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Pizza, Pop-Ups and Punk Rock

Chef Chris Bertke, mad scientist of faux meats and master of pop-ups, is bringing his skills to the pizza world—and selling out in seconds every time.

Posted on June 27, 2021

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As a longtime bass player in punk bands, Chris Bertke, chef and owner of Vegan Deli & Butcher in St. Louis, knows about making connections—after all, it’s the bassist’s job to link the drums to the guitar, the rhythm to the melody. In his role as a chef, he’s also bridging communities, luring even the carnivorous masses to embrace his vegan meats. And, not surprisingly, pizza has proven one of the most popular vehicles to showcase his artistry.

“I’m vegan, but it’s rare that you’re gonna see a vegetable outta me,” Bertke laughs. “I eat vegetables and love vegetables, but I’m like the gateway drug to veganism for the people who eat meat and are scared to go to veganism because they can’t get their meat. I show them that you can.” Now, he’s taking those handcrafted meats—perfected for his popular St. Louis vegan butcher concept—to the world of pop-ups, pizza and grocery stores. And it seems like his journey has only just begun.

In the Beginning

In second grade, drinking chocolate milk at the school lunch table, Bertke had his first come-to-vegan moment: The default kiddie drink suddenly struck him as “gross,” he recalls, so he gave up milk on the spot. At home, his mom would have to cook meats to unrecognizable status just for him to choke them down; by high school, he quit meat altogether, too. “I didn’t need it,” he says. “I always loved animals, and I was able to understand that meat and animals are the same thing—and if you eat meat, you’re involved with killing something. It was a natural thing for me.”

Bertke always cooked in the kitchen with his mom and grandma, but 27 years ago when he made the switch to vegan, there weren’t the many food options that consumers enjoy today. “I just started with the basics—vegetables—but I was missing the whole meat aspect,” Bertke says. “So I just started making my own things. And I started touring in a bunch of bands—you don’t get a lot of choices [on the road] when you’re vegan. I had to be super creative.”

When he returned home to St. Louis, he started working in restaurants—ones that served meat. There, he grasped the basics of cooking, learning on the job in catering and high-end concepts. But, frustrated with this career path’s long hours and little downtime, he eventually struck out on his own. His plan: start hosting pop-ups with his beloved vegan creations.

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The Pull to Pizza

Always with plenty of energy to spare, Bertke admits he gets bored easily. “I just can’t sit around,” he says. And his journey in just the last two years certainly illustrates that point. He has traipsed from concept to concept—all of them swinging successes.

He helped open Utah Station in 2019 in St. Louis, exiting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He then opened up Vegan Deli & Butcher in July 2020 and later parted ways with that concept, too. “Now I am where I am now—working for myself, doing a million things,” Bertke says. “Things were going incredibly well at Vegan Deli & Butcher, but we had to adapt for the pandemic—like with heat-and-eat meals, as people were stocking up and bringing food home. So I said, ‘Let’s just start doing pizzas.’ I love pizza—who doesn’t love pizza?—but I never really thought that I would be doing anything with pizza.”

In the speakeasy-like basement of the deli operation, Bertke soon found the business pushing “hundreds and hundreds” of pizzas every day. Then, after leaving the deli business, his pop-ups also took off. “I would do these pizza pop-ups with, on average, from 300 to 600 pizzas—I’ll do what I know I can manage,” he explains. “I’d do presales, and they’d sell out in two, three, four minutes. It was almost accidental, but there was a huge demand for it. Much like the meats I make, I wanted my pizzas to taste like the real thing. The pizzas went crazy, because nobody could find this type of pizza anywhere around here.”

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Perfecting the Pie

All of the meats used on Bertke’s pizzas—pepperoni, sausage, chicken—are crafted by him, using a slow-cooked, braising method for the best flavor and texture. He admits that most of his faux meats are products of late-night, alcohol-fueled experimentation at home with his dogs, but there’s a method to the madness. “I like to call them a bastardized version of seitan—I treat the seitan like meat, bringing real-meat methods to the stuff I create,” Bertke says. “I want to get my meats as close to real meats as I possibly can. It worked out well that I perfected the vegan butchery, because it carries well over into vegan pizzas. I don’t have to buy meats from anybody. It all goes hand in hand.”

Bertke’s meats have passed the most exacting tests, winning the approval of not only local vegans, but meat eaters. “A ton of people would come in to both Utah Station and Vegan Deli & Butcher and say, ‘I normally eat meat, but this is so good!’” Bertke recalls. “I use hardcore meat eaters as my guinea pigs, because they’ll give me the honest truth: Does this actually taste like corned beef, turkey, chicken? Getting advice from meat eaters helps a ton—probably more than anything—to get the vegan meats how they should be. And even though I haven’t eaten meat for 27 years, it’s still ingrained in my head—what’s it’s supposed to taste like, the textures. I think good chefs can do anything.”

Meanwhile, Bertke uses a blend of cheeses (a mix of purchased and made in-house) to emulate the melt of Provel cheese, the creamy, gooey St. Louis pizza standard. To find the ideal cheese, Bertke experimented with the plethora of vegan cheeses now on the market. He works with a friend, Megan Schmitt, who owns Cheeze & Thank You in Chicago, on many pop-ups, but those supplies are limited. “Her cheeses are phenomenal, but it’s more of an artisan thing, and with the bulk I would need...she already has her hands full right now!” Bertke explains. “So I picked and chose from the ones out there, then I tweak them with my stuff to get that St. Louis Provel-type texture.” With his winning formula nailed, the pizzas have been putting Bertke even more on the map in his home city and beyond.

