Pepperoni, cheese, tomato sauce and handmade dough are the fixings for making a great pizza, but they can also be the binding ingredients for a beloved brotherhood.
Drew Peletz and Charles Serrano are following in Mombo’s founder Fred Poulos’ footsteps. Poulos passed away Sunday, June 14, after a long battle with cancer.
Poulos’ long restaurant career and passion for food can be traced back to his East Coast origins, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Poulos had the ability to connect deeply with people of all sorts and an inherent curiosity for culture and history. Poulos’ restaurant career reflects this, working in diverse kitchens on the East Coast and operating restaurants in Taos, New Mexico, and Santa Cruz, California. After Poulos and his wife Marianna and their daughter Giovanna settled down in Sonoma County, he opened the first Mombo’s location in Santa Rosa in 2002.
Poulos hired Peletz as a general manager, and after three years of working together, Peletz and Serrano were going to partner with Poulos’ on another location. Peletz, a Santa Rosa native, worked for 11 years at Johnny Garlic’s before joining Poulos at Mombo’s.
“I knew the restaurant industry pretty well, but Fred taught me the pizza, the dough, proofing dough — the real authentic East Coast pizza,” said Peletz.
Serrano moved to Sonoma County from New York and like any good New Yorker immediately had to ask “Where can I get a nice slice of pizza?” The answer to the question led him to Mombo’s. Shortly after meeting Fred and exchanging stories of the East Coast pizza traditions, he began working at Mombo’s.
“It’s just a common thing, growing up back East,” said Serrano explains. “Pizza, it’s what we grow up on. After school, the cool thing to do was hang out with a couple of your buddies at a pizza place. It brought people together. I remember Fred mentioning finger food and how there is just some kind of comfort in it. It’s something simple, and you could always eat it no matter what’s going on. You don’t have to be distracted from a conversation or trying to spend some time with someone. I think he looks at that and takes it into the community.”
Up until Poulos was diagnosed with cancer, he prepared all the dough and sauces at Mombo’s with his secret “dough bomb” and “sauce bomb” recipes as he called them. Peletz and Serrano fondly recall meeting with Polous and his wife the day he handed down the recipe.
He took the two men to Boston to experience the pizza he was raised on and sharing the history of the area.
“He was so full of knowledge and stories. He absorbed it wherever he was,” Peletz says.
Poulos’ commitment to his community and his staff showed up in many different ways. Serrano recounts his time working and learning from Poulos as a hands-on teacher.
“He taught me everything, from how to knead dough to how to deal with placing orders and customer feedback,” said Serrano.
“He was involved all around. He would interact with customers every time he was in here. He definitely played a big role in the community. His daughter, Giovanna, going to school at Analy High School, and Marianna being so involved, allowed them to be at the center of things,” said Serrano.
Peletz and Serrano recall that during the 2016 Lake County fires, 50% of Mombo’s profits were donated, and during the 2017 fires, Poulos kept the Sebastopol location open, serving all first responders and anyone displaced because of the fires.
“Anything that went on, he was always sticking his neck out for the community,” Peletz said.
Both Peletz and Serrano hope to carry on Poulos’ philanthropic tradition of community outreach in schools and local organizations. They are hoping to engage with the Santa Rosa Junior College and high school communities after the Santa Rosa location reopens. The tentative reopening is scheduled for September.
“Sharing pizza is a communal thing. You have to agree on it first — it always starts with, ‘What do you want on your pizza?’” said Peletz. “And I think a big part of it was him missing it in Sonoma County and wanting to share this tradition with the community here,” he added.
The men have no plans to change Poulos’ recipe and wish to stay true to Poulos in everything they do.
"In the words of Fred, ‘Don't fix it if it ain't broke,’" said Peletz. They hope to recreate a graphic of Fred to be added to the pizza boxes and Mombo’s wall art.
“It would be cool to take a piece of the original Mombo’s to each location. What’s better than a Fred character,” asked Peletz.
Poulos shared with Peletz and Serrano the secret ingredients to a good business, a good pizza and a good life. One of Serranos’ last experiences with Poulos was thanking him for all that he had taught him and reassuring him, “You have no worries man; we’re going to carry on your legacy.”