You might not associate pizza with Fiji the way you would a Bula shirt or a tanoa, but we’re talking of the very special Mama’s Pizza here – one that’s as iconic of Fiji as the colourful shirt and the distinctively carved wooden bowl.
And perhaps the only reason it’s not as well known to visitors as the Bula shirt and tanoa has more to do with the humble, understated and soft spoken style of the amazing Mama who created the first, authentically Fijian pizza way back in 1984. Yes, Mama’s turns 30 next year.
Mama’s Pizzas are different. If you’re the type who thinks a pizza is a pizza is a pizza, Mama’s will make you think again. You notice the difference the very moment you dig your teeth into your first wedge. Though you will be sitting in a typical pizza eatery setting, you will happily notice that what you are eating is not the run of the mill, mass produced product – but one that’s been made with fresh ingredients with some characteristic flavours and with great care.
After all, Mama or Robin Ragg first began making pizzas for her own little kids when they were growing up. Robin (“It’s with an ‘i’ not ‘y’ because my parents wanted me to be a boy,” she says) loved to cook for her two girls and a boy. But that pleasurable activity turned into a small business to support the family, when she had to go through a divorce in the early 1980s.
“My father put his house on the line to borrow the funds for our first pizza restaurant which we started in 1984 on Nadi town’s main strip,” Robin says. The first few weeks were spent trialing her fare and collecting feedback. “I made a note of every comment and tried to use it to make the pizzas the way people wanted them.”
Mama’s big break came when she was able to tickle of the palates of the wealthy local Gujarati Indian community. “The would come in big groups on Sundays and order different pizzas. A couple of times I noticed they carried some condiments from home to sprinkle on the pizzas before they ate them,” Robin recalls. “It was like BYO toppings for my pizzas.” She got talking with them and noticed that they were a mix of assorted herbs and Indian spices.
Offering to experiment for them, Robin through much trial and error came up with the perfect topping mix to produce the popular ‘Nadi Special’. The pizza is the most popular on the menu even after 30 years. Interestingly, it remains popular despite being a completely vegetarian pizza (many in the Gujarati community are vegetarians, for whom the original recipe was created).
It’s not just with the Gujaratis or Indians that the Nadi special is a hit. Tourists – especially the growing ranks of vegetarians – adore it and come back for more. Taking a cue from the success of the Nadi Special, Robin experimented with other flavours too and came up with some other all time favourites – The Big Bird and the recently launched Tandoori Chicken.
Of course, Mama’s dishes out most of the regular all time favourites like Mozzarella, Hawaiian, Meat Lovers, Napolitano and others. Her other innovations include the Pacific Rim, which is a seafood delight, the Super Vegetarian, which takes the Nadi Special to new heights and a Prawn and a Tuna topped pizza with Mama’s special sauce.
Mama has fine tuned the flavours of her fare to such uniqueness, that an entire generation of Fijians, no matter where in the world they live, long to dig into a Mama’s Pizza whenever they come to Nadi.
Mama’s makes its own sauces and spice mixes. “We make most of the ingredients ourselves and have a trusted set of growers for good produce,” Robin says. She puts the success of Mama’s to strict quality control and listening to customer feedback. In all these years, Mama’s has grown from a single restaurant to three – Nadi town, Namaka and Denarau. Robin has assiduously kept away from big commercial ambitions despite franchise offers from Suva, Sigatoka and even as far afield as Auckland and Sydney.
“Locals who have migrated come back to eat Mama’s Pizza whenever they are in the Nadi area. Why, some of them even take back our pizzas to the US when they go back,” says Rebecca Hughes, Mama’s Pizza Duty Manager. Robin is particular of the value for money proposition that her pizzas deliver. “She wants to use the best ingredients and even if their prices go up, she is reluctant to change the price tags of the pizzas,” Rebecca adds.
True to her brand name, Robin is mama not just to her pizzas – she cares greatly for her staff. Several of the 38 people who work at the three restaurants have been with Mama’s since the first pizza was sold. “You’re only as good as your staff,” she says.
If you’re in Nadi, don’t miss the Mama’s Pizza experience. You’ll probably return to Fiji just for it.
First appeared in Discover Fiji magazine, December 2013