Pop-Up Perception

By making a global trend their own, Detroit’s food lovers reimagined a night out on the town.
Photographs by Kristi Gnyp

The dinner happened on a sunny, rainy evening on the last day of May. It was the kind of weather that could have produced a rainbow — and did — across the shimmery haze of the Detroit sky as guests waited for dessert. With the beautiful view on a not-so-beautiful part of East Grand Boulevard, they lingered around the double doors of the Jam Handy.

Its namesake, Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy, had made thousands of training films here for both the military and GM in the early 20th century. The building may have also hosted political rallies in a subsequent life before landing on the Wayne County auction block. A stained, tattered poster of the late Mayor Coleman A. Young still hangs inside the entrance with the tagline “The man who moves Detroit.”

Part rescued building, part industrial event space, and part historical relic, the Jam Handy was also part restaurant for one night when vegan chef Corinne Rice made it her last stop in a yearlong journey of inviting people to “tour” Detroit’s obscure spaces by way of food.

She laid out the five-course meal in the huge warehouse-like setting. The well-worn wood floors creaked under her feet. On two long tables, 53 people dined on the all-raw, all-vegan meal. Soon the doors would become a frame for the unexpected rainbow.

Two days later, Rice moved to Los Angeles, perfectly embodying her philosophy behind the culture of “pop-up” dining. She had wanted to create a “memorable” and “social” moment that could never be re-created, “as if it were a dream.”

“Pop-up” dining has probably been around for decades, if the classic private dinner party is any indication. It’s only in the past several years, though, that commercial food pop-ups have gone mainstream around the world.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s a way for chefs like Rice to share their food without the cost of running an actual restaurant. But for Rice and other local chefs (some of whom are among Detroit’s most successful food entrepreneurs), their affection for the practice is clearly personal. It can seem gimmicky to the uninitiated (repeating the phrase “pop-up” while reporting this story started to annoy even me). And yet, within the evolving imagination for Detroit, there is the conviction among those who love to cook that creative food endeavors have the power to influence hearts and minds.

“I was living in Royal Oak, left for four years, and then moved back to Hazel Park. Detroit wasn’t a place I really wanted to go,” says Rice, whose yearlong pop-up was known as “Chartreuse.” “But then my friends kept telling me how great it was, and I started going there more and they were right. I wanted people who didn’t know about Detroit to see it the way I did.”

“Pop-up” dining outside the confines of a traditional restaurant not only allows chefs toshare their food without overhead costs, it also gives diners a unique way to see the city.

Across town is Wolfgang Puck Steak, nestled in the smoky haze of the MGM Grand. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck himself selected executive chef Marc Djozlija, a native of metro Detroit, to come home and open Steak (in addition to its sister restaurant Cucina) after Djozlija’s successful run with Puck’s restaurants in Las Vegas.

Djozlija obviously didn’t have time for a side job, but it was the concept for “Clandesdine” (Slows BBQ founder Phil Cooley went to Djozlija with the pop-up idea in 2009) that most likely set the stage for pop-up dining’s relevance in Detroit.

“Ever heard of Michael Hebb and Naomi Pomeroy?” Djozlija asks, sitting at the chef’s table at Steak on a recent Tuesday morning.

Food entrepreneurs Hebb and Pomeroy took the dinner party to a new level in Portland, Ore., in the early 2000s, when they began to host dinners in their home for profit. They basically lived in a pop-up restaurant, and national food writers and critics would soon hail them as visionaries who had the right ideas for reinventing Portland’s food scene.

Hebb and Pomeroy eventually failed as spectacularly as they succeeded with their traditional restaurants, but their ideas for using food as a social force made a real impact on the industry. The pop-up dinner concept subsequently took off in New York, London, Tokyo, and elsewhere, where people welcomed one-off, creative alternatives to the vast array of world-class restaurants.

With “Clandesdine,” Djozlija and Cooley wanted to channel that original Portland vibe, but the motive was all their own. They didn’t need to jumpstart their careers. They didn’t need it to be exclusive (though The Detroit News dubbed it a “double-blind, secret underground dining club”). They just wanted to get more people to come to Detroit.

