Pandemic Pop-ups to Keep Around
When working wasn’t possible, these three chefs innovated to find new ways forward
Chef Poe Earnest is a vegan who’s adhered to a plant-based diet for several months. That didn’t stop him from ordering a roast beef sandwich shortly after arriving at a local bar. Chef Poe was simply paying it forward, purchasing a sandwich for the next patron in a show of support for the bar’s pop-up dining option, Big Jim’s Roast Beef. A few minutes later, an Instagram follower of Big Jim’s saw the post of a “pay it forward” free sandwich and took full advantage of Chef Poe’s generosity.
As a pop-up business owner himself, Chef Poe understands the dedication and hard work required to bring an original culinary concept to life.
Since the pandemic, food pop-ups have become San Diego’s latest dining trend, offering budding chefs the unique experience of showcasing their creative talents, sometimes out of their own kitchens, at local events. The dramatic rise in food pop-ups has given unemployed cooks and chefs a unique outlet to bring their culinary concepts to life.
Chef Poe is one of those culinarians. The founder of ReBeL Foodie by POE, Chef Poe says the name of his pop-up business describes his gourmet street food.
“Rebellious. Bold. Liberated,” he says. “I just take something traditional and I make it wacky and abstract, but it still makes sense.”
One of his recent dishes is an ode to corn. He takes day-old cornbread crumbles and bakes them into fresh cornbread batter, then smears and finishes off his tasty dish with a maple tahini butter served atop a sweet, soft polenta puddle and sprinkles it all with corn nut dust.
Chef Poe began his ReBeL Foodie business in the spring of 2020, shortly after he was laid off from his salaried job managing three kitchens due to the pandemic. The sudden transition from working in a fast-paced business to having nothing but free time was jarring at first, but Chef Poe says he soon found the lifestyle change meaningful and liberating. “During that time I recorded an album in two days and two hours—22 songs. It was nothing else but letting the ancestors speak through us.”
With inspiration abound, Chef Poe received a call from his mentor and friend, Tony Smalls, the owner of Cane Patch Kitchen. Smalls wanted to know if Poe would like to purchase a van with enough kitchen equipment to fuel his own pop-up culinary concept.
Chef Poe’s dedication to supporting his community is rooted in his belief that peace can be served one plate at a time and can turn a local effort into a global movement. He plans to support that movement by expanding the Bridge Initiative, a collaborative pop-up experience with other black-owned businesses in San Diego.
Chef Poe says, “It’s just about celebrating thinking outside the box, coloring outside the lines, and going against the grain for the greater good.”
“It’s just about celebrating thinking outside the box, coloring outside the lines, and going against the grain for the greater good.”
Like Chef Poe, San Diego pizza maker Kevin Geist turned the painful reality of the pandemic into an opportunity to explore his interest in mastering Detroit-style pizza. In a departure from well-known styles such as Neapolitan, New York, Sicilian and Chicago-style pizza, Geist and business partner Joseph Ghafouri Wehrly aim to take you to Motown with decadent and sinfully delicious Detroit-style pizza with their twice-a-week pop-up, TNT Pizza.
A professional pizza maker for 19 years, Geist tried his hand at Detroit-style pizza during the Covid-19 shutdowns.
“The pandemic allowed me to be at home cooking with my family, which is something I hadn’t done for the past couple of years,” Geist says. “I’ve been able to use stuff from my garden or fruit trees and throw them on a pizza.”
Detroit-style pizza was invented in 1946 by Gus and Anna Guerra, owners of Detroit’s Buddy’s Rendezvous, but the pizza style has seen a renaissance of sorts in the past few years. Geist bakes his Detroit-style pizza in a pan on a focaccia-like dough in a 1950’s Wedgewood oven which yields an irresistibly crispy yet fluffy crust.
Geist experimented with his recipe by sharing his results with family and friends. When their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, he purchased six more pans, and then 10.
“It started with ‘Let’s make pizzas for friends and see what they think,’” Geist says. “Everyone we were giving [the pizza] to was telling us it was the best because they had never had anything like that before. That’s when I brought Joseph a pizza and his feedback was really good. At that point, I showed my wife how to cook the pies so I could begin delivering.”
