Pop-ups keep cropping up
More glimpses of a new dining format
Published: September 26, 2012
To experience Brunch Underground, "like" the Brunch Underground Facebook page or send a message expressing an interest in attending the invite-only party. The next Brunch Underground event is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Artlab J Loft in Greektown in Detroit.
To join the Dunch Club, find the group's Facebook page and get in touch or call 313-312-4025. Dunch is served 2-8 p.m. every Thursday, at 5101 Loraine St., Detroit, with selected delivery options; pick-up is $7, delivery is $10.
For a growing number of culinary innovators, the pop-up format makes sense. Instead of buying or leasing a brick-and-mortar space, paying for all the overhead, and staying open even when diners don't come in, the commitments are much more modest. Pop-ups, as we'll see in our occasional spotlights on them, rely on word of mouth, sell tickets or club memberships in advance, create one beautiful meal, often move among different spaces for each apperance, and usually cater to certain dietary desires.
They can be an inventive way to forge a brand, or a low-risk way to market a niche food. But in the case of the Brunch Underground, you get the sense it's a reaction to what many restaurants have become.
It's a collaboration between Emily Eisele, chef Tony Aja, and hostess Nikole Moore, all of whom are familiar with professional restaurant environments. At its best, their pop-up does things that traditional restaurants simply can't do anymore.
Officially titled as "forager" of the group, Eisele is a sort of operations manager for Brunch Underground. She manages a farm in Pontiac and is vitally interested in ensuring locally grown food makes it onto diners' plates.
"It's really tough to have a restaurant," Eisele says. "And a pop-up allows talented chefs and local food growers to 'play restaurant' instead of sinking six or seven years into being in the red. They can present food that is creative and delicious and solid and have a really good time doing it."
She continues: "The restaurant industry that we've all worked in can be exploitative, labor-wise, sourcing-wise, because it's all about the bottom line and keeping your food costs at 30 percent. So even high-end places are serving food from Sysco."
Instead of squeezing workers and going for cheap ingredients, the pop-up format allows for a warm, collegial atmosphere.
The three-person collective is determined to keep the brunch, which takes place 11 a.m.-3 p.m. every other week, affordable.
"A lot of pop-ups are $50 and up per person, mostly because of the labor that goes into them," Eisele says. "We try to keep it at $15 or less, with food that is 85 percent local."
The trio has been doing the brunches since this spring, hosting the meals in various locations, including residences, even Torino Espresso + Bar in Ferndale. At residences, they usually cut off RSVPs at around 45 diners, but for larger spaces, they can approach 100 diners. While many entrepreneurs would favor larger events, surprisingly, Eisele says, "I prefer to do it residentially. It has a cozy feel when you seat people all at one table. That's what we aim for, a sort of underground mystique, not pretentious, definitely not 'hipsters only.'"
"We always seat people together," Eisele says. "That way you get a lot of social cross-pollination. And Nikole does a really cool playlist for every brunch."
Front-of-the-house manager Nikole Moore agrees: "It's a much warmer environment than a typical restaurant. People come in and have to sit next to people, and maybe that's a little outside their comfort zone if they're used to being isolated. But given the conversations, meeting people, or when people start recognizing each other at brunches, I've seen people stand outside and talk an hour after brunch just because they sat next to each other and dined together."
In that community spirit, Brunch Underground often offers "comped" meals for guests who bring something to the mix, whether it's helping with the dishwashing afterward, or bringing tea or fresh-cut flowers. "Sometimes," Eisele says, "people often bring food of their own, like bread, or coolers with homemade juices, just crazy stuff. ... One time, somebody made us handmade original art for brunch and got comped too. It's all about trades," she says with a laugh.
As for the food itself, it's "solid" American food made with local produce. And dietary concerns, from vegan to gluten-free profiles, can be accommodated.
"Lately," Eisele says, "we've had several vegetarian menus because seasonal food is just so glorious it doesn't require any bacon fat. And it's more fun to cook with stuff that's seasonal too, to see how people have been exposed to stuff at brunch they've never had on menus before."
Sources for Brunch Underground's meals include the student organic farm at Oakland University, produce from Rhiza Food Company, which runs a farm in Highland Park growing what Eisele calls "awesome, restaurant-quality produce" including 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
On the seasonal tip, chef Tony Aja says, "We're using a lot of apples and walnuts and other stuff that's readily locally available at this time of year. For the last meal, we used lots of tomatoes, all local dairy, local pork, and farm eggs from Eastern Market. Hands-down, it's so much better than what you can get at a grocery store, and any extra cost is negligible when you consider the experience of enjoying that."
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