Partnerships between pop-ups and brick-and-mortar restaurants are everywhere you turn these days. Here’s a look behind the collective spirit of hospitality that’s defining Detroit’s dining scene.
BY MARK KURLYANDCHIK // PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARREL ELLIS
There’s a place in Ferndale where you can get some of the best pizza in Michigan on Wednesday, incredible and slightly irreverent pierogi Thursday, and still come back Friday for the city’s finest cheeseburger and otherworldly sandwiches.
This variety is thanks to the different chefs who drop in every night, but there’s just one catch — they have to bring their own kitchen.
At the Urbanrest taproom, a rotating crop of hot mobile food vendors like Val’s Pizza, Pietrzyk Pierogi, and Satellite Food Truck are the daily food offering — and the restaurant is far from the only Detroit-area spot where collaboration has become a key part of the business model. In 2021, as pandemic-era labor shortages squeeze the hospitality industry, forcing even stalwart seven-day-a-week spots like Selden Standard to mostly weekend service, while supply chain strains send the cost of building materials into the stratosphere, stalling new ventures, the Detroit-area dining scene may well be defined best by this increased spirit of collaboration. What’s more, these “partnerships” are often informal, predicated on a handshake and neither party laying any claims to each other’s profits.
“We realized very quickly that we didn’t have the capital to build a kitchen or the know-how to run one,” says Urbanrest co-owner Zach Typinski. “It could’ve very easily killed us early on. And then if we’d had any kind of food prep and restaurant employees during the pandemic, we would’ve had to shut down completely and lay them all off. We’re fortunate we didn’t have to do that.” Instead, Urbanrest retained 100 percent of its staff thanks to this collaborative business model, which the brewery introduced in 2017 out of sheer bootstrapped necessity. It’s become the key to the success of the neighborhood brewery, which recently grew into a second satellite location in Ferndale’s bustling downtown entertainment district.
And while this collaborative spirit is nothing new to Detroit, pandemic-born partnerships between pop-ups and brick-and-mortar food and beverage businesses are everywhere you look these days.
Drop by Sister Pie in the West Village on a Sunday and you’ll find Dough-town Bagels, an upstart bagel sandwich pop-up started out of Brad Lutz’s Detroit apartment amid the pandemic. Or head to Bunny Bunny in Eastern Market for burgers and biscuit sandwiches from the Big Girl pop-up. You might find sassy, doner-style sandwiches from Babs at She-Wolf in Midtown on Monday and Fried Chicken & Caviar at The Beer Exchange downtown on Tuesday. (And if you miss them Tuesday, catch them Thursday at Detroit bar/coffeeshop The Congregation serving a completely different menu.)
Even spaces with dedicated kitchens of their own now increasingly rely on pop-ups to provide customers something new without stretching their own staffs too thin. Batch Brewing Co. in Corktown became one of those places during the pandemic out of a desire and ability to help colleagues who didn’t have safe outdoor serving space. But the arrangement quickly became a necessity for the brewery itself.
“For all of the community good that we try to do and the competitive pay we try to provide, our team has gotten even leaner in the first half of 2021, specifically in the kitchen,” says Batch proprietor Stephen Roginson. “Not only have pop-ups added value to the hospitality ecosystem, they’ve also become important for us to navigate the reality. We don’t have access to labor to go five or six days [a week] with our own kitchen. So this is a win-win.”
Roginson points to how consumers are being pulled toward two different desires: supporting the businesses they’ve patronized for years while still wanting to discover new foods and flavors.
“One of the benefits of a food pop-up happening at a brewery or a restaurant is you get to support both simultaneously,” Roginson says. “You are supporting those new ideas, but also helping to keep the doors open to that brick-and-mortar that can hopefully be there for years to come.”
One of those newer ideas that’s found success via this arrangement is the Khana Detroit pop-up, which serves late-night takes on the type of Pakistani food co-founder Maryam Khan grew up eating, frequently mashed up with business partner Carlos Parisi’s Mexican background and Detroit-made Aunt Nee’s line of chips and salsas. Think: butter chicken nachos, beef keema quesadillas with Hot Cheeto dust, and vegan aloo gobi burritos.
