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Dan Pelosi, the man behind GrossyPelosi
Issue 21: On "mom energy," building a brand, and finding inspiration in family.
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Dan Pelosi aka “GrossyPelosi” was a breakout hit of the early days of the pandemic — you probably saw his delightful stories and approachable recipes all over Instagram. As his following grew over 2020 and in to 2021, he’s quit his full time role to focus on building out the Grossy brand full time. We met for coffee (outside! vaccinated!) to talk about "mom energy," building a brand, and finding inspiration in family.
Brianna Plaza: Where did Grossy Pelosi come from?
Dan Pelosi: 2019 was just a horrible year for me. I lost a really close family member suddenly. I also lost a house I was trying to buy.
It was something that I've been saving up for my whole career, and I went out finally and found a house that was my dream, and it was about to happen, and I lost it. Which I just have to say, is an extremely privileged thing to say. But it was hard for me, because while it is a privilege to be in a position to buy a house, it also came from all the years of hard work and saving.
Those two things, plus a couple of other just things that happened in 2019, I was like, "This is just the worst year ever.” I have my holiday cookie party at the end of December, which is the best day of the year. I have all of these friendships from different areas in my life that wound up being centered in the Bon Appetit gang, and a few other people who I was friends with in the food space.
Everyone came that year and it just blew up. People have told me my whole life that I should have gone into food, so I decided that in 2020 I’m going to focus my Instagram on food and see what happens. I was always like, "I wish I could do food professionally," but I was almost 40 and had no traction in the space.
I made the decision to visually shift my Instagram to food — I wasn't even sharing my own recipes yet. I was just doing what I always would do, which is just cook and post photos. I started doing that the first few months of 2020 and eventually started to share my recipes, which were very vague, in my highlights.
The journey happened when the pandemic hit. At the moment when everything lit up, I was a weekend cook — I would cook all day on the weekend and document it in my stories.
As soon as we were asked to work from home, my pantry was already ready to go. I was able to handle it well, and I was able to use Instagram all day long, non-stop, to teach people how to fry an egg or make a sandwich, or whatever. It really appeared because of the shift that I made at the end of 2019 that by March 2020, I was a food resource for people.
I went from 6,000 followers to 10,000 followers, and just have grown since then. I'm at 80,000 today. Along with that came a merch line, the proceeds have gone to SAGE, a website, a deal with Pinterest, a New York Times article, just endless stuff has come from it. I'm just still on top of that wave, trying to ride, and it's crashed a few times, and it's certainly still will. That was how it all happened.
Brianna Plaza: You recently left your full time role. At what point did you feel ready to quit your full time job?
Dan Pelosi: I mean, it's funny because as soon as the pandemic hit, people started seeing me as a brand and so I was like, oh my gosh, visibly people think I'm something much bigger than I am. And there's power there. They then started asking for merch and my recipes, and then they started making my recipes. I was appearing to be something much further along than I am, but at the same time, I've been sharing recipes through emails with friends of mine for years.
It was really beautiful because people were testing my recipes for me just because I had them in my highlights and I would get feedback. So, early on, people would say, "Hey, I tried this. What about this?" And I would learn a lot. By the time I built my website four months later, the recipes had already been tested by my community which was amazing.
The things I know how to do, which is marketing, branding, and design all really pushed me really far into the space, which was really interesting. That, combined with my day-to-day personality, really play in my stories. All of a sudden, brands started sending me stuff and my engagement was really high. That was really cool and really powerful.
I probably should've quit my job a couple of months in, but I ended up with a trial run because April and May of 2020, I was furloughed. I had two months to go HAM, and that was the time that I did so much stuff, and I was really inspired by the potential. I just went for it, and all my friends were like, "What's happening?" I was like, "Here's the wave, and here's me just trying to stay on top of it, because who knows how long this is going to last?" I think that those first six-plus months laid the foundation for me. If I don't quit at this point, I'm not going to know if this will ever succeed. If I don't quit, then I fail. If I do quit, we find out if I succeed.
