This story appears in the Winter 2023 edition of University of Denver Magazine. Read the entire issue online.
Mountain Crust delivers a wood-fired oven and fresh pizza to events across Denver
Wedding food too often conjures thoughts of day-old steak, potatoes and a salad, but for Ryan McLean (BSBA 2016), the only thing that comes to mind is pizza.
It all started when his mother had a wood-fired oven installed in their Minneapolis home in 2006. By the time he was in high school, McLean was regularly cooking up pies for business dinners with his mom’s clients. And now, his company is revolutionizing the catering industry—one slice at a time.
Mountain Crust, founded by McLean in 2015, brings freshly cooked seasonal pizzas and local craft beers—along with energetic staff and a commitment to sustainability—to any event, from staff holiday parties and fundraisers to birthdays and weddings.
During his second year studying finance at the University of Denver, McLean decided to start his own business rather than searching for an internship or part-time job the following summer—a decision that, he notes, he had made long before he arrived on campus. “I knew I was never going to work for anybody else,” he said. “I was always going to start my own thing.”
Returning home that summer, McLean recruited four of his best friends and launched Lynnhurst Pizza Co-op, cooking in his mom’s kitchen and serving guests in the backyard. To keep it legal, he said, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were simply parties with free pizza—and an optional donation jar. It was an instant success. Business was booming, and dozens of hungry partygoers were lined up and down his residential street.
It was such a success, in fact, that Channel 4 News showed up to investigate and, in the process, alerted the local health department, whose representatives shut the operation down because it lacked the proper licensing. But McLean wasn’t dissuaded. “At that point, I was like, I am going to do this for a living—in a legal way,” he said, “and bring this exact same experience to people’s houses.” By the time he returned to Denver, he had a plan.
Rather than outfitting a typical box truck for catering, McLean wanted to do something unique, so he bought a 1955 Ford F-600 truck named Ole Blue. In a previous life, the old gal had hauled cattle and horses and carried water to alfalfa fields. After that, she sat unused for nearly three decades. Over the course of a year, McLean had her outfitted with a wood-fired oven and three beer taps.
Ole Blue first saw action at McLean’s graduation party, feeding more than 250 people. Every year since, Mountain Crust has grown: First, it added a trailer to accompany Ole Blue, then a 1954 Ford truck named Big Red and a second trailer. Most recently, it acquired its own event venue, which McLean plans to upgrade with solar panels and electric vehicle charging—the latest of his efforts to build an environmentally friendly catering business.
McLean minored in sustainability while studying at DU, a decision he made after his sustainability-focused first-year seminar. “I got to DU, and I was taking this course about how messed up the earth is and all the ways we need to start fixing it,” he said. “It made me think, ‘What the heck are we doing? How have we not been learning about this all throughout middle and high school?’ That got me really into it.”
That passion for the environment, McLean said, is at the core of how Mountain Crust operates. “The catering and event industry is super wasteful, and my goal was to have a business that was not super wasteful,” he says. “That’s our highest value with anything we do: How sustainable is it?”
And it shows: Mountain Crust only uses reusable crockery and metal silverware. The company recycles and composts at every event, reduces food waste by cooking to order and shapes the menu around fresh ingredients that can be found locally.
Mountain Crust’s continued success, McLean notes, has required more than just great pizza. “We’ve been able to grow this business to what it is by having awesome people,” he said. “We’re a people first business. I wouldn’t be here without the people we have around us.”
When it comes to finding those awesome people, McLean often looks to his alma mater. “We hire DU kids by the dozens. And right now, all of my top managers are University of Denver alumni,” he says. “I have a massive resource bank through the University that I’m very grateful for.”