Founded in 2018 by the two friends, Khana popped up intermittently across the city and finally settled into a regular schedule at The Elephant Room in Detroit just a month before Covid hit, putting a halt on all that momentum.
But as the pandemic became the new normal, Khan and Parisi came back stronger and more collaborative than ever, first serving up mango lassi at Metropolis Bikes in Corktown and then a mango lassi ice cream at Cold Truth, which itself is a vegan ice-cream pop-up inside Grandma Bob’s pizza in Corktown. The third collaboration was a Khana butter chicken pizza with Pie-Sci in Woodbridge, which, too, began its life as a Sunday-only pop-up at the neighboring Woodbridge Pub.
“Detroit is a city that’s run by the people that inhabit it,” Khan says. “I’ve always thought of Detroit as the DIY hub of the world. For something like Covid to hit the city and strip you of all the resources, to only highlight that everyone is here to help everyone who needs it was really dope and not even a surprise.”
For Khan, the pandemic also high-lighted the ability to make an income off of a pop-up without putting in the kind of hours typically required of restaurant work. “I turned off completely and when I turned back on I scaled back so much and recalibrated according to what I was able to make and base my quality of life around that,” she says.
Now, Khana is the regular Tuesday pop-up at Batch, where Wednesdays have seen the likes of displaced Detroit restaurants like Saffron De Twah and Lady of the House, as well as dedicated pop-up brands like the Ypsilanti-based Lucha Puerco and the Sloppy Fox. “The pop-up scene has become way more accessible and easy for people to take off with their own ideas,” Khan says. “There’s so many establishments that are like, ‘You have an idea? Come and let’s see how it goes.’ There’s so many of us that have figured out the models of what works and what doesn’t and have passed that on to others — it’s so much easier now.”
These days, she and Parisi are looking at ways to grow their business, whether that’s in their own brick-and-mortar space, a shared space with another food business, or even as a drive-through concept.
But not every pop-up aims to occupy a permanent physical space. For Nik Cole and Chi Walker, the Detroit-based Fried Chicken & Caviar founders, occupying a digital space is almost more important. “Not having a brick-and-mortar allows us to change and experiment with the menu,” Cole says. “We don’t need consistent staff or have all the liabilities and expenses, but we can keep Fried Chicken & Caviar going forever as a lifestyle brand.”
During the pandemic, Cole and Walker launched Fried Chicken & Caviar through Instagram, selling a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner and wine for pickup for folks to enjoy in the comfort and safety of their own homes. Since then, they’ve done a number of pop-ups at places like EastEats Detroit, The Congregation, and the Detroit Beer Exchange. “This business model is much smarter, where everybody can make some money,” Cole says. “The restaurateurs get to take a load off and actually showcase someone else’s work. And there’s so much good work out here. If we gotta look on the bright side, this totally helps people understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Social media platforms like Instagram have allowed this new model to take shape, offering direct connections to would-be customers without being in their faces. “People are more glued to their cellular devices in a pandemic,” Walker says. “And during the pandemic we put out very good content to help folks really understand the story we’re trying to tell. We are a lifestyle brand bringing luxury to the masses; Champagne life on a beer budget.”
Early on, EastEats served its own food, but co-founder Kwaku Osei-Bonsu says the concept was forced to pivot by both the economic reality of the hospitality industry and the one surrounding the venue’s space on Navahoe Street.“Even our price structure changed,” Osei-Bonsu says, explaining that the restaurant was initially offering a $45 prix fixe menu. “Then I saw more and more community members come up and say, ‘It’s how much?!’ I was like, ‘This is a space that needs to feel like it’s a space for members of Jefferson-Chalmers.’ ” Instead, the team solicited feedback from the community, who in turn asked for more events tailored to kids, seniors, and neighbors rather than the general public.
Now, EastEats hosts such varied programming as mental-health speed dating, a weekly bingo party for sneakerheads, Sunday morning meditations, and Friday night DJ sessions. Food for the events is made by a rotating cast of chefs, who all get to promote their own brands while providing a key element to the party.“This was born out of the pandemic, but now the challenge is how do we solidify this as a space that can stand on its own?” Osei-Bonsu says. “That’s what these events are helping to do. Now people can see it as beyond a pop-up. This isn’t a pop-up. It’s here to stay. We’re not going anywhere.”