Photos by Lindsay Toler
The doors to MRCKA's Dojo Pizza are locked and boarded after a federal raid. The building was once Christy Memorial United Methodist Church on Morganford Road.
UPDATE, 11/12: Police and the FBI were back at MRCKA’s Dojo Pizza today after a raid last month that was reportedly part of a human trafficking investigation.
St. Louis officials have condemned the restaurant/dojo/former church building where seven girls were found to be living, according to KMOV. Dojo Pizza violated 38 building codes, including a code that restricts buildings from being used as boarding houses, and the pizza shop was infested with rodents and insects.
The underage girls were living and working at Dojo Pizza because their parents were either homeless or in jail, and they were not being paid or given proper food, according to court documents reviewed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The girls also had untreated lice, bed bugs and sprains, and they they had access to firearms in the building.
Owner Loren Copp has denied all human trafficking allegations, and he was known in the neighborhood for being the kind of guy who “would let people stay there if they needed a place, if they were in trouble,” said Constance Cafazza, Co-Chair of the Better Bevo Neighborhood Association, to KMOV.
Want to know more about Dojo Pizza, St. Louis’ most unusual restaurant? Continue reading our original story below.
Dojo Pizza's dining room.
I’m a reporter, so it’s not unusual for my phone to blow up when breaking news goes down.
But today's inundation of calls was different, because the news broke that MRCKA’s Dojo Pizza, a restaurant I’ve frequently and avidly recommended to friends and visitors since April 2014, is under investigation for human trafficking.
But more on that in a minute. First, to the restaurant itself.
It wasn’t Dojo Pizza’s food that had me proselytizing, though it does have an impressive four-star rating on Yelp. My only memory of the pizza is working my way through a chewy white glob of store-bought dough and cream cheese in their touted buffalo chicken pizza. I clearly remember the signature drink, only because it tastes like iced tea blended with the granulated remains of a frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tart.
The thrill of eating at Dojo Pizza comes from knowing that the place probably couldn’t exist anywhere outside St. Louis. Surrounded by a working-class and increasingly Bosnian neighborhood and just down the street from the city’s first ever skate park, Dojo Pizza launched in April 2014 as a nonprofit pizza restaurant housed inside a former United Methodist church, staffed by children in karate uniforms.
Pizza and the Dojo Pizza signature ice tea drink.
Diners sit on high-backed, upholstered, dark wooden pews beneath stained glass windows. You’re supposed to pronounce the restaurant’s title acronym MRCKA, which stands for Ma-ji Christian Karate Association, like you’re sippin’ Southern Comfort on the Fourth of July: “MER-cuh.” The owner, a charming but oft-bankrupt preacher with a shady past, told me the pizza oven was donated by a student in the dojo who inherited it from a dead uncle.
The whole experience feels like a martial arts-themed vacation bible school, but with pizza.
How did this open in the first place? I wondered. And how long can it last?
Apparently, not last much longer. According to KMOV, federal agents raided the restaurant Friday afternoon in an investigation into a human trafficking ring and found seven women under the age of 17 kept at the restaurant.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police confirmed the investigation Friday but said charges have not been filed. The FBI referred all inquiries to the police.
Update, 10/26: Loren Copp, Dojo Pizza’s owner, tells KTVI he denies any allegations of human trafficking.
"There is no human trafficking, there is no sex trafficking of children," Copp told KTVI. "I have not been charged with anything along those lines."
This isn’t the first time this month police have come to Dojo Pizza with questions. After receiving a child endangerment complaint, police responded to the restaurant on October 13 to investigate, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Copp, who has not been charged with a crime, told KTVI the child endangerment incident involved a firearm in his bedroom. End of update.
A witness to the raid told KTVI that agents from the FBI, Homeland Security and Animal Control participated in the raid.
"They technically just came in, took all the boards down, walked in, they had boxes of evidence. They walked out with really heavy boxes,” Courtney Fuller told KTVI. "There was also animal control here. Apparently there was a cage involved."
In the meantime, I’d like to say: Good-bye, Dojo Pizza. You were once a favorite local quirk, but if what they say about you is true, you won’t be missed.