The notion of Charleston eaters doting on a peculiar Southern food tradition isn't too far out, but Mathias Hickman and Eric Martin knew their pepperoni rolls were a success when they served them in their native West Virginia.
"Down here, people tell us they taste good, but when you go to the hometown of pepperoni rolls and people tell you they taste good, it means a lot," says Hickman of Pep Rolls, a 5-month-old local baking operation that recently acquired a food cart and approval to sell its single product wholesale.
Although a proposal to bestow official West Virginia state food status on the pepperoni roll last year died in committee, the lack of legislative sanction hasn't deterred the snack's fans from daily gobbling down tens of thousands of the "soft, warm bread infused with flavor from the freshly cut, delicately seasoned pepperoni," as House Concurrent Resolution No. 84 put it. A remnant of coal mining culture, the roll was invented in the 1920s by an Italian baker who realized he could combine the two standard elements of a miner's lunch into a handy, stand-alone concoction.
"We always tell everybody, if you know anyone from West Virginia, throw them our card and they'll go crazy," Hickman says.
Hickman, 28, and Martin, 25, last summer moved to Charleston with vague plans to start a business. "We hadn't really decided what to do, until we saw the need for pepperoni rolls," Hickman says.
In West Virginia, around convenience store microwaves and in front doughnut shop display cases, debates rage over the correct number of pepperoni sticks in a roll, whether sliced pepperoni and cheese are acceptable innovations, the suitability of various condiments to the roll, and what size and spice level are ideal. Before Hickman and Martin could take a position on those essential matters, though, they had to figure out the basics of roll-baking.
"We've always cooked a lot, but neither of us had prior baking experience," Hickman says. "So we basically grabbed the first generic Italian bread recipe we could find. They were awful."
After the first failed experiment, the West Virginia University grads consulted "a bunch of books about the complexity of gluten." They eventually came up with a roll so reflective of state standards that fellow Charleston-based Mountaineers started ordering them for their events.
"A lot of people just really enjoy this food," Hickman says.
Pep Rolls currently parks its cart at Charleston Scooter Company, 844 Savannah Highway, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursdays. It also makes appearances at breweries and various events. For schedule updates or ordering information, check the company's Facebook page or call 732-3456.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.