An Interview with Pandemic Pizza

Pandemic pizza

 

 

In this time of uncertainty, it’s refreshing to find stories of chefs adapting to the challenges of our world’s pandemic and rising above them. 

Meet Brandon Sloan and Chris Gentile, high-end chefs for two of San Diego’s luxury hotels. When COVID-19 shut down the fine dining scene in Southern California, these chefs and their fiancées started a business venture that would allow Chris and Brandon to put their culinary skills to work, and give back to our first responders: Pandemic Pizza.

In just a few months, Pandemic Pizza has already garnered massive support and loyal customers - which has not been an accident; the team of four have been working around the clock six days per week. However, with the country opening back up, it’s hard to say if Chris and Brandon will continue their successful pizza business. 

The opportunities for Brandon Sloan and Chris Gentile are wide open. With the passion and creativity these chefs carry, we know they are going to be just fine.

 

Based on our research, both of you were chefs for high-end hotels in San Diego before the COVID-19 crisis hit. How did you two meet, and why did you decide to start a pizza business together?

Brandon: We both came to San Diego from different states. I’m originally from St. Louis, but I moved here from Arizona and [Chris and I] came to San Diego  at around the same time. We both started at L’ Auberge hotel in Del Mar. Chris, you came to San Diego a little bit before me, right?

Chris: Yeah! This year will be me going on my tenth year here. I originally opened for Brian Malarkey, who is actually on Top Chef right now. I really wanted to get back into more of the fine dining scene, so then I started in the kitchen at L’ Auberge hotel where Brandon had already been working there. It was a really small line with an open kitchen and seeing each other everyday, we naturally became friends

That’s kind of how it started, but we went our separate ways for a while. After that, Brandon and I started working across the street from each other for two of the best restaurants in town. From there, I had the opportunity to be the executive chef of an Italian pizza and pasta project downtown. When I got there, I knew I really needed a strong “number two” with me to help run the restaurant, so I called Brandon. 

We pretty much co-chef’d it working side by side in the kitchen development. It was definitely a learning experience and we did great things, but it was all serendipitous how we both started working at hotel restaurants at the same time.

 

Pandemic pizza

Source: @ranchobernardoinn via Instagram

 

Tell us about how (and why) you started Pandemic Pizza.

Brandon: We’re two chefs. We’ve worked together in the past and we actually started this business with both of our fiancees, Molly and Gabby. Pandemic Pizza started when we got laid off from our chef jobs and we wanted something that would both keep us busy, but would also help out [our community] through this whole pandemic. 

We started Pandemic Pizza out of our apartment, and it was tricky at first because it blew up really quickly. We had a lot of hospital donations come in, which was unexpected. Originally we had started with donating one dollar for every pizza sold to go towards some kind of charity chosen every single week, but it grew to be more.

Chris: Also, with the increase in business, we really tried to legitimize the apartment cooking using cottage law, etc. to make our place a licensed kitchen. But we quickly found out that our space wasn’t big enough to keep up with the demand anyways. 

We found a meal prep company who had a kitchen that cooked out of once per week and started sharing the space. 

I really hope we can continue to make more pizzas. Just as an example, yesterday, we had about 80-something donated pizzas... Which is pretty fantastic!

 

Wow, that’s really impressive. How big is your team now, is it just you four?

Chris: Yeah! Everybody has their role but on the same side, everyone helps each other. At the basis of it, this is Brandon’s dough recipe and his sourdough starter. At his current chef job, he does neapolitan pizza so it’s been an easy transition for him. I’ve done it in the past with both pizza and pasta, but it has been a while for me. 

During service it’s just me and Brandon making the pizzas but the girls have their jobs as well. All of the order tracking is done on Venmo. It’s really tricky when you don’t have a POS system, so we’re connecting Instagram names to faces. That way, we can do a “no contact” delivery. 

We post the menu everyday, where we always have three standard toppings plus cheese and pepperoni pizzas, and then two crazy pizzas everyday. One vegetable-centric and one meat-centric. 

We recently did a “French Onion” pizza with caramelized french onions and gruyère cheese. Another was a KFC, or “Kentucky Fried Chicken” pizza which was a play on the KFC bowls having truffle mashed potatoes with cheese and fried chicken. 

We really have fun with it and overall it’s been a blast. 

 

Pandemic pizza

Source: @pandemicpizza via Instagram

 

Why did you choose to serve pizza, and will you continue with Pandemic Pizza after the country opens back up?

Chris: As the country opens back up, I do think that we will resume normalcy. It may be relying too much on my beliefs, but I believe that the fine dining scene will resume normalcy as well. 

The people that I have talked to, many of whom don’t work in the kitchen, are chomping at the bit to go out and have a good experience.

I think this has shown the restaurant industry’s ability to adapt and overcome through these things, and to find new ways to make it work when honestly we were one of the only industries that didn’t get help from the government. 

We just kind of got told, “Sorry!” You know?

So I think that it shows our ability to adapt. There have been a many number of fantastic restaurants that have chosen not to reopen, but I do think that it will come back around and people will go back out to eat.

With that said for us, the way Pandemic Pizza was set up for us in a way where it was always meant to be temporary. Although it’s been extremely successful, it wasn’t necessarily a restaurant I envisioned to run in the long term.

We are sharing a kitchen right now, and the steps that it would take to its own brick and mortar are not necessarily something that we are willing to do right away.

