“The thing is, I’ve always looked like this and believe it or not, it took me a long time to come out.” Chef Connie Hartsock laughed and cradled her freckled forehead in her palm framed by long red hair across the table from me at Fullstop.
Connie’s first venture into the world of the service industry was working the register at Bazo’s Fresh Mexican Grill when she was in high school. She was more shy then and the customer facing position often left her longingly staring into the kitchen and watching the back-of-house employees cutting up with each other in a world all their own. She knew that’s where she wanted to be. The owner reluctantly granted her request to switch with a warning. “If the guys don’t like you, you’re out.”
Just like Dee Thornton in the first profile in this series, Connie came out to a coworker in the kitchen before anyone else in her life. That sacred, secret space away from the prying eyes of family and customers alike has a way of getting the truth out of all who enter it. The coworker who Connie first talked to about her girlfriend had told her a lot about his life too. It only seemed fair to finally say the words out loud to him first, to see how they tasted in her mouth before she had the bigger conversations that were to come.
Her next job was at Penn Station. Her secret girlfriend, her older brother and her childhood best friend counted among her coworkers, and yet? The secret girlfriend stayed a secret. “We were all living together in the same apartment building and all working together and everyone thought we were just best friends.” Her older brother, Will, and childhood best friend, Tommy, are my partners at Neon Bites currently and this whole part of the story shocked me. I practically shrieked the question, “When did you finally tell Will?!?”
It was during the Penn Station years but thousands of miles from that flat top grill in The Highlands when Connie and Will went on a trip to Germany. Their dad was in the army and Will was born in Germany; he still has a lot of affection and blurry memories from both his early years there and later returns. One night, they decided not to go out and kicked it at their hotel with a bottle of Kentucky bourbon instead. They saw each other nearly every day back home, but it was rarely just the two of them and never in deep conversation like this. Connie couldn’t think of a better scenario to finally tell him her truth, so she did.
Again, I shrieked, “And was he surprised?!? You had been living with your girlfriend for a bit at that point right?!” Connie laughed and said, “Yeah, in a one bedroom no less, and I think he was still genuinely kinda surprised.” The surprise didn’t equal disapproval from anyone in Connie’s life, thankfully. It seems like most everyone was just happy for her to be happy and that makes her feel guilty sometimes. “I didn’t hold off on telling people because I thought they would be disappointed or disapproving, I think I just held off because in my mind, when you come out, people automatically start thinking about your sex life and I was basically still a kid in so many ways. I definitely wasn’t comfortable with that.” She went on to say, “Being a tomboy my whole life also made me defensive against myself in certain ways, if that makes sense? Like, everyone at school calls me gay so I’m going to prove to them that I’m not.”
So, now, Connie had come out to the most important coworker she would ever come out to and had simultaneously fallen in love with cooking on a flat top grill. The foundation had been set.
POP GOES THE INDUSTRY
Connie worked her way through a handful of other kitchens over the years before taking over the menu at Butchertown Social on Story Avenue in 2018. She developed her now famous wing recipe here and served a burger featuring brie cheese, applewood smoked bacon and cookie butter for Burger Week that nearly brought the house down when so many people packed into the small space to try it. It felt like she was in the right place at the right time until the doors abruptly closed on The Social in 2019. The bar was a success so the sale felt shocking to everyone including the employees.
Connie felt directionless and decided to ride out the unemployment while she figured out her next move. Two of her coworkers, LEE Initiative Spirits Mentee Bri Hlava and industry veteran Matt Pope, were in the same boat and they started talking about opening their own place. Around the same time, the beloved Schnitzelburg staple Lydia House was getting a major makeover. Owner Emily Ruff had decided to close their in-house food service and reopen the bar as The Merryweather with new partner JC Denison. The Merryweather has the feel of a modern dive with the soul of a punk house and quickly began hosting a slew of pop-up kitchens and food trucks in place of their former menu.
Our displaced heroes from Butchertown Social saw an opportunity here. They could put their name to something without investing in a brick-and-mortar operation straight out of the gate. Connie would make the food menu, Bri would make the cocktail menu and Matt would run service. They called their new venture POCO for POPE/CONNIE and their first menu was a farewell to Butchertown Social called “Gone but not Forgotten” featuring favorites that received great fanfare. It sold out. Fast.
The pandemic started almost exactly 3 months later.
(Top) The staff of Butchertown Social’s closing announcement in 2019 (L) Connie, Matt and Bri start drive-up service during quarantine in 2020 (R ) Connie and Matt during a 2021 pop-up at Shop Bar
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic helped POCO become what it is,” said Connie. “Especially during those first few months of quarantine and closures, the pop-ups were often one of the only things to do in town that felt special.” Over the two years that followed that first pop-up and brought us to sitting together at Fullstop talking about how it all happened, POCO has become almost as well known as any brick-and-mortar in town. They expanded to a small “staff” of helping hands willing to pitch in whenever they’re needed and plenty of other venues ranging from farms to art galleries, distilleries and street fairs. Connie, Matt and Bri have fallen into an almost silent synchronicity with each other like siblings.
“We always say that Matt is a ‘great girl dad’ because he’s so supportive of Bri and me. Sometimes he’ll just text us out of the blue to say something really sweet or tell us we did a good job,” said Connie. “He always makes sure that everyone knows that Bri and I created what they’re enjoying since he’s the one out on the floor serving people. I’m more quiet and reserved, I like being behind the scenes but they’ve both really pushed me to be more confident and visible.”
And, if there is a way to wrap this story up in a crisp sheet of sandwich paper, it’s just that. Visibility. One of POCO’s most recent regular appearance additions to their pop-up calendar is the Lesbian Tea Dance at Big Bar. The Tea Dance is a decades old tradition for the lesbian community with local modern iterations starting more recently after the closing of Purrswaytions in 2019. Now, Chef Connie is proudly among them debuting with a menu full of jokes and references to Showtime’s original run of The L Word like a spinach and artichoke quesadilla called the “I Killed Jenny Schecter.” She’s come a long way from the girl who wanted to hide in the kitchen.
“Yeah, if I could say anything to myself when I was younger it would just be to stop giving a fuck way earlier in life,” said Connie. “Your life doesn’t really start until you let yourself live it, ya know?”