George Mason High School graduate Chris Deutsch’s Hot Hot Bakery food cart opened last month, staking its spot on Stuart Street in the Ballston section of Arlington. Now the apron-clad entrepreneur is doling out fresh-baked croissants and sandwiches with dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar bakery, but five years ago he was just another government worker, a contractor for the Department of State. And he was bored.
“Overall it wasn’t a bad experience,” Deutsch said. “I just couldn’t see myself doing that for 20 years, or as a career.”
The son of a State Department employee, Deutsch’s early life was filled with travel. He was born in South Africa, and lived in Paris and Rome before his family moved to Falls Church, where he graduated from Mason High in 1998. He even spent some time in Austria, where his family had relocated while he was at James Madison University studying international affairs.
He had traveled the world and tasted its cuisine. He was, and still is, passionate about food. His voice crumbles into sighs as he talks animatedly about the chocolate croissants from his childhood in France and krapfen, the doughnuts he enjoyed in Austria during his later teens.
He laughs while recalling the time his mother, a native of France, bought a baguette and he’d dug out and eaten the entire interior of it before she’d even had time to make sandwiches.
He felt that he was skilled in the kitchen, having learned different cooking techniques in the places he’d lived. But he had no experience cooking in a professional context. He was surprised to find that local chefs were willing to let him learn.
“I just was honest with them and told them that I was interested in getting into food, and that I work really hard, and I have a good work ethic, and I feel like I know what good food tastes like because I’ve gotten the chance to eat a wide variety of foods and experience cultures and what foods they like,” Deutsch said.
A few restaurants hired him, and he soaked up the experience, working back in the kitchen and in the front of the house, in fine-dining and fast-casual establishments. When Naples-born Enzo Algarme moved his popular Neapolitan pizza cart Pupatella from Ballston to a permanent home in the summer of 2010 down the street in Arlington’s Bluemont neighborhood, Deutsch joined his team and formed a partnership that would help the baker launch his own enterprise.
“I saw Enzo doing his version of the pizza that he grew up eating, and I felt that I could bring the pastries – and the bread especially – that I grew up eating overseas to this area,” Deutsch said.
These days, Deutsch can be found in the kitchen space he rents from Algarme starting at around 2 a.m., baking the croissants, baguettes, and assorted pastries he’ll sell that day. He then loads up his food cart – which may look familiar to longtime Pupatella fans, as it’s the same cart Algarme launched the pizza spot with back in 2007. Then from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, Deutsch is open for business.
Breakfast can be slow, as those buttery croissants – the almond variety most popular among them – are an only-sometimes treat for the health-conscious, Deutsch explains. He does brisk business at lunch, selling made-to-order sandwiches like The Gonzo, a baguette stacked with prosciutto, blue cheese, fig jam, and arugula.
The cart has only been open for a few weeks now, but already Deutsch is seeing repeat customers, like Teresa Duran. Duran works in the area; she used to frequent Pupatella, and noticed the familiar bright-red cart when it made its return with Deutsch to Ballston.
“I’ve been a few times. It’s delicious,” Duran said. She likes The Wallyo, a blend of Italian deli meats and cheese on baguette, and The RPC, a grilled fontina and cheddar cheese sandwich. But when it comes to sweet treats, there’s one that stands out in her mind. “The Nutella doughnuts are like sin on a plate,” she said.
Deutsch says the response to his food cart has exceeded his expectations, but his goal is greater. He wants his own bakery, but he knows that having his own place is a difficult and costly enterprise. A quality bread oven could cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Rent is high in the Washington, D.C. area, and bakery sales can be only a few dollars per customer. And finding the right location that will bring customers in is crucial.
“It’s going to have to be almost that perfect situation where you find a nice spot that still has some pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic, but also has a lunch crowd and a family neighborhood. And the rent has to be right,” Deutsch said. “It’s going to have to be the right spot.”