Pittsburgh has so many incredible restaurants, and there are new ones opening seemingly every day. Sitting down to dinner with a wine list and a server is great, but sometimes you want something a little more low-key. It could be that you’re a little peckish while walking around the park, or that you need a quick bite before you pick out your groceries at the farmers’ market — either way, a great pop-up is what you’re looking for.
From newcomers to seasoned (see what I did there?) veterans, these chefs and bakers are crafting top-notch food for purchase online, through social media messages or at farmers’ market booths around the Pittsburgh area.
Here are five pop-up food vendors to watch.
If Erin Pennington’s two nephews like one of her gluten-free baked goods, she knows she can sell it.
Pennington, who cannot eat gluten because of an autoimmune issue, started the gluten-free Blue House Bakery two years ago. Her home in South Fayette is a certified licensed kitchen, and her nephews, 8 and 10, often act as taste testers.
“Their all-time favorite is the Brookie Muffin,” says Pennington. “They test everything, and they’re very honest.”
After months of elimination dieting, Pennington realized that gluten was one of the sources of her declining health. But she struggled to find gluten-free baked goods, especially for special occasions, that compared to traditional treats in taste.
“For my birthday, I had to buy a cake from a gluten-free bakery that cost $50, and the sad part was it didn’t taste good,” she writes on her website. “My family didn’t want to eat it because they didn’t like it.”
Now, she makes cinnamon coffee cakes, lemon lavender shortbread, salty and sweet chocolate chip cookies, apple hand pies and more — all of which are gluten, grain and dairy-free — from her blue house.
“A food truck is my dream,” says Pennington. “I have been researching it. That will be my next step.”
Heather Marra and Neal Donovan, launched their vegan pop-up NoocH after spending years trying new foods.
“We have both been eating and cooking vegan for 6+ years, and in that time found we love to experiment with vegan recipes and meat/protein replacements,” says Donovan.
A recurring staple at NoocH events is the vegan cheese made primarily from cashews and other nuts. In fact, the name NoocH is a reference to nutritional yeast, a vegan ingredient used to create a nutty, cheesy flavor.
“Since we use it often as an ingredient in our cooking, our cheeses, and just as a yummy condiment, we thought that naming our business after it was a perfect fit,” says Marra. “And as a bonus, we capitalize the first and last letters to represent each of our initials — Neal and Heather, N and H.”
The pair recently held a vegan cheese pickup at Two Frays Brewery in Garfield, and they hope to offer advance cheese orders via Instagram on a more regular basis. At other pop-up events, they’ve served “sausages” for a vegan Oktoberfest, turkey dinner for a vegan Thanksgiving and a Turkish-loaded baked potato called kumpir. In the future, they have plans to serve sandwiches, lasagna and more.
Find NoocH popping up at Two Frays Brewery, Farmer x Baker in Aspinwall and local businesses in Pittsburgh’s East End. Check Instagram for details.
3. Jak’s Bakery
Jak’s Bakery, a traditional Bulgarian bakery that has operated out of the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in Homestead, has the most beautiful non-vegan bread and pastries you’ve ever seen.
Married co-owners Zhelyazko “Jak” Latinov and Molly Freedman Latinova started Jak’s Bakery in 2019. Jak, who grew up in Bulgaria, is the primary baker and loves the slow process of making his hand-pulled phyllo dough. The paper-thin dough is made with oil, not butter, and is incredibly delicate.
“We like to call it ‘“crispy chewy cheesy magic,’” says Latinov. “It has so many layers. It’s really popular.”
Jak’s has sweet and savory foods including banitsa (phyllo dough stuffed with egg and feta cheese), milinka (cheesy pull bread with butter and feta), kozunak (a braided Easter bread), kifla (crescent-shaped pastries in a variety of flavors), pumpkin banitsa and pogacha, which the Latinovas like to call “cake-lava.”
“It is made the way baklava is made, but it is soft like cake,” Molly says. “It is three layers of our sweet yeast dough with walnuts and it is syruped when hot out of the oven, so the syrup is drawn in as it cools, like a baklava. It sells out every time.”
Jak’s often sold baked goods at Slavic Eastern European festivals before the pandemic. Now you can typically find them at the Farmers’ Market Cooperative of East Liberty on Saturday mornings year-round and other markets around the city during the warmer months.
They’re on their way to opening a brick-and-mortar bakery, too. The Latinov family has found a space in Bloomfield but hasn’t yet begun renovating it. Jak’s does accept online orders for special occasions, but typically only around holidays.
“Thanks to the [Bulgarian] club, and more and more demand for the bakery, we decided to try it out to see how it goes,” says Latinov.
Asanté Bierria, chef and owner of the longtime farmers’ market staple Pure Grub 412, started the business with Ashley Tunney with a focus on gut health and overall wellbeing.
“If you look at life like food is nutrition, and that is medicine, that’s a path to self-investment,” says Bierria. “You’re eating to live, you’re not living to eat. The health is in the food, and if I can get you to drool on yourself, that’s a win.”
Everything from Pure Grub 412 is gluten-free, organic and vegan. Bierria also avoids processed sugars, he says. Menu staples include probiotic lemonade, chia parfaits, spicy Japanese sweet potatoes, quinoa salads, flourless brownies and protein ice cream sandwiches made with coconut milk ice cream.
You’ll find PureGrub412 at the Lawrenceville and Squirrel Hill farmers’ markets, popping up at Trace Brewing in Bloomfield or Dancing Gnome in Sharpsburg, and soon, in a grab-and-go, brick-and-mortar location at 209 Commercial Ave. in Aspinwall. Bierria emphasizes that the Aspinwall location is takeout only, not a full-service restaurant and that Pure Grub 412 will continue to serve the community at events. Catering and family meals are available via online orders.
Bierria and Tunney, who both used to work with children by leading youth groups and teaching, are focused on what Bierria calls “care culture.” Pure Grub 412 provides food to the free community fridge in Millvale so anyone experiencing food insecurity can “just grab what you need, and you’re not dealing with the shame.” They’re working to set up another fridge in McKees Rocks and eventually more around town.
“Food is the one thing that we can all own,” Bierria says. “I try to make healthy food functional for all, even those who don’t have many resources.”
5. Polska Laska
“Then it was very much a side hustle out of my apartment on Penn Avenue,” says Beals. “People would come up to my door with money and we’d do the exchange.”
Now Beals, who grew up making pierogies with her great-grandmother from Poland, cooks out of a certified kitchen in Etna. She still takes personal orders from time to time via Instagram DMs, but she’s focused on the pop-up and market circuit right now. The chef has sold pierogies at 412 Brewery and Allegheny City Brewing on the North Side, Fermata Brewing Company in Ambridge and Farmer x Baker in Aspinwall.
Polska Laska — which translates to Polish chick in English — serves traditional pierogies like potato cheddar and kapusta (sauerkraut, onions and mushroom), but Beals also loves to experiment with flavors like buffalo chicken or cheeseburger. She also always makes at least one vegan option per dinner service.
Beals, who worked in the restaurant industry for more than 10 years before starting Polska Laska, says the next step is finding the perfect storefront.
“I feel ready to do it, I just want to find the right place,” says Beals, who is searching for a building to purchase. “I very much want to have a cafe that is community oriented that can be open for breakfast, lunch and pickup for prepared foods for dinner. And we’ll have perogies on deck, obviously.”