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Inspiring Conversations with Brian Gervase of Chicago Not Dogs

Today we’d like to introduce you to Brian Gervase.

Brian, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I have been a high school math teacher for the past 25 years. The first 18 years in a Chicago suburb and most recently at The Bishop’s School here in San Diego. Sue and I moved our family to San Diego 4 years ago, mainly due to weather. We are both vegan and have been for almost a decade and when we arrived in San Diego we discovered the “Chicago Style Hot Dog” was not known to many San Diegans. We often would round up all the ingredients and have our own Chicago style “Not Dogs” at home.

We made the decision 2 years ago to try a pop up tent and see if San Diegans would like Chicago style ‘not’ dogs. We came up with the name Chicago Not Dogs and we started with our tent as a side business for us both. We worked with some breweries, some local fairs, vegan events around town and some of the local farmer’s markets. All in all, we got good reviews from both vegans and also Chicagoans that just craved a dog from ‘home’. When COVID hit, we had to shut the tent down.

During the hiatus, we started working on another staple Chicago sandwich — the Italian beef sandwich. Over months we developed a seitan loaf that, when sliced with a real deli slicer, was just delicious in our traditional family aus jois recipe. Add the hot giardiniera flown in from Chicago and we had a delicious, vegan, Italian bēf sandwich. I had the itch to do something different than education and we decided to make the jump into finding a small restaurant to take over and open Chicago Not Dogs.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
The location we are at now in North Park is the third location we looked seriously at. COVID did create a number of restaurant closures but many of them were large places that needed the dining to stay open. Most small places thrived during COVID with pickup/delivery and these locations were just not available to us. We had a Hillcrest location that fell through and then a College Area location that eventually turned us away.

Our current place was previously a full service restaurant with a large kitchen, dining room and bar area totaling over 3000 sq ft. The location was perfect for us but the size was way more than we needed and could afford. We did have a vision for the space from the beginning — use the dining area as an event room that would also host a virtual market during all open hours. This is now called Vegan Regional Goods (The VeRGe) and we are excited about the shape the market is taking and the variety of local vendors that are willing to participate.

As you know, we’re big fans of Chicago Not Dogs. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
We decided to move forward on this venture because we believe we have a number of things that set us apart from the rest of San Diego dining experiences. First, we are one of only a handful of completely vegan restaurants in town. As a vegan, it is so special to be in a restaurant that has a menu completely available to you. Not only our food is vegan, but we source a wide variety of beverages both soft and hard that are also vegan friendly. Many readers may be surprised by the number of beers and wines they drink currently that are not vegan friendly. Vegan Regional Goods is also a strictly vegan product market with all types of unique treats.

Second, San Deigo is home to a large number of Chicago transplants and we have already started to see them stop in when they see the giant Chicago flag visible from the street. One of our favorite types of customers is the non-vegan Chicagoan that comes in and allows themselves not to get hung up on the word vegan, but to dive in and enjoy a sandwich they have not been able to have in some time. Last, we are the only vegan sports bar in town. Everyone that stops in seems to enjoy the ambiance and vibe. we have 6 TVs to go with our full bar offering fun draft drinks, wines and cocktails. Our signature cocktails are a French Toast Martini and The Blood Hound.

Is there something surprising that you feel even people who know you might not know about?
Many people coming into the restaurant are met by me, as the host. I would suppose many of them would be surprised to know I have been a teacher for the past 25 years. I’m asked questions like, “How many locations do you have” or “Did you start this restaurant in Chicago” or “what other restaurants have you opened?”.

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