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Couple Quit Successful Careers to Operate Pizza Boat in the Caribbean

Plenty of people have quit their jobs to start a career in the food industry, but Tara and Sasha Bouis are a bit different. The young couple abandoned their successful careers to set up a food boat called ‘Pizza π’ – the marine equivalent of a food truck – and serve pizza in the middle of the ocean!

“Pizza speaks to everybody,” said Tara, 32, who used to be an elementary school teacher. “Food trucks had become a part of everyday life – food boats had not. We knew that the concept was strange but we thought it could work, because the food is very recognisable.”

Sasha, 38, an MIT graduate who worked as a computer programmer at Standard & Poor’s, was fed up with his job and was looking for other interesting careers even before he met Tara. “I thought I was living the dream but quickly got tired of it,” he told Bloomberg Business. “I was walking farther and farther away from my office on my lunch break, and I walked past a sailing school and thought, I wonder if I could get a job there?”

That was 10 years ago, in 2005, and Sasha ended up quitting his job and moving to Puerto Rico to work on sailboats. Then he moved to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to teach sailing at a summer camp. That’s when he met Tara, who happened to be working there as a special-education elementary school teacher that summer. The couple fell in love, settled in the Virgin Islands, and married in 2012.

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Their love for the ocean saw Tara and Sasha quit their jobs and work on yacht charters together – Sasha captained, while Tara served as the gourmet chef. They were pretty successful at this, and Tara even won the BVI Charter Yacht Show Culinary Contest twice. But as much as they loved the BVI and made it their home, they knew that the place had one thing missing – pizza.

The actual idea for the pizza boat didn’t happen until a few years later, when they got to know of Pagan, a 37-foot sailing/motorboat that had been abandoned for nearly a decade. They found it in a dilapidated condition – the wood interior was completely destroyed by termites – but they decided they could work with it because the aluminum hull was intact. The couple set to work on the boat for the next two years, restoring it and transforming it into the commercial-grade pizza kitchen they’d envisioned.

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Although it was expensive, Tara and Sasha managed to finance the project themselves. They relied mostly on Sasha’s education in mechanical engineering, and of course, YouTube videos for instructions. “No one – including us – had any idea if it would work,” Sasha explained. “So we weren’t comfortable trying to get investors, because we didn’t know if we’d be able to pay them back.”

After they’d scooped out the termite-infested interiors, Sasha designed a hood ventilation system to remove excess heat, and a DIY water maker that produces 40 gallons an hour for dishwashing. He also installed a 260-pound Hobart dough mixer, a double-brick lined Bakers Pride electric oven, and a hanging basket scale suspended from the ceiling to offset the rocking waves. To power these appliances he installed solar panels on the boat, but the oven is powered by a diesel generator. The couple also strapped down every kitchen tool they brought into the boat, and put heavy-duty latches on the oven to prevent it from moving.

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“When cooking on boats, you have to be really careful about where you set things,” Tara explained. “The last thing you want is to have a really big wave and have a knife go flying.”

To save money, Tara and Sasha lived on the boat while they modified it, which of course was not easy. But they finally managed to complete the project and named it ‘Pizza π’, using the Greek symbol for ‘pi’ to replace the word ‘pie’. The name is meant to reflect Sasha’s New York roots – where pizzas are often called pies – and his love for math. “Pi is a really special number,” he said. “I like that it’s irrational and transcendental and never repeats. It has infinite possibilities.”

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Once the boat was ready, the couple realised that they had one more important thing left to do – learn to make pizza. So a month before the grand opening, they enrolled at Goodfellas, a cooking school on Staten Island because Sasha was particular about making New York-style pizzas. “Sasha is a bit of a pizza snob, being from Manhattan,” Tara said. In the week-long course, they learned how to bake the iconic New York thin, crispy crust.

Pizza π opened for business in November 2014, and the couple had to move out of the boat in order to comply with health department requirements. The food boat now operates off the east end of St. Thomas in Christmas Cove, next to Great St. James Island. Guests can order pizza on their own boat’s hand radio, call in from their mobiles, or even email their orders. Then, they can either pick up their pizzas in person or have them delivered to any location in Christmas Cove. Pizza season is from the middle of November to the end of July, and then they take three months off during hurricane season.

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The menu includes interesting pizzas that Tara developed using her fine-dining experience and techniques she picked up from the New York course. Some of the offerings include ‘Sweet Home Indiana’, with sausage, corn, white sauce, and arugula, ‘The Blumin Onion’, with lemon aioli instead of tomato sauce, leeks, blue cheese, and honey, ‘Rasta Mon’, with red curry coconut sauce, flaked coconut, snap peas, red bell peppers, and fresh mango, and the all-time favorite pizza with ‘everything’, ‘The Dalai Lama’.

The menu changes every three months, and Tara uses fresh local ingredients as well, some of which are brought in by the customers themselves. Once, a man arrived at the boat with a seven-pound lobster, asking, “Can I just trade this for a pizza?” It was an unusual payment method, but the couple accepted. But their most bizarre order yet was for a man who came swimming to collect his pizza. “We asked him, ‘Wait, how were you going to carry this back. What was your plan?’” Tara said. She finally let him eat his pizza in the kitchen, and made him wait 30 minutes “so he wouldn’t get a cramp swimming back.”

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One of the couple’s main priorities is to ensure that Pizza π never interferes with or mars the natural beauty of the island. They’ve tried their best to keep the restaurant rather quiet, and adjusted their own lifestyle to blend in with the locals. They start each morning by heading over to the boat to get the ovens warmed up. Then they try to squeeze in a bit of wakeboarding or swimming to enjoy the water.

They work at the boat from 11am to 6pm, making about 25 pizzas per day on average, for 20 different customers. On a busy day they may have to make more, with as many as 30 to 40 boats stopping by. And when they’re done selling pizzas for the day, they laze around on the boat, enjoying the sunset.

Tara and Sasha haven’t made plans to expand yet, but they are going to be open seven days a week in the new season. They’re also hiring more staff, considering how Pizza π is doing remarkably well. It’s ranked the best restaurant in St. Thomas on TripAdvisor, with 59 five-star ratings and one four-star rating – losing one star only because Pizza π wouldn’t deliver to to the reviewer’s house.

After watching these two videos and seeing how happy Tara and Sasha look, I for one can’t imagine a more perfect life.

Photos: Pizza π/Facebook

Sources: Bloomberg Business, Cosmopolitan