Brianna Plaza: Is there a particular track you're focusing on? Or you're saying yes to everything and seeing how it pans out?
Dan Pelosi: I'm actually not saying yes to everything, and that's something I've been lucky with from the very beginning, which I think is a really big differentiator. I try to make it clear to people that actually, I am very lucky. I'm almost 40, I've been working in corporate environments for a long time. I had a really great job, so I had some money.
I'm not posting something because I need the money, I'm posting something because it feels really good and it’s a brand I really like. That's the stuff I get to really pick and choose, so I say no to most things, which is insane. I'm so lucky, because a lot of digital creators say yes to most things because it's their living. This is my living now, but I can really be strategic and plot things with authenticity. It really is a big space for me to be authentic.
Brianna Plaza: Since your background is as a designer, how did that influence how you branded Grossy Pelosi?
Dan Pelosi: I think that was the easiest thing I've done in the past year and a half. I took my design background and combined it with my personal interests, which come from this “mom energy.” I always say if you put something in front of me and it doesn't look like my mom or grandpa would have made it, it doesn't appeal to me. I like a little bit of messy, I love a little bit of imperfection.
I've always lived in a rainbow of a world, so that is reflected in the visual aesthetic of photography and my design aesthetic around these small little brand moments. All those things came together, and I had a designer who I love, who's also queer and does amazing illustrations. I called him up and I was like, "I need you to work with me on this." In between my art direction and his design abilities, we just pulled it together.
I’ve had other food lifestyle creators tell me "You look and feel like 10 years into your career in this space.” I think that goes to show you the power of design and branding, but I also think it was scary for me because I was like, "I don't feel that," in certain areas. But in some ways I've always felt that I should be visible to the public, and I felt like I always had important content.
Brianna Plaza: You said people were coming to you early on asking for merch. Why did you decide to go that route? How did you decide on a place like SAGE and having a social good part of it?
Dan Pelosi: People are starting to pick up on the fact that I have a pretty interesting brand, even just by things I say or show. It didn't even occur to me, but I remember in early April, which was only two weeks into the pandemic. I had grown so many followers and they were like, "Where's the Grossy merch?”
I was like, okay, first of all, yes to merch. But second of all, I can't do it for profit. We're in a pandemic. I have a full-time job and I don't need the money from merch, so I decided to raise money for charity. I've always wanted to do more for the world, and in certain ways I have throughout the years. But it was just an amazing opportunity to use whatever social power I had to raise money.
I found a friend who had a close personal contact at SAGE, which is an organization that I've always been in love with, because they do a program called SAGE Table, which is a yearly dinner party. They have people around the country host a dinner party on the same night, and at the table, you're meant to invite elder LGBTQ people and younger LGBTQ people.
Over dinner, conversations happen, and those two communities can form relationships that can help organically sustain each other throughout the year. This organization is just really the perfect space for me, and plus, they have this event that's focused on food.
I called them and I was like, "Listen, I have an opportunity," and they were like, "Who are you? But, yes." They were like, "If you could just raise the money and donate it through our web portal, that would be amazing."
I was like, "Great, of course. I don't want to ask you guys for anything, I just want to let you know I'm doing this. Make sure you're okay with me using your name." And they were like, "Great." Over about 6 weeks, I raised about $14,000 from the profit of the shirts, and then suddenly, I made this big donation. They were like, "Whoa!"
As of this past June, we’ve raised $40,000. They're so stoked, and I'm so stoked, because it's incredible for me to be able to lead this community, which then translates into supporting another community. That's huge.
Brianna Plaza: Would you ever consider doing a subscription model like other creators?
Dan Pelosi: I have but I've talked to a lot of my really good friends who are doing it, and for me, it's all about deliverables. First, I don't know that I can take on weekly or bi-weekly deliverables that people are paying for. Second, my rise on Instagram and everything else happened during a time where people needed support, and I was able to help them get through a really tough time. To then turn my content into something paid feels very much like a slap in the face to that.
Now, that said, there may be a time when I have to do it. I don't know. Right now, I'm doing my best to work with companies I love, who really want to work with me, to support myself and not ask my followers to pay.
