For her pop-up Pastry Cat, Nariya Charoensupaya sells classic French-style pastries with an Asian twist, like this Danish filled with kimchi and gruyere cheese. (Photos by Debbie Cunningham)

Pop-Up Popularity

Female chefs and bakers find success outside the traditional restaurant model

Back Article Apr 3, 2024 By Becky Grunewald

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

On a chilly morning in November 2022, over 100 people came to Pizza Supreme Being in Midtown Sacramento in the hopes of scoring a bowl of rice porridge. The pizzeria had been taken over for the day for the debut of the pop-up Congee Cult, run by friends Mimo Tran and Diana Dich. Dich and Tran borrowed the restaurant’s induction burners and planned for about 75 servings; 132 people showed up. “It was a very wild first run,” says Dich.

Their offering, congee, also known as juk, kayu, khao piak and many other names, is valued across Asia for its thriftiness and restorative properties. Tran and Dich have experimented with toppings such as offal (Dich’s favorite), hot dogs and century egg. But customers need to arrive early to try their experiments; they reliably sell out of everything.

The popularity of Congee Cult is a testament both to rice porridge’s universal appeal and the Capital Region’s current appetite for trendy pop-ups. These nomadic eateries, which surged in popularity around the Great Recession, came in vogue again during the COVID-19 pandemic, often as the only option for cooks in lockdown. With their low financial barrier to entry and flexibility for parents and caregivers, pop-ups have proven to be an attractive business model, especially for female chefs recalibrating their post-pandemic priorities. 

Lighthearted vibe, serious skills

The idea for Congee Cult was hatched when Tran, who grew up cooking Southern-ish food in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., posted a picture of a bowl of congee to their Instagram in fall of 2022, joking that they should do a pop-up. Ben Roberts, owner of Pizza Supreme Being, offered space for the pop-up. Tran, who had recently partnered with Dich on the West End Revival Tasting part of the Farm To Fork Festival and found that they worked well together under pressure, messaged her: “Please, you’re the only person I could do this with.” Since then, they have been popping up reliably at venues such as Good News Wine, Betty Wine Bar and Bottle Shop and Moonbelly Bakery. 

Congee Cult, run by friends Mimo Tran and Diana Dich, is a pop-up focused on rice porridge with creative toppings.

Tran worked for a decade in coffee and cocktails in New York and is the coffee buyer and former opening manager of Sacramento’s Cora Coffee; Dich co-owns the Chinese restaurant Happy Takeout with her family and works there six days a week. After a recent robbery at Happy Takeout in which the front door was broken, Tran organized a GoFundMe that raised $2,000. “When that happened, the community support was insane,” Dich says. “It was really amazing. Honestly, I was really overwhelmed.”

Asked what’s next for Congee Cult, Tran and Dich laugh and trade off answers in their typical way. “It’s kind of weird planning a future with Congee Cult because I’m mostly a full-time mom … and Diana is a mom to a restaurant,” says Tran. “If we could find the right location and the right partner, we’d like a space that could be like a New York bodega, but instead of sandwiches, it’s congee. We could still serve the community with the stuff they need, because that’s a big part of our culture as Congee Cult.”

This pop-up is permanent

Longer-established proprietor Jodie Chavious (@chaviouspopup on IG) is so stoked on the pop-up game that she scarcely entertains thoughts of a permanent home. She’s been selling her naturally-leavened sourdough pizzas out of the back of a distinctive turquoise 1960s Ford truck since 2020 and has no plans to stop.

A bubbly woman with a kind demeanor, Chavious trained at the storied Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and has worked as a pastry chef in Sacramento kitchens (such as for the Paragary Restaurant Group, The Grange and Canon) since the late 1990s.

Jodie Chavious started her pop-up pizza business after a long career in high-end restaurants.

The pizza was a pandemic pivot that has stuck. “It’s definitely my job. I don’t think of getting another job, or of when this is over,” Chavious says. “I didn’t start off thinking this was going to be my career path. It was more of a survival tactic. But now it’s morphed into this really great thing where I do a lot of private catering. Last year I would say I was a third private party, two-thirds pop-up.”

Her current rotation is between three different beer-focused establishments: Touchstone Brewing Company, SacYard and Porchlight Brewing Company. The private gigs include weddings and birthday parties. Chavious loves being part of these joyous occasions, a change from her many years in the back of the house. “Getting out of the kitchen and laughing is what I love,” she says.

Cultivating positive mental health is her priority these days. “The restaurant industry was really rough on the old mental health, and not only for myself, but sometimes it was rougher watching those around me,” she says. “So for me, as I get older, I’ve been able to make my own healthy boundaries, and the pop-ups have been really awesome for that.”  

This focus ties in with a charity that is near and dear to her heart: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Chavious happily shares that she was recently named to the board of directors for the AFSP in the greater Sacramento area.

From Thai pie to Michelin stars

Nariya Charoensupaya, known as The Pastry Cat (@thepastrycat916 on Instagram), is also a classically trained patissiere who has settled into the pop-up life. Growing up in Thailand, she was obsessed with a particular pie from a bakery chain called S&P, which she described as a “Ritz-cracker pie crust situation with cream cheese filling and blueberry topping.” She ended up trying to recreate it at home.

“I kept begging my mom to buy it for me for years, since I was in elementary school. The price kept going up every year … and then my mom was like one day, ‘I’m not gonna buy you this anymore, it’s getting too expensive,’” she recalls. “I was still a kid, so she had to buy all the ingredients. It ended up being more expensive to make than actually buy.”

Upon graduating high school in the U.S., she studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa County and did an internship at the Michelin-starred Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco. Working there was “my first ever fine-dining experience,” she says. “I had never even eaten at a fine-dining restaurant before that. I got into that kitchen, and I was like, ‘Well, this is very eye-opening. I didn’t even know people made such fancy food like this.’ That kind of set the tone for the standards of what I have.”

Charoensupaya worked as a pastry chef in various Bay Area kitchens before moving to Sacramento in 2019 with her husband, who has family in the area. In Sacramento, she worked as a pastry chef at Hawks Restaurant, then obtained her cottage foods operation license after the pandemic hit to allow her to sell home-baked goods. She started small in July 2020 with her “OG product”: a limited selection of cookies in flavors like miso brown butter and matcha yuzu almond, ordered through her Instagram account or website.

Soon she was offering pastries that showed off her French-style training, including bostock (a French toast-like pastry crusted with frangipane) and her very favorite: caneles, a custard-like pastry with a crunchy, caramelized crust. Caneles are complex to create, traditionally requiring special molds lined with beeswax. “Their characteristic is that the outside is super crunchy and the inside is soft and custardy,” Charoensupaya says. “Their shelf life is just a few hours.”

The Pastry Cat can currently be found popping up about once a week, most often at Scorpio Coffee or at The Creative Space, a pop-up and event space in Midtown Sacramento. Asked if a permanent spot is in her future, Charoensupaya says she’s “sticking with pop-ups for now.” 

“It’s working, sustainability-wise,” she adds, noting that another crisis like COVID-19 or inflation could change things at any moment. She hopes to one day open a shop, but says she is in no rush. “When things feel right that we’re ready, we’ll work on it.”  

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