From Passion to Pop-up

An Hour Detroit staffer’s journey to bring more Filipino food to metro Detroit

What inspires someone to attempt running a pop-up restaurant?

For me, as someone with little experience in a professional kitchen, it goes back years to rolling lumpia (spring rolls) with my sister and mom at our kitchen table in Chicago.

My mom was (and still is) a hardworking Chicago nurse who made Filipino food such as lumpia and empanadas to make extra cash. So she would put us to work when she got an order for someone’s party or other special occasion. For a long time these were the only things I knew how to make because I didn’t have much interest in cooking as a kid. But I loved to eat and so do many Filipinos: It’s hardwired into their DNA.

After college, where the most complicated meal entailed the George Foreman grill, I asked my mom to teach me how to cook. She taught me all the dishes that we ate while I was growing up: sinigang, adobo, and pancit, to name a few. I started cooking our family’s meals, and my proudest achievement came when my dad, who is very biased, er, partial to my mom’s cooking, said my food was just as good as hers. In Filipino culture, this is like winning an Oscar.

I moved to Detroit in 2004 and along with the culture shock (what do you mean I have to do a U-turn in order to make a left?) came the homesickness. So I started cooking more. The smells and the sounds of Filipino food in my apartment would transport me the 300 miles back to my parents’ house.

Another reason why I cooked was because there were very few Filipino restaurants in the area. If I wanted pancit, I had to make it myself.

While Detroit may be lacking in Filipino restaurants (the only two that I knew of shuttered their doors recently), Detroit’s nurturing environment for someone with a vision and a passion is unparalleled. I have gone to several pop-up restaurants over the years. The food community here is a tight-knit, supportive one, and foodies love to try new concepts.

I first met Dawn Claybrooks, who runs her own catering business DC Grind, which specializes in sliders, when I was a nutrition education coordinator and she was a volunteer chef teaching classes. She works 50 hours a week for her day job and 50 hours a week running DC Grind doing events and pop-ups. She also just bought a food truck.

As I worked on launching my pop-up, Sarap (it means “delicious” in Tagalog), I crossed paths with her again. Pop-ups have helped her gain confidence in the business, she told me.

“Pop-ups create a readiness for a very busy, fickle industry,” Claybrooks says. “One of the really good things about pop-ups is that … you see the same faces, you create your own ‘Cheers’ — every where you go you take these people with you.”

It’s also a low-cost way to try concepts, she says. “You can take your knife, a cutting board, and a burner and cook outside.” For a small-scale pop-up serving about 20 people, she said she spent $30, with $11 going toward an apron.

In the case of my partner, Jake, and I, we weren’t trying to make a lot of money — we just didn’t want to lose any.

After we decided to go for it, things came together pretty quickly for our pop-up. I had no clue about the legal landscape so I reached out to FoodLab Detroit, which I joined because I needed some expert resources. Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market and Kate’s Downtown in Port Huron graciously opened their doors to us.

I had no idea what to expect. But it’s been a wild ride. We made lumpia on Fox 2 Detroit, we did interviews with newspapers and blogs, and (most amazing of all), we sold out our events in June without posting a menu! (We even have a waiting list, should we decide to hold another!) And gauging from our guests, many were a lot like me: Filipino-Americans looking for a taste of home. I was excited to cook for them as well diners who were unfamiliar with the cuisine.

I get asked if I want to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. That really isn’t my goal, at least for now. The heart of why I wanted to do this was to share the foods of the Philippines and the joy from cooking and eating with family and friends.