Chefs in Motion
Pop ups add flavor to Ann Arbor's dining scene.
From the May, 2021 issue
On a mid-April afternoon a sudden downpour pelted the big white open-air tent behind Cultivate Coffee and Tap House in Ypsilanti's Depot Town.
But inside, John Moors, aka Lucha Puerco, was readying his flat top grill to prepare tacos and quesadillas, as his wife Stephanie stood by to call out orders.
Next to him, Gabriel Recendiz, the owner of Guadalupe's, was getting ready to fry taquitos, with help from his mother, the stand's namesake.
Their friend Basil Babe--real name Haluthai "Thai" Inhmathong--stood ready to package carry out containers. Chef G--Gregorio DiMarco--cheered them on.
All four are all part of the area's fast-growing pop-up food scene, participating in regular events at locations that include Cultivate, York, Zal Gaz Grotto, and the Ann Arbor Distilling Company.
Pop-ups are taking place on many weeknights, and pretty much every weekend, with new sellers appearing regularly. The mobile chefs have avid followings on Instagram and Facebook, which are the best way to find out where they'll be next.
Their hosts are happy to have them. "We have a great garden, and a great following of people. The pop-ups all have a great following," says Cultivate's owner, Sara Demorest. "It's fun to make people happy."
"It's a cross-marketing deal," adds Tommy York, a co-founder of York on Packard Road. "Lots of people from the Detroit suburbs and even Ann Arbor who may not have heard of us come to buy their food and our beer and wine. It helps make sure there is a steady stream of people who are enjoying themselves."
A few pop-ups already have become permanent places, like Side Biscuit, the tiny shop on Packard co-owned by Demorest and Jordan Balduf (Observer, April 2021). It is now selling out of its spicy chicken wings nearly every night, including a special named for Basil Babe.
For others, the events are their own style of entrepreneurship.
"We have three or four items. People buy them, they like them, we sell out, and we're done," says DiMarco, whose
expertise is Italian dishes. "More than ever, creativity is accepted, when it comes to food."
That freedom is attracting newcomers like Recendiz, a graduate of Eastern and a veteran of restaurants such as Don Juan. At Cultivate, his first-ever pop-up, he sold out of taquitos in thirty minutes.
Along with his mother, he had help from a former boss, Vasanna Inhmathong--he'd cooked for her at Siam Square.
A few days later, Thai Inhmathong held her own Basil Babe pop-up at Thai Spoon on Ellsworth Rd., where she offered five flavors of homemade dumplings, including shiitake mushroom and bok choy, and red curry chicken.
At 11:30 a.m., a line was already forming for the noon event, where Inhmathong got help from her mother and Recendiz. Among her customers was another pop-up mom, Barb Moors, whose first stop was at a brunch event her son held at York.
"It's such a wonderful way for people to get together and eat interesting things." she says of the pop-up scene.
Thai Inhmathong graduated from Eastern with a communications and marketing degree, and worked at advertising firms in Birmingham and Detroit.
But for her, the corporate world was a poor fit. "I was so stressed, and anxious, every single day, and I didn't feel like I had any creative freedom," she says.
During the pandemic, she began making dumplings to soothe her nerves, then started taking orders from friends, to whom she offered home delivery.
When production hit 12,000 pieces, she decided to start doing weekly events across the area, along with selling frozen dumplings at York.
The pop-up proliferation delights Tommy York.
In 2019, when he and new partners reconceived the former Morgan & York, he says they wanted to de-emphasize York's food menu, focus more on selling alcoholic drinks, and turn the store into a "community neighborhood oasis" (Observer, August 2019).
That led to the creation of York Yard alongside the building, with some tables under a tent and others in the open, allowing dining to adhere to pandemic protocols.
Ricewood, previously a food truck, now sells barbecue inside, while Bao Boys, a truck selling Chinese-style steamed buns, operates outside. York hosts pop-ups on Friday and Saturday nights, and during the day on Sunday, often with a DJ. (A plan for more evening events was scuttled by complaints from neighbors, who he says were unhappy at the idea of music and hubbub on weeknights.)
While other venues do not charge chefs a fee, York collects $50 per event, mainly to cover the cost of amenities like spare tanks of propane, extension cords, and lighting that some requested.
The pop-up proprietors keep the rest of the revenue, which can range from $1,000 to $5,000 a night, depending on the type of food and the size of the crowd. Out of that, the pop-ups pay their helpers, buy ingredients, and maintain equipment.
Their hosts provide lots of advice. York helped launch Lucha Puerco, whose owner, Moors, had zero culinary experience before holding his first pop-up last summer.
"I'd never been in a commercial kitchen before," says Moors. Ahead of his first event, "Tommy took me around, and showed me what everyone was. He checked on me every hour, asking me if I needed anything."
Despite his lack of formal culinary chops, Moors says he gained valuable business knowledge working in retail and inventory management at Best Buy, where his wife still works. He loved to cook, and often made hot sauce for friends.
The taco lover subsequently bought a portable grill and started selling food from his Ypsilanti driveway. So many people showed up for one event that it created a traffic jam, he says. Learning quickly, Moors now routinely prepares 200 pounds of meat per pop-up, and can turn out 200 tacos in an hour.
At Cultivate, his menu featured birria quesadillas and tacos, containing stewed beef and accompanied by a zingy consomme used for dipping that was made from the meat drippings, along with a kick of chile.
"My favorite part of this is that I can feed so many people," Moors says.
He has the full backing of his mother, who taught special education for 30 years in the Wayne-Westland public schools. "I looked at him and said, 'You're the happiest I've ever seen you, as an adult, anyway,'" Barb Moors says.
Moors says Balduf, of Side Biscuit, taught him everything from how to cook professionally, to serving customers, and how decide which items to make himself and which to purchase from a vendor. After staying up nights painstakingly producing 600 tortillas for each three-hour event, he found a local source for them.
For now, he isn't anxious to open his own place. "The failure rate in restaurants is huge," he says. With a pop-up, "you can build your brand, build your menu, get a following and there's much less risk."
But Inhmathong, who has quit her day job to focus on dumplings, believes "this is definitely going to progress to a brick and mortar. There's so much interest--everything I make is selling out--that it's inevitable," she says.
York says he'd love to see local landlords cut deals on vacant restaurant spaces, so pop-up owners can progress. "If we're do our job right," he says, "they won't be here long."
@_chef_g_ (no website)
@guadalupes_ypsi (no website)
[Originally published in May, 2021.]
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