Ryan Mondragon, owner of Sanctuary Pizza, is combining community with pizza, and by doing so, is transforming the traveling pizza industry in the Central Valley.
“Pizza is the vessel to break barriers,” Mondragon says. “Yes it’s what I do, and how I make my living, but it also gets people to talk to you, and see what you do with it.”
From 2013 through 2020, Mondragon worked in catering with the owner of the 10 East restaurant in downtown Turlock. He enjoyed the lifestyle that catering created for him and building connections with clients.
“I realized I liked catering because you get to travel everywhere and it never gets old because every place is different,” Mondragon explained. “You’re meeting different people all the time and it is way better than working at a restaurant. I like to move around and not be stuck in one spot. It was fun, we got to do weddings and be a part of peoples special days.”
Much to his surprise in 2020, the pandemic hit, and the owner of 10 East moved to Nashville, leaving Mondragon without a business to cater to. “I was trying to find work but there was no work,” he said. “We had to give back close to $60,000 in deposits for the year, I believe.”
Thankfully, Mondragon had another venture in mind, and it included an Ooni pizza oven he just happened to have in storage. An Ooni is a small and portable, wood-fire pizza oven that creates a cooked pizza in a matter of minutes.
“I started making pizzas out of my house,” he said. “I did a couple of private events with the ooni, and I also had one big pop-up in my backyard during the middle of the pandemic. I sold close to a hundred pizzas with one oven. It took me all day. I think close to 160 people showed up to my house, I didn’t realize the gathering was going to be that big.
“People showed up — and they knew it was going to be a wait. My parents started bringing out blankets for everyone on the grass for the kids, it was really like a kickback — except we weren’t supposed to be hanging around each other.
“One of my friends later sent me a message and said that my pizza pop-up that day was everybody’s sanctuary from the pandemic, and that’s where the name Sanctuary Pizza came from.”
After the success of the pop-up event, Mondragon knew he had to invest in another oven, but this time he knew he wanted to twist (and revolutionize) the concept of the Ooni oven.
“Someone told me about [painter] Joel Aguilar and so I reached out to him and asked ‘Hey man, have you ever painted a pizza oven before?’ He replied, ‘No.’ And so I asked him if he wanted to, and thankfully he was down [to do it]. He came by, I showed him the oven, we brainstormed ideas, and that’s how the first oven got painted. That created the vibe and sealed the deal.”
The painted oven quickly became a trademark of Sanctuary Pizza, and Mondragon has since become an ambassador for the Ooni brand, and now has several painted ovens he collaborated on with other local artists.
“I never wanted to be the same as everyone else,” he said. “I always think let’s stand out, let’s be different, let’s put personality or your brand or your product on it. This was also around the time where I thought, ‘How can I support local artists and people in my community, and how can I also keep the money in our community?’ Community has always been big to me. It’s important for me to empower people and get them outside their comfort zones to create.”
Sanctuary Pizza has participated in a few recent art show openings at Kreepy Kawaii Designs Studio of downtown Merced, and several fundraising efforts with charities across the Central Valley.
Westside Ministries is a local charity group in Turlock that feeds over 200 people a day and does work with food literacy, agriculture, and involves residents in extracurricular activities such as music and dance classes. The ministry is a part of Mondragon’s neighborhood and works directly with Sanctuary Pizza by supplying fresh ingredients from their local garden.
“It’s a lot of farm to table stuff,” he explained. “The kids made a video for me and I made pizza and calzones with them recently.”
The relationship Mondragon keeps with community is based on mutual understanding and respect for the idea that collaboration is key to a growing and sustainable community.
Nonetheless, the pizza at Sanctuary Pizza can speak and stand for itself.
“I ferment my dough for 72 hours to get it to be the perfect flavor and to be digestible. I care about the ingredients. Every single detail of the pizza, from the cheese to the sauce to the flour is very detailed to the point where I know, it’s like I’m giving you a piece of me through my pizza.”
Over the last two years, Mondragon has improved his technique and flavor. The pizza he began making in his ooni in 2020 is not the same one he is currently serving his customers. Through travel and experience, he has acquired a taste for something greater, fresher, and with precision.
“Six months from now my pizza is going to be different, it’s always going to be evolving and it’s kinda like a metaphor of life…you just keep on growing and keep on getting better with new techniques, styles, and having fun with it.”
“When I started making pizza I wanted to bring a style that elevated the pizza culture here in the Central Valley. It’s changing the stigma of what pizza is and what it can be. Especially being from the Central Valley where we grow everything for the pizza industry in the United States.
“Stanislaus tomatoes is the number one pizza sauce that world champions and makers in New York use, pizza makers all over the United States even. The cheeses, vegetables, everything comes from here. So why can’t we have world class pizza if all the world class ingredients come from here?”
Mondragon competed in the International World Pizza Expo for the first time this year. The Expo takes place in Las Vegas, and is renowned for being one of the biggest pizza events in the industry.
“I entered a pizza that was inspired by my travels to Mexico City and I tried tying in a lot of fresh and local ingredients from the Central Valley. I made a green chorizo pizza, or queso verde, that I had in Mexico City and had never seen before. It had an amazing flavor. For the dough In used a blend of locally grown fresh flour from Turlock and Hilmar area. The tomatoes were grown from Westside Ministries and a lot of other ingredients. I did a candied pickled jalapeño with chorizo and a whipped ricotta with lime zest.”
“That pizza was 75-80 percent from the (209) with a twist from my travels.”
Mondragon hopes to see Sanctuary Pizza inside ghost kitchens throughout different cities in the near future. The ghost kitchen concept is the temporary use of a professional kitchen to prepare food for delivery only orders, but with his history with pop-ups, take-out may also be in the works.
“We want to do different styles from Detroit to New York to Neapolitan, all the cool styles that I see and have loved in my pizza community and what we don’t have here.”
Currently, he is working on an Instagram page with some friends from New York. “Latinos in Pizza” is the name of the group and they seek to highlight latino pizza makers in Latin America and the United States. They hope to create a loud name and noise and bring attention to the creative work the group is doing for the pizza industry.
For more information, or to catch Sanctuary Pizza’s next pop-up, follow them on Instagram and Facebook @sanctuarypizza.