When an oven door closes, a greenhouse door opens. At least that’s the case for Steve Chamberlain, owner of Charlie’s Pizza restaurant in Nikiski, which will officially close shop on Jan. 1, 2017.
In its place, Chamberlain will open a business he believes will be a far greater benefit to the people of the North Road: an animal feed store and greenhouse operation called Everett’s Acres Farm and Feed. Chamberlain decided earlier this year to close his pizza parlor and make the transition to the new business, which he said should be up and running by no later than May 2017.
While it’s a big change from serving up Nikiski’s favorite slices, it’s an endeavor Chamberlain says he’s ready for.
“It’s going to be busy for me, but I like growing things,” he said. “I really enjoy growing, so I’m excited.”
From goldfish to horses
Everett’s Acres will open with limited hours at first, Chamberlain said, and will carry everything from animal feed and gardening supplies to food processing equipment and fishing supplies.
The wooden booths that have supported the restaurant’s thousands of visitors as they’ve munched on Chamberlain’s pizza pies for the last decade will be repurposed into shelving for the brick-and-mortar store part of the business. Chamberlain plans to knock out a wall to open up the space and create a larger front area where goods will be sold. The back of the building will be used for storage, he said, and he plans to keep the large ovens installed in what is currently his kitchen. Chamberlain would like to keep the option of baking and selling bread in the future because he has the equipment, he said.
“We plan on carrying feed for all animals, from chickens to hogs to horses, everything,” Chamberlain said. “So I think that’s going to be the biggest part of our business.”
Chamberlain wants to start out around April with tomatoes and cucumbers in his 2,000 square-foot greenhouse, the shell of which is already constructed on the property. Outside is a long garden bed that will house lettuce, kale and carrots in season, he said.
Chamberlain also plans to reach out to O’Brien Garden and Trees in the future to see about getting some fruit trees for an eventual nursery.
Chamberlain said he hopes the animal feed side of the business fills a niche in the Nikiski community of livestock owners. Gerri Litzen, leader of the local 4-H group North Wind Riders, said she is excited to have a closer option for horse feed in Nikiski. She said it’s not uncommon for Nikiski neighbors to simply buy extra bags of feed from each other rather than drive to Kenai or Soldotna.
“Kenai Feed has been really good to me and I support them as well,” Litzen said. “But (with) Nikiski being, you know, an end-of-the road community, and winter months make it hard to drive and sometimes you just don’t want to spend the gas money. So any business that we have in Nikiski I wholeheartedly support and try to give them my business whenever possible.”
Chamberlain and Lizten have known each other for years, and Chamberlain has donated funds — and a plethora of pizza, of course — to her youth team along with his work with seniors and school groups.
“In fact, if you walked into the pizza parlor you’d see pictures of my horse club on the wall with thank you letters and pictures we’ve given to him,” Litzen said.
Litzen said it’s a good time to have animals in Nikiski considering the recent arrival of “home-grown veterinarian” Mary Huhndorf and her new clinic in the old Nikiski Senior Center.
“I mean, I have animals besides horses; I have rabbits, cats and dogs and even a frog, and I love the idea of being able to go and get feed right here in our little town,” she said. “And I know that a lot of my friends, you know fellow animal lovers, will feel the same way.”
The addition of another feed store will only increase the variety of animal foods available to the surrounding community, Litzen said. This is important because animals can be allergic to certain brands of food and have unique diet needs. Everett’s Acres will also offer a feed delivery service, Chamberlain said.
Litzen said she’s interested to see how the rest of the business, including the produce and the gardening and food equipment, fares once Everett’s Acres is open.
“I wholeheartedly endorse his idea,” she said. “Except, I’ll miss his pizza.”
A family affair
One of the major motivators for Chamberlain bringing his work in the restaurant business to an end is his family. Charlie’s Pizza takes its name from his 12-year-old son, while his 9-year-old, Everett, consented to lend his name to the latest business endeavor.
“Charlie was young — he was a baby when I built this place,” Chamberlain said with a chuckle. “So he didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
Charlie, especially, is excited for his dad to leave the world of dough and sauce behind.
“He loves this place, but he sees how hard I work and that I don’t have enough time with them,” Chamberlain said.
The long hours it takes to run the pizzeria don’t leave Chamberlain with as much time for his family as he would like. His tough schedule prevents him from attending hockey games and other events for his sons.