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Looking Ahead

In addition to pizza-focused events, Bertke has done pop-ups highlighting everything from junk food and fast food to “crappy Americanized Chinese food,” all reimagined for vegans. Every pop-up sells out in a few minutes, so it’s difficult for Bertke to even decipher which of his pizzas are the most popular. “They all sell like crazy, but the buffalo chicken and the barbecue chicken pizzas have been requested quite a bit—probably because it’s rare to get those in vegan pizza,” Bertke notes. “The deluxe is popular too, with veggies, pepperoni and sausage.”

The presale approach to pop-ups helps Bertke predict exactly how much of every ingredient to buy—helping control food costs, with zero waste. Plus, no one has to stand in a mile-long line for two hours only to fear that the food will run out; customers simply purchase a ticket as their guarantee. Finally, in COVID times, spreading out the flow of customers is safer. Bertke gives them a six-hour period for pickup so they don’t all flood the pop-up at once.

Now, for 2021, Bertke has his eye on takeaway foods and wholesale. “I’m opening up a ghost kitchen in mid- to late summer, which will be delivery and carryout only, with traditional fast food and junk food only: tacos, burgers, fries,” he explains. “I rip off a lot of restaurants—I’ll do Jack in the Box deep-fried tacos, Arby’s Beef ’N Cheddar, the McDonald’s Big Mac, but they’re vegan. Right now, I’m also focusing on getting the pizzas in local grocery stores, and one just called me to put my pizzas in eight of their stores in the St. Louis area, so I’m going to have a big order to fill. Then, with the meats, I’m working to get them in stores like Fresh Thyme and Whole Foods. That’s the ultimate goal with the pizza and meats, to get them up and running wholesale.”

After that, Bertke looks forward to opening another traditional products-by-the-pound deli, in the vein of his Vegan Deli & Butcher, with Cheeze & Thank You handling all of the cheeses as he handles all of the meats. “That would be probably a couple of years down the road, but we want to focus on that in the not-too-distant future,” he says. “I’ll always do the pop-ups, though—it’s a good way to try out new things and do something different. And it’s just so much fun.”

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Local, Authentic, Dangerous

When it comes to meat alternatives—which, Bertke believes, are hardly “alternatives” anymore—he wants to see a move away from the big corporations and their scientific breakthroughs, and back to the artisanal approach carried out by small businesses. “I wanted to go more with locally made meats, and I hope that’s the future of where the vegan meats are going to go,” Bertke says. “Big companies are bringing this idea of eating cruelty-free to the masses, but they’re doing what the major labels did to punk rock—made it a little boring. It’s like how punk rock lost its edge when big corporations got involved. They brought awareness, but they kind of ruined it a little.”

Indeed, for Bertke, the parallels are clear between two of his longtime loves: cruelty-free food and punk. “I treat food kind of like music,” he says. “It needs to be punk rock. It’s needs to be dangerous, it needs to be creative, it needs to be different. Like when people first saw the Dead Kennedys play—they were like, ‘What did I just see?’ That’s how I’m hoping the future of vegan meat goes, with local people leading that battle to come up with these great ideas and make it their own.”

Meanwhile, to spread the word about his own creations, Bertke keeps things as real as his painstaking meat replicas, using social media to show his authentic self, warts and all. “I used to hate social media with a passion—and I still do. I hate social media,” Bertke emphasizes. “But it’s been my best friend when it comes to marketing. I go on there and just act like myself—even if I’m stupid or drunk or walking my dogs or cooking in the kitchen. I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I’m mad, happy, sad, I’ll say it. And I haven't paid a dime for any type of advertising.”

As that punk-rock subversive approach and authenticity translates to bigger success, Bertke remains a man of the people—a necessary ingredient in the pizza world. “One of my jobs I started cooking in, way back in the day when I started, was a small pizzeria in St. Louis, and I met some of the best people there,” he says. “They come in and you chat to them, get to know their names. The pizza community is a fun community. I see pizza getting bigger and bigger; it’s like a universal language. Who out there doesn’t like pizza? Everybody does. And if they don’t, you probably can’t trust ’em.”

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Bertke’s Advice for Pizzeria Operators
Chris Bertke shares his advice for how pizzeria owners can reach customers, vegan and carnivore alike:
On social media, post a lot of pictures and be the face of your restaurant. Let people know you’re an actual human. A lot of people put separation between themselves and the food they buy, so make your food more personal. Have a good story and treat people fairly. I’ve made a ton of friends doing this—I’ll be walking around and people say hi. If you have a good personality and a good product, people are going to buy it.
And say thank you—it sounds stupid, but thank your customers. Do something for them; give back somehow. Make yourself a positive part of whatever community you happen to be serving. Be honest about what you’re serving. I think that’s all key when you’re doing it on your own, and you’ll gain a super loyal following. My following—I can’t believe how loyal they are. I think that’s because I put that out there: I’m just a normal dude making good food, and thank you guys for enjoying what I’m doing. I think it’s that simple.

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