For culinary thrill seekers, the advent of the pop-up dining is akin to an answered prayer. The fleeting meals showcase local talent and agriculture set to a backdrop of community and intrigue. Michigan chefs and food activists are using pop ups to introduce diners to new flavors, experiences, and ideas. The culinary events ‘pop up’ on farms, in church basements and other brick and mortar spaces all over the state, allowing adventurous eaters the chance to partake in a little bit of mystery along with their meals.
Michigan native Bridgett Blough saw the pop-up culture taking root on the West Coast, where she attended culinary school, and launched her own pop-up concept in Kalamazoo in 2013, where she’d operated her Organic Gypsy food truck since 2011. The food truck business was a success, but Michigan’s winters created a challenge for Blough, who wanted to feed people year-round. Instead of opting for a brick and mortar location, she began hosting pop-up events that ranged from farm-to-table dinners on area farms to candle-lit themed meals in industrial spaces.
“I want to create awareness about the farmers I grew up around. We don’t use anything from outside the area, no matter the season.”
— Eric Benedict
Tickets are sold in advance, and Blough emails guests the morning of with the location. The mystery of the event is part of what she enjoys most. Blough prepares and serves themed meals based on seasonally available ingredients. She invites the local farmers to dine along with guests.
“It’s cool to sit there and eat with the people who grow your food,” she said.
Direct contact and education about food sources drew chef Eric Benedict to the pop-up concept. Since 2015, he’s been hosting events under the moniker Embargo616. His goal is to provide more than a good meal.
“I want to educate people through the experience, get people thinking about where their food comes from,” Benedict explained. To do this, he explains, during the meals, the concept of each course and shares where the ingredients were sourced, why he chose them and what role they play in the dish.
“I want to create awareness about the farmers I grew up around,” said Benedict, who hails from West Michigan. Most of his events feature between six and seven courses and include ingredients sourced solely from Michigan. “We don’t use anything from outside the area, no matter the season,” he said.
Benedict has hosted events in a variety of unconventional spaces, keeping the location secret until two hours before the meal starts and using only social media and word of mouth to sell tickets.
Matt Tinker, who runs a collision shop by day, saw the pop-up concept as the perfect way to break into the restaurant business — a lifelong dream — with less risk than a traditional space.
“Chefs bring in their own menus, and we don’t place any restrictions on them. They can come in and be as creative as they want.”
— Matt Tinker
In 2014, he and his wife, Corrie, launched Yemans Street in Hamtramck, a town known for its international dining scene.
The couple converted a former machine shop into a discreet, 60-plus seat spot on a residential street and began inviting area chefs to create plated meals for ticketed events.
The large room is filled with community-style tables, including one 30-seater whose former home was a Whirlpool conference room, and the Tinkers provide the table settings and decorations, allowing the chefs to focus completely on their menus.
“Chefs bring in their own menus, and we don’t place any restrictions on them,” Tinker said. “They can come in and be as creative as they want.”
Tinker has plans to expand the dinners, which now happen monthly. He wants to add other offerings, like classes and special pairing events.
The Kalamazoo Supper Club is in its fourth season of bringing the community together over a good meal. Organizer Noel Corwin, who also owns the popular Gorilla Gourmet food truck, said the club began as a way for him to branch out from his truck’s offerings and developed into an exciting way to get the community to come together.
“Sharing a meal is a great catalyst of conversation, and through that comes community,” Corwin explained.
He first noticed how the family-style tables used by his food truck diners created a place for organic interactions to happen between strangers and wanted to try and foster that on another level. Corwin has seen dinner guests connect on everything from jobs to art and community-based projects.
“It’s been amazing to witness,” he said.
Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer living in Detroit.