“You know, I’m here every night while everybody else is at the game with the kids,” he said.
Chamberlain is also excited that the greenhouse and feed store will allow his family to be more involved with his business. He and his wife will run the main shop, and he said he’d like his family to get involved in the greenhouse. Chamberlain said he has operated a greenhouse at home for the last two summers with great success when its comes tomatoes and cucumbers.
The family has two dogs of its own as well as chickens, so the store will be beneficial in more ways than one. Chamberlain said his inspiration for a fishing corner of sorts came in part from his own love of the pastime. Chamberlain’s wife, Jennifer, even plans to contribute homemade soaps to the store, he said.
Chamberlain has said that another motivating factor in his decision to open Everett’s Acres was the apathy he felt was apparent among his customers when it comes to the environment. An outspoken advocate against geoengineering, the term for the theory that government entities are damaging the atmosphere by spraying aluminum, strontium, barium and other chemicals from aircraft, Chamberlain has said he is discouraged by the apathy he feels other community members have for the subject.
The greenhouse itself, which is in the initial stages of construction, is an example of reducing waste and reusing. The concrete slabs that make up the building’s base come from Nikiski Middle-High School and are left over from when the school’s roof was re-done, he said. The bed just outside the greenhouse is made from fish totes.
“What I’m looking for is trying to create a business that’ll help people live a healthier lifestyle.” Chamberlain said. “Hopefully people will get more interested in keeping their bodies clean, eating good food, and my hope is that, you know, this will help people understand that we really need to do this. It’ll open their eyes to our environment and how bad things are.”
In addition to animal feed and some health foods, Everett’s Acres will offer things like canning supplies and equipment for preserving foods, dirt, pots and fertilizers, which Chamberlain said he hopes will encourage more local interest in home-grown food options.
“I don’t think I’ll carry too many pesticides,” he said with a smile.
Jennifer Chamberlain is also kicking around the idea of hosting a market where other local growers can set up and sell their produce, he said.
“If I can build people’s interest in having chickens and pigs and having gardens and growing their own vegetables, we’ll have a more secure community,” Chamberlain said. “So together, if things do go bad, if there’s a collapse of food supply or a collapse in the transportation of food … we’ll be more prepared as a group. More people will have the know how, they’ll have the equipment to grow things.”
Chamberlain said he worries about the fate of the environment and that people become too reliant on large stores like Walmart for their produce. Community stability is a large goal of his new business venture, he said.
“I want to be the last man standing,” Chamberlain said. “And I want my community to stand with me.”
Chamberlain also plans to sell some items, like laundry detergent, in bulk so that customers can bring their own containers and buy it by the pound, saving plastic and money. He has saved his paper waste from Charlie’s Pizza for about a year, as well as the bacon grease created there, and has found that burning them together is a viable heat source for the greenhouse. He will still use gas heat but will keep the paper and grease to supplement it, he said.
End of an era
While Chamberlain said he understands local customers will be disappointed when their favorite pizzeria closes, he feels good about his decision to offer the area a healthier option.
“Some people are really excited about the idea of buying fresh tomatoes, hopefully all year,” he said.
Chamberlain will continue to work on the greenhouse and feed store until spring, when he hopes to open. He said he hasn’t started the technical process of switching the business over, but the bones of his greenhouse stand waiting to be finished. Several wooden poles stick up into the air behind Charlie’s Pizza, and a roof that slants to the south is Chamberlain’s next step in construction.
Most of the walls will be made up of plastic and glass to allow as much light as possible inside, he said.
Chamberlain has done much of the work, save for the initial digging of holes when a few friends lent him their time and hands, on his own. Most of his building supplies are secondhand and come at a deal, he said.
The only aspect of Everett’s Acres Chamberlain is not excited about is that he will have to let about seven employees go, though he said they all had plenty of notice and that many have already made plans. Based on the plans of some of his former employees, Chamberlain said there may even be hope yet for Nikiski’s pizza lovers.
A few former employees have been seriously looking into what it takes to start up their own pizza joint, Chamberlain said, and have talked about possibly using some of his own techniques if they go through with it.
“I want Nikiski to have good pizza even after we’re closed, and if I can help some ex-employees of mine who are good friends make that happen, (I will,)” he said.