HONOLULU (KHON2) — Antics: foolish, outrageous or amusing behavior. It’s also the gamer tag Justin Ambagis has used for about 20 years now. On June 20, 2020, a new definition was added when he decided to open up a place for the youth and the young at heart: Antics Pizza.
For the 39-year-old, first-time business owner and long-time skater, it’s been a bumpy ride for him to get to where he is now. It’s also something he finds comically ironic.
“I personally hate cooking, but I’ve found myself working kitchens more often than not just because of how easy it is to get a job,” Ambagis said.
Ambagis moved a fair amount in life, and kitchen work was something he could always do when he went to school and then later to provide for his now 11-year-old son Teyvin.
“I’ve always been told I’m very good at it, but it’s just something I did to make money,” he said. “Antics Pizza was never some dream I had or ambition I wanted to strive towards.”
Ambagis has lived in Maine, Florida, New Jersey and California before he found himself back on the Big Island in 2010. He’s always been on the move, but street skating, he said, has been a constant ride. For the last 27 years, if he wasn’t actively skating, he was still hanging out with skaters.
“It’s just the group and type of people I fit in with the most and the people I most enjoy spending my time with,” Ambagis said.
Fast forward to the present day, two-thirds of his staff are skaters at Antics Pizza, and the ones who don’t skate want to learn.
“Skateboarding is a main outlet for so many low-income kids who can’t afford to do team sports a lot of the times,” he said. “Hilo doesn’t even have a skatepark to call their own, so in my mind, at least they have a place to eat and feel accepted.”
For their 1-year anniversary, Ambagis even built a 16-foot quarter pipe in the back of the lot. The fun environment was also created with his son in mind. Insert: video games.
“We are, amongst other things, pretty big gamers, and I just had a lot of the game stuff already,” Ambagis said. “So it really seemed like a pretty simple yet fun idea, and I wanted to try it.”
When people visit Antics Pizza, they’ll find gaming consoles at each table. On his retro consoles like Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega, there are about 20 to 30 games on each system. Newer systems like the PS4 Xbox One and Nintendo Switch have 10 to 15 games on each.
From classics like Pac-Man, Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong and Zelda to newer games like Fortnite, Minecraft and Madden NFL — Antics Pizza has got them all.
“Here’s where I surprise people: I don’t charge for games nor do I have a time limit,” said Ambagis. “You do, however, have to order a full pizza.”
Since games are free, people will be asked to leave if they’ve sat there for a while and others are waiting for a spot, but he said it rarely happens. And if there’s no one waiting on them? Ambagis lets them be.
“You don’t have to pay to listen to the live music when you go to a nice restaurant, and most of the time you don’t have to pay to watch a football game on TV at the bar,” he said. “I view video games as any other form of entertainment that is offered during a dine-in experience.”
Eventually, Ambagis wants to host tournaments and do other interactive events, but those plans will be shelved for now as the pandemic continues.
Last July, Ambagis had to close his dining area for the first time because COVID cases were so high.
“I just felt it was the right thing to do because of also the amount of children that would visit us, and at that time, there was no vaccine for them,” he explained.
The two-month closure caused traffic to slow down, but Ambagis said Antics Pizza bounced right back before the holidays and has been going strong ever since.
These days, Ambagis feels lucky he’s not dealing with the staffing shortage that most restaurants are seeing nationwide. He said more people are applying than there are spots available, and turnover is fairly low.
“No doubt though, if I didn’t have the backing of the community, I would never have made it because there was no tourism when I first opened my doors, and it continued that way for months,” he added. “Word of mouth has been awesome for us, and we still have tons of locals coming in every day saying they heard of us, but it’s their first time coming in.”
Pizza, he said, is also kind of a pandemic-proof eatery.
“One of the reasons I feel we have done well as a business is the simple menu I created with a few friends,” said Ambagis. “We really just sat around smoking and drinking and came up with the eight specialty pizzas I have on the menu now and their names.”
Those names include Sonic the VegHead, Bradda Yosemite Sam, Pacman’s Luau, The Cheesy Karen, and of course, the Pandemic Pizza, which Ambagis said is one of his top sellers.
“I was actually going to name the entire place Pandemic Pizzeria just because I thought it was funny timing,” he said, “but I opted to just name a pizza instead.”
Ambagis admits the big reason why they all have funny names is that he and his friends were drunk once they got all the pizzas down.
“Then it was on to naming them, and that alone gets me a fair amount of laughs when someone is sitting there trying to say the full name to our Fog Horn Leg Horn on the Ranch,” he said.
But it wasn’t all laughs and goofing around when Ambagis first started.
In 2009, he dropped out of college during his senior to move to Hawaii so he could be with his pregnant girlfriend and be part of his son’s birth.
“Sold everything I had so I could fly myself and my dog out here,” he said. “This is also a major reason why I never really had great jobs though because I didn’t end up getting a bachelor’s.”
For almost two years straight, he was pushing carts and making smoothies while trying to be a new father. He then turned to flipping burgers for four years before things took a turn for the worst.
“I had hurt myself working at the burger joint, and I was out for a bit and living on workman’s comp when my roommate kicked me out for not cleaning enough,” Ambagis explained. “So I was homeless, on workman’s comp, with an 8-year-old kid.”
From being poor and sleeping on the floor, Ambagis decided to take his fate into his own hands and open up his first business with the limited funds he had.
“What set everything over the edge for me before I had Antics and put me really at one of my lowest places was being a homeless, single parent,” Ambagis said. “I was never even a manager at any of my jobs, so going from a basic cook to owner has been a pretty interesting transformation.”
Then, another obstacle: When he first signed the lease for the building in early March 2020, it was the week the nation went under lockdown. His dad, who previously gave him part of his inheritance, wanted the money back, but Ambagis had already spent half of it on a pizza dough maker.
“My dad was pretty pissed, to say the least, and said I was dumb as a sack of rocks to continue doing what I was setting out to do,” said Ambagis. “I guess lucky for me, I never really listened to my parents anyways so I did the natural thing and just ignored him.”
Ambagis said he always knew he had it in him to manage, but he never put in the effort to get there at his previous jobs.
“I’m a product of my environment, and if you treat me like s—, I’ll reciprocate that in my work effort,” he said.
Ambagis added that while his last job treated him well, the pay was so low that he didn’t want to give more of himself to work, and that, he said, is for most kitchens.
“This is a main reason why everyone that works for me makes either what I topped out at as a head cook to my main cooks that make way more than I ever did because I value them,” said Ambagis. “I very much know I cannot do this alone, nor do I want to, so I want to try and treat them and pay them what I feel they are truly worth.”
Even though payroll can be costly, Ambagis continues to give his workers raises and other perks, including a one-week paid vacation of what they normally average in a week.
In addition to expanding the menu, Ambagis is taking over the place next door to expand the dining area.
“The new expansion is Naruto-themed and will still have video games at all the tables,” said Ambagis. “It’s a much bigger area than the pizza side, and what’s great is that they are connected through a breezeway, so both sides will be able to order pizza and ramen.”
Here’s a sneak peek inside the expanded area:
The ramen area is expected to be ready by the end of the month.
“So I can make money to pay rent,” he laughed.
Weird rescues, long-lost artifacts, check out Weird News here
It’s been a long ride for Ambagis who has not only learned to manage his business but also to pave his own path with his son by his side, showing us all that it’s OK to embrace the antic lifestyle — and to ignore our parents who tell us otherwise.