to the mushers, because I’ve seen it in their eyes, to have something special and a little message from whoever is sending it.”

a man puts pizzas on a rack
Bret Hanson puts a prepped pizza in a rack in the kitchen at Peace on Earth. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Bret remembers the first time he saw a musher’s eyes light up when they got a pizza and a message from afar.

Swiss musher Sven Haltmann, by way of Fairbanks, had mushed in after more than 700 miles on the Iditarod Trail and was trudging along with buckets of water to mix with food for his dogs. Bret told Haltmann he had a pizza for him, from an order someone called in from the Lower 48.

“He turns around and says, ‘Wow, really?’” Bret recalled. “His face changed, and his eyes lit up and everything lit up all at the same time … and the change in his whole posture and emotion is just so memorable in my mind that I just think of him as the first one.”

Iditarod musher Matt Hall arrived here in fourth place Sunday, the musher and dogs all wearing red jackets that were only a slightly brighter hue than the pizza sauce. It had gotten down to 45 below zero the night before on the trail. After bedding down and feeding his dogs, Hall ambled into the checkpoint building to get something to eat for himself.

a musher hits frozen meat with the back of an axe outside
Musher Matt Hall hits a frozen bag of meat with the back of his axe to break it apart at the Unalakleet checkpoint. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Hall spotted a stack of three pizza boxes with the name “Matt” on it, but thought at first it was for his competitor Matt Failor. Hall was going to take a piece anyway, then he realized the box had his bib number, 16, on it.

“I would’ve still stolen a piece,” Hall said.

Hall took a big bite of the cheese pizza. It was much better than the freeze-dried meals he’d been eating on the trail, he said.

“Yeah, this is super cool,” Hall said. “This is really hitting the spot. Mm hmm. This is delicious.”

a musher eats pizza
Musher Matt Hall enjoys a slice of cheese pizza from Peace on Earth, a restaurant. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

Scrawled atop the box were the words “Good luck at the race. Have fun.” It was from a 4th grade class in West Newbury, Mass.

The pizza messaging really took off, the Hansons said, with a group of fans known as the Ugly Dogs, cultivated online by Wisconsin writers and dog mushers Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain, a married couple who’ve both run the Iditarod. (Ugly Dogs is a reference to a message Braverman got on the social media platform then called Twitter, in response to something she’d written about Taylor Swift, when a Swift fan told her to, “Go back to you ugly dogs, Karen.” Braverman and Mountain thought that was hilarious, and the name stuck).

The Ugly Dogs comprise a wide and active network online, and when they learned they could buy pizzas for mushers about five years ago, the orders started pouring in from all over, the Hansons said.

At first, the Ugly Dogs would order pizzas for specific mushers, Bret said. But some mushers would have a stack of them at the checkpoint, and others wouldn’t have any, he said.

“They decided that nobody should go without a pizza, and they made sure everybody down to the Red Lantern had a pizza,” Bret said. “And that was all the Ugly Dogs.”

Nowadays, the mushers come in anticipating the pizza and heartfelt messages. They walk into the checkpoint building, a part of the post office a short walk from the dog yard, asking if there’s a pie waiting for them, Davida said.

A former Iditarod musher had recently explained how good it felt to get a hot pizza with a warm note, Davida said.

“I was like, ‘OK, that’s why that’s why we do it,” she said. “So somebody knows they’re being thought of.”

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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