 It’s not out of the question, but I think we wanted to see where the normalcy of the food scene was first, including our normal jobs before COVID-19. To be honest, I already got invited to go back to my job. I was supposed to start on Monday but then it got pushed back for another two weeks. 

When I speak to the food makers and hoteliers of these resorts, they actually expect to have a surge in business when they do reopen! I don’t see this being a forever thing, meaning the “dine in” option. We pick up trends.

Everyone is dining in right now out of necessity but when the country reopens, we’ll be back.

Brandon: I agree to an extent with Chris. I do think that things will go back to normal but also, things are going to be weird at first. People are going to have to wear masks, some tables are going to have to be empty at first, I’m sure. Perhaps different ways to take orders? I don’t know. 

A lot of things can change in that aspect but people still want to go out to enjoy a nice restaurant. They want to get a different experience from eating something in your car, or picking up something to go and having to take it out of the box and then putting it onto a plate to enjoy it.

As far as why we picked pizza, it has to do with what people are looking for during recessions. People want Italian foods such as pizza and pasta. Something comforting that they know and makes them feel good inside. 

 

Pandemic pizza

Source: @molly.michelle via Instagram

 

How different has the change been from executive chef to now small business owner?

Chris: I think Brandon and I can both say that in our experience that our hotel restaurants were very much treated as private restaurants. I was responsible for my own financials. While there has been more responsibility, the reason we didn’t want to expand was due to the aspect of taking on employees and being responsible for even more people. It becomes another level of business, so we kept it small with just our two families. 

We have been on the other side and have seen what it takes to own a proper restaurant which takes a lot of the manpower and supplies. We thought it best to keep Pandemic Pizza small to an extent.

 

So it really was a transfer of your skills and abilities into this new role?

Chris: Yeah! I was executive chef of a restaurant with pretty much absentee owners. I was basically the business owner except I wasn’t reaping all of the benefits.

 

Pandemic Pizza’s business model is quite entrepreneurial. Can you please share with our readers what you have been doing to support your local community?

Brandon: A dollar of every pizza goes to some kind of pandemic relief. It was our idea that we wanted to give back, but we also had someone message us on Instagram saying that they wanted to donate 12 pizzas to hospitals. We said, “Definitely, that’s awesome!” So they paid for the pizzas and we went to deliver them. Next thing you know, people saw that on social media and they wanted to do it too. Because our hometowns are outside of California, people all over the nation ended up seeing this and started sending us money to donate pizzas. We’ve donated pizzas to doctors, firemen, police stations, even vets… it really took off!

Chris: Exactly. I think it was the general manager of Padrique that wanted to buy pizzas for all of the F&B workers at the hotel. I mean, what a cool thing to do especially that considering all of these people had been laid off. Instead of going to Domino's, they wanted to go local and support small business.

 

Pandemic pizza

Source: @pandemicpizza via Instagram

 

Do you have loyal customers now?

Brandon: Oh yeah. Absolutely! It’s actually really cool to see. Me and my fiance were supposed to get married April 16th, so we did some cool pizza specials. This old couple that had eaten from us about 5-6 times before wrote us a card and gave us fifty bucks saying, “Sorry you guys missed your wedding!” People just came out of nowhere to support and love our pizza. 

Referencing back to your menu, what has been your favorite dish to make during quarantine? 

Chris: For me personally, the French Onion pizza was my favorite! It was so delicious, and the onions just caramelized perfectly. Taking two amazing, warm foods and putting them together just turned out awesome.

Brandon: We had one last night that was pretty killer. It was the tikka masala pizza. 

Chris: Oh yeah!

Brandon: It was the traditional sauce with roasted cauliflower, green onions, and a pineapple chutney on top. That was really good.

Chris: Yeah, that was awesome. Once again, we were discussing [our menu] and got in touch with Boochcraft which makes hard kombucha. They have an awesome tangerine flavor, and they actually donated some which allowed us to pair up their tangerine flavored kombucha with our Tikka Masala pizza.

 

Pandemic pizza

 

 

What else is next for you?

Brandon laughs at this.

Brandon: Short term or long term? We’ve been working almost every single day, seven weeks straight in this pizza gig and that’s sort of our normal schedule.

Chris: Right, our six-day-a-week job…

Brandon: We think next week we are going to take a week off and just relax. Maybe take care of our own stuff for a little bit. Depending if Chris goes back to work? I can’t really speak on that, but we’ll probably keep this going though we don’t know if we will get somebody else involved. We’re kind of at a turning point here. For now it’s all kind of up in the air. We were pretty happy with our previous chef jobs, but we’ll see.

Chris: Like Brandon said, in the short term we’ve really worked our butts off and feel a little burnt out. We know people who started doing what we’ve been doing, but started one to two weeks before [Coronavirus quarantine]. We got involved right in the middle of it. 

We’d like to take a little time for ourselves to do some regrouping and figure out where our heads are at. 

One of the most important things we did was trademark and LLC the name “Pandemic Pizza”. If we’re going to move further, we want to do it right. We definitely did it right for this current situation, but long term-wise? We want to, but there would have to be a lot more systems checked before we start opening our own brick and mortar. 

 

Pandemic pizza

Source: @brandon.sloan via Instagram

 

Thank you, Brandon and Chris! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers, or any important lessons learned?

Chris: I think my biggest takeaway was seeing how generous people were showing up during this time. I know people in our industry who were laid-off and still donated to other people. It really makes you take a step back and see how good humanity really is. 

Just the opportunity to be a part of it has been an incredible experience.