If you’d told Chloe Brownlee 10 years ago that she’d one day be a pizza cuisinier riding around Bluffton in a teal 1953 Chevy truck, she would have laughed in your face.
“I’m not a chef, I was a biochemistry major in college. I didn’t go to school for this,” said the owner of The Southern Peel mobile pizza eatery. “I’ve always loved eating pizza, but I discovered I was ultra-excited about making it, too.”
The Syracuse native moved to Charleston seven years ago after playing college soccer in New Jersey. She went to work for Coastal Crust, a restaurant specializing in Neapolitan style pizzas that went mobile via a classic truck with a Valoriani wood-fired pizza oven on the back.
“I loved the weddings and private parties, they were always so fun, and we always met new people,” she said. “But more importantly, I found I really had an obsession with learning everything about pizza.”
She dove into the science behind the ingredients, watched countless YouTube videos, and even had her 2019 Charleston wedding catered by a wood-fired pizza truck, First Name Basis Co.
Brownlee had an excellent mentor in co-worker Brandy Svec, who later went on to launch her own acclaimed Charleston food truck, Fox’s Fried.
“She taught me everything from the art of dough to how to cut a butternut squash – she was just everything,” Brownlee said. “It made me believe I could do this someday.”
That day came sooner than she expected, as her husband was hired as the assistant women’s soccer coach at USCB in March 2020. The couple toured the area and found Bluffton to be a perfect fit.
“We had just moved, my mom and two sisters are in Charleston and then the pandemic hit and I don’t have a job,” she said. “So we just decided that this was the time to give it a go.”
She got the truck guru behind the Coastal Crust rig to gut her own 1953 Chevy truck down to the chassis. Next, she and her husband Kian added a Mugnaini pizza oven imported from Italy and three beer taps. By October, The Southern Peel was born.
Brownlee posted pictures of the teal-painted truck on Instagram and got interest from a Palmetto Bluff bride before she even had a business license.
“The truck is so unique. Launching during a pandemic is far from ideal, but folks are looking for outdoor eating options, so it truly sells itself when people see it,” she said.
Brownlee said she gets three kinds of ice-breaker conversations.
“There’s the guys that want to know all about the innards of the truck, the folks who are fascinated by the behemoth oven, and then the ones who just want me to park the truck in their driveway,” she said.
While the local brews and ever-changing lineup of wood-fired pizzas made with locally sourced ingredients are the main draw, Brownlee offers a full array of appetizers from focaccia to crostinis to caprese and butternut squash salads and prosciutto wrapped apples.
“I prep all of it at home and then just pop it in the pizza oven on site,” she said. “People love seeing the oven and seeing the foods cooked right in front of them.”
The truck motors through Bluffton at top speeds of 45 mph with Brownlee behind the wheel.
“It has what I’d call a mostly automatic engine and new brakes but it’s always a leisurely pace for sure,” she said. “It’s been a great elixir to pandemic solitude, because the more I’m out riding around, the more I’ve scored bookings.”
The Southern Peel has popped up in neighborhoods throughout town and events like the Feb. 12 “Love is in the Air” outdoor event in Old Town Bluffton.
“I knew a ton of caterers and restaurant folks in Charleston and zero here, so it’s been an adjustment. COVID has definitely made networking a challenge, but Instagram has been a savior,” Brownlee said. “I’m doing pop-ups for the exposure, but catering is truly where we want to focus. We’re starting to get booked solid through the fall. It’s very exciting and the feedback with the food has been amazing.”
She is still working at The Pearl on Calhoun Street and is assisted by Kian and her younger sister Hannah at events, but looks forward to being busy enough with The Southern Peel to hire staff and start cruising in her ’53 Chevy full-time.
“I was so hesitant to move away from my friends and family in Charleston, but now, I can’t imagine ever leaving Bluffton,” she said. “This place, it’s just perfection,” the entrepreneur said. “I’d love to own a brick and mortar restaurant one day here, but for now, I am loving getting to know everyone from the driver’s seat.”
See Brownlee’s next stops around town on Facebook or on Instagram @the_southern_peel, or learn more at thesouthernpeel.com or by calling 315-263-8895 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tim Wood is a veteran reporter and editor and proud first-time bread machine owner.