This might seem easy with the lure of food, and it’s been tempting in recent years to label Detroit a thriving food hub with the success of places like Slows and Supino Pizzeria.

Djozlija and other Detroit insiders admit, however, that “we’ve closed as many restaurants as we’ve opened.” In other words, it’s still easy to get stuck in a food rut in Detroit. We also tend to stick with what we know.

Chef Corinne Rice (far left) prepares her final “pop-up” meal in Detroit just before moving to L.A. Her vegan dinner series called “Chartreuse” led dinner guests on a tour of several obscure Detroit spaces for an entire year. The last event was held at the Jam Handy building on East Grand Boulevard in May.

“Phil (Cooley’s) philosophy was similar to Michael Hebb’s,” Djozlija says, describing Cooley’s desire to mix up the status quo in Detroit’s food scene. “Clandesdine was never about the dinner. It was about the social interaction.”

It also turned out to be about location. For the approximately 10 Clandesdine dinners that took place over the next couple of years (all the proceeds went to charity), Djozlija and fellow chefs from Supino, Roast, and Slows (to name a few) cooked mostly in abandoned Detroit buildings rich in history and not much else. There was the abandoned Cadillac dealership at Grand River and Joy where guests were greeted with champagne and dined on the rooftop, at one point attracting the attention of the Detroit Police, who drove by and wanted to know why, exactly, anyone would want to eat there (Clandesdine had permission from the owners to use the space).

Other events took place at abandoned buildings in Corktown, Eastern Market, and New Center, and some would become part of Detroit’s real estate renaissance. Dan Gilbert bought the Albert Kahn-designed Vinton Building at 600 Woodward Ave., for example, in late 2012, more than three years after Djozlija cooked six courses for 60 people in the historic, but vacant structure during the first Clandesdine dinner.

“That was part of the concept,” Djozlija says. “To show off vacant spaces in Detroit, and to show off what could be done with them. To show off what was capable of being done if we got a community together.”

Many pop-up purveyors have followed. Craig Lieckfelt, who cooked at Jean-Georges at the Trump Hotel in New York, left his career there to run Guns + Butter in his native Detroit. In May, his team served about 900 people over several nights in a Corktown warehouse. His first run was last fall, when Guns + Butter took over Corktown’s Brooklyn Street Local, transforming the small dining space into a temporary vision of what his bricks-and-mortar restaurant could possibly look like. And in June, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode for his CNN show, Parts Unknown, at a Guns + Butter event in a downtown gallery space.

Pop-ups including Komodo Kitchen, Kung Food, Detroit Soup, Detroit Gypsy Kitchen, Dr. Sushi, and Schnäck are other independent ventures whose chefs have either taken over abandoned spaces or existing kitchens to produce their food.

It turns out this pop-up thing isn’t a passing fad. It’s become a legitimate way to think outside the restaurant.

In one case, the idea for a pop-up helped an entire Detroit neighborhood emerge from the shadows of another when the popular Tashmoo Biergarten made its debut three years ago. Motivated by their love of microbrews, Suzanne Vier and her husband, Aaron Wagner, decided to create the German-style beer-garden pop-up. But Wagner, who works for GM at the RenCen, had also been a longtime resident of the West Village on Van Dyke, and both he and Vier, who runs the Detroit-based food company Simply Suzanne, weren’t sure it was getting its proper due.

“What we found is that a lot of Detroiters didn’t know that the West Village had its own identity,” Vier says. “A lot of people were always lumping it in with Indian Village.”

So the couple decided the location for Tashmoo needed to be as important as the food and the beer. In an abandoned field on Van Dyke, Tashmoo emerged — and the people came in droves. “We thought that maybe a couple hundred people would come on the first day,” Vier says. “We had about a thousand. There were people lined up down the street. We literally grabbed friends from the street and asked if they could help.”

It was a defining moment for Vier, who has since hosted several biergartens with her husband in other Detroit locations. She had spent more than a decade in New York City before moving back to Detroit to pursue her career in food. She needed a city in which to experiment, to increase her business, to succeed in a place that had room for failure. Vier also wanted a community that would be willing to rally behind something different, even if it was in a vacant, urban field.

“I liked the philosophy behind that.”