When Geist’s long-time friend and fellow pizza guru Ghafouri Wehrly decided to jump on board, TNT Pizza was born. It’s now San Diego’s premier spot to try Detroit-style pizza.
“From the moment that he invited me on, it’s been an investment,” Ghafouri Wehrly says. “We’ve reinvested everything we’ve made into buying larger equipment. The long-term goal is to get into a brick and mortar or a food truck or whatever opportunity presents itself.”
What makes TNT Pizza unique is its wide variety of pizza options, from the Roni Honey, a classic pepperoni pie drizzled with chili-infused hot honey, to pizzas topped with Peri-Peri chicken, or ones topped with kiwi and plantains.
Geist and Ghafouri Wehrly, who once worked together at an iconic San Diego pizzeria, believe that “variety sets a pizza shop apart,” which is why they offer a vegan parallel to most of their pies. Geist says he sees pizza as an open canvas for surprising flavors.
“He would throw strawberries and chocolate on top of a pizza dough,” Ghafouri Wehrly recalls.
“And I’d ask him, ‘ What are you doing?’ And then he’d put whipped cream and powdered sugar on it and I’d eat it and it’d be pretty freaking good.”
Despite the challenges of unemployment, balancing family life and business, and growing a dream into a reality, this duo is in the Detroit pizza game for the long haul, through thick crust and thin.
While pop-up street cuisine and pizza making require the fusion of dedication and spices, the art of pastry making requires equal parts passion and precision. Brodric Chestnut first discovered his sweet spot as a pastry chef while training at Johnson & Wales.
“When I first started baking I was a fat kid that wanted to eat,” Chestnut quips. “So I try to (appeal to) that fat kid in everybody who wants to eat.”
Chestnut worked his way through some of Charlotte, North Carolina’s finest kitchens. Using every job as an opportunity to grow his craft, Chestnut learned the ropes of fine dining before moving back to his hometown of San Diego. It was here in 2018 when Chestnut took his culinary crafts to the next level by opening Baked by Brodric, his own specialty pastry company.
Baked by Brodric specializes in decorative and extravagant cakes, inventive cookies, donuts, and pastries, including a strawberry milk bun that evokes the nostalgic flavors of spooning the bottom of a fruity cereal bowl.
“I like to be over the top and in your face with the flavors, but simple and approachable,” says Chestnut.
Eighteen months after opening his business, Chestnut became slightly discouraged by his slowed momentum. It seemed that some of his pastry-making ideas gathered more likes on Instagram than actual sales. Nevertheless, he toiled five days a week on desserts and pastries as the executive pastry chef at the Winery in La Jolla while continuing to bake for his pop-up business in the little free time remaining.
A year ago, Chestnut was deeply invested in the restaurant industry, but as the world’s restaurants began shuttering one after the other, Chestnut found himself furloughed. With additional time to create new recipes for his business, Chestnut developed a cookies and cream cookie recipe that eventually defined Baked by Brodric.
“I posted one thing about cookies and cream cookies,” Chestnut recalls. “They were fresh out of the oven, and I cracked them open. It was all gooey and people all of a sudden said, ‘I need those.’ The cookies and cream cookie put me on the map.”
Shortly after Chestnut’s Instagram post introduced his cookies and cream cookie in March of 2020, he had sold 60 dozen. Managers of companies whose teams were forced to work from home during the pandemic were asking Chestnut to send cookies as a way of connecting employees isolated in this suddenly virtual work environment. One manager bought a variety of 11 dozen cookies to send to her colleagues.
Chestnut says his sweets are intentionally indulgent in a time that demands comfort. With the help of Michael Cox, founder of Black SD Magazine, Baked by Brodric has experienced growth during the pandemic. Cox helps connect black business owners through a network of support and promotion. Through his stewardship, Chestnut has been offered a variety of tools to expand his pop-up business.
Much like during the Great Depression and other times of collective despair, rebuilding small businesses starts with the grass-roots efforts exhibited by ReBeL Foodie by POE, TNT Pizza, and Baked by Brodric. And it may start by simply sharing a plate of food. Welcome to the world of San Diego’s pandemic pop-ups.
To learn more about each of these pop-ups and to get a taste of them for yourself follow their whereabouts on Instagram.