People tell me all the time, they're like, "I would pay for features, I would pay for this." I'm like, "Great, just like my sponsored content and that's enough, or donate to SAGE." Plenty of people throughout the pandemic were like, "How can I support you?" I was like, "Donate to SAGE. I'm good. Just help other people."
People can directly support me by buying the merch, which primarily is not-profit. And then, two, I do private classes. If people want to support me in that way, they can go to my website to the page that says classes and they can sign up for classes in various ways, corporate events, private events.
Brianna Plaza: You take a lot of inspiration from your family. Do you have an existing bank of Pelosi family recipes you work from? Do you build off of things you grew up eating? Talk to me about that.
Dan Pelosi: I think that I have three main lanes that I cook in. There are family recipes — either inspired by or directly from. I have a lot of people in my family who have a ton of really good recipes that I'm able to share.
I always cook through them a bunch. I mean, I've been making a lot of them my whole life. Some recipes are inspired by my family, but fully developed by me. A lot of things I like to do are based on holiday traditions.
I also like to show people not just how to cook, but also how to prep, how to prep for a vacation house, basics like that. I’ve made a bunch of guides that people really like.
I also think the third thing is really just things that interest me out in the world. Yesterday I made a corn egg scramble, which I've made a million times, and I posted it and like six people made it immediately!
The “inventing new things” thing is tough for me to wrap my head around. I'm trying to not keep it so gimmicky, and instead keep it really authentic and real. People are like, "You should make the TikTok pasta," I'm like I don't even know what that is.
I'm happy to ramble into every space possible, because I think it's really fun. There's lots of great stuff happening, but I think at the base of it, I'm a home cook, and I think that’s the level of what I do. I don't know every answer to every question about cooking.
I love learning from people. I think that’s really exciting, and I like that people tell me that their mother made what I made, but she would do it slightly differently. That's the best, because I can have a conversation about it. I love that, because if I can give you a recipe and then you can play around with it and make it your own, awesome. I just want to meet people, have fun, and help them feel like they can be successful.
Brianna Plaza: What was it like to see someone cook your recipe and post it for the first time?
Dan Pelosi: Oh my God. It was so cool. That was happening at the end of 2019, early 2020. I was like, "Oh my God, this is so fun." Someone messaged me today in my story, where they were like, “I know how happy it makes me when people leave my house to give them recipes and then they tell me they made it. I can't imagine how happy you are.” It's so cool. It's just pure happiness.
Sometimes people do the weirdest things and they change things. The one thing that is so funny is people really want permission. They want me to tell them it's okay to change something, and in my mind, you don't need that permission. Someone messaged me today and was like, "So the onion and the tomato butter sauce, is it yellow or white?" I'm like, "It's either." There's a lot of that stuff, but overall it's just really exciting and super cool.
It's funny because I got a lot of those people. Andy Baraghani is one of my best friends, and he just doesn't get people who have those kinds of questions. He's just further along in that world, and that's great, because my comfort zone is being a mom in the friend group of people who can cook the best food. That's my energy, right?
I think when I say casual versus perfection, you would never hold the mom in your friend group accountable for every single thing in her recipe. But you would take inspiration and be inspired by her, call her up to ask her a question, which is what I love.
Someone the other day was like, "I don't understand, didn't everyone grow up eating tomato toast?" I was like, "What don't you understand? We all have different lives." I was like, "No, and isn't that a beautiful thing that they didn't?"
I think some people just truly don’t realize everyone was raised so differently. I just happened to be raised in a way that made me really thrive during the lockdown, because I was raised in a lockdown unintentionally. That's just cool to be helpful during a really horrible, horrible, horrible time.
Other things ~
I’ve often described (and heard others describe) natural wine as “funky.” Punch looks at why this descriptor might not be the best for describing natural wines.
So much of what I love about cooking is actually cooking for others and not just the daily slog of feeding myself. I really liked this week’s newsletter from Sam Sifton that touched on cooking for others when times are not great (which seems like every day at this point).