Pop-up restaurants and food trucks flourished in Washtenaw County
during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the past two years have seen several such businesses make the transition to full-fledged brick-and-mortar restaurants.
"I would definitely say the pop-up model is a great incubator — kind of a test market to whether or not your brand has legs," says Jordan Balduf, who owns the Ann Arbor-based eatery and former pop-up Side Biscuit
. "And you can have less overhead."
Side Biscuit, which specializes in chicken wings and scratch biscuits, is one of at least three local pop-up restaurants and food trucks that have recently converted to dedicated brick-and-mortar establishments. Ricewood
, a barbecue restaurant that started as a food truck, opened a dedicated brick-and-mortar space at 245 N. Maple Rd. in Ann Arbor in 2022. And Haluthai "Thai" Inhmathong, who runs the Thai restaurant Basil Babe
with her mother, also recently made the transition from pop-up to a permanent physical location at 701 W. Cross St. in Ypsilanti.
Side Biscuit owner Jordan Balduf getting ready for Super Bowl Sunday.
Both Balduf and Inhmathong got their start during the COVID-19 pandemic, cooking at home, marketing over Instagram, and selling food out of their driveways.
In the spring of 2021, Balduf opened a carry-out location for Side Biscuit at 1232 Packard St. in Ann Arbor.
"I definitely miss the excitement of the pop-up scene," he says. "It's still alive and well. We're just a little preoccupied at the restaurant at the moment."
Balduf says running a pop-up involved many difficulties: from "pulling permits [to] food licensing and then all those logistics, on top of lugging a hot fryer, oil, and pounds and pounds of products around town and working in the elements."
For Inhmathong, the hardest thing about running Basil Babe as a pop-up was "not having a home base."
"I just wasn’t comfortable anywhere," she says. "I couldn’t be free in my own kitchen."
Basil Babe owner Haluthai Inhmathong.
Plus, quick changes in weather and road conditions created unpredictable and sometimes insurmountable problems. Once, on her way to a pop-up event in Detroit, Inhmathong's car got a flat tire and she was left stranded. Running a pop-up "keeps you on edge," she says, "but it really takes a toll on your mental health, for sure."
Both Balduf and Inhamathong describe their decision to transition from pop-up to brick-and-mortar as having a certain inevitability.
"We were honestly just growing so much and I was sick of hauling my stuff everywhere," Inhamathong says. "And it just needed to happen."
"I think it kind of developed naturally," Balduf says of his own transition. But Balduf, a restaurant industry veteran who once served as executive chef at HOMES Brewery, adds that "[he's] always wanted to have [his] own spot, whether it is a food truck, a pop-up, or a brick-and-mortar."
Balduf says his current space "kind of fell into [his] lap" — Balduf heard from a friend that the lease was available and jumped on it. He calls the spot "COVID-proof" because with limited space and a small footprint overall, Side Biscuit runs on a carry-out model.
"It kind of naturally aligned that we could take a small risk on a small lease," he says.
Turning on the open sign
Inhamathong ran a soft opening for Basil Babe’s brick-and-mortar incarnation in January.
"I kind of just turned on the open sign," she says of the Ypsilanti-based restaurant, noting that a proper grand opening is still forthcoming.
Both Side Biscuit and Basil Babe expanded their menus when they made the switch to brick-and-mortar. In fact, Inhmathong says, she and her mom made the mistake of expanding their selection a bit too much.
"I think we were just super excited about having a full menu that we can play around with," she says. "... We realized that we don’t really have as much bandwidth as we thought we did, and we need[ed] to … reel it back in in order to execute certain dishes beautifully."
Side Biscuit owner Jordan Balduf getting ready for Super Bowl Sunday.
Now, Basil Babe is still serving the dumplings that made the pop-up famous, but the restaurant has reoriented to focus on entrees, like the basil stir fry that is Basil Babe's namesake.
"It’s a food I’ve never gotten sick of and it’s never not on my mind," Inhmathong says. "I wholeheartedly believe that the basil stir fry … is the best I’ve ever had."
As for Side Biscuit, Balduf says, "since we have the full restaurant, we’ve been able to do a little bit more than the pop-ups." The menu now includes sandwiches, salads, sides, specials, and beer and wine to go. Still, Side Biscuit is staying close to its roots.
"We started in the driveway with just chicken wings and biscuits and we actually still have an ode to that on the menu," Balduf says. "It's called a Driveway Plate. It's exactly what it sounds like: chicken wings and biscuits."
Balduf and Inhamathong are straightforward about the challenges they’ve faced with each business model.
"The excitement and allure of exclusivity and [the] limited time window [of a pop-up] definitely helps encourage sales," Balduf says. But on the flip side, he adds, "Being open five days a week instead of [for] an event once a week definitely tapers the excitement."
For Inhamathong, the greatest challenge in converting to brick-and-mortar has had more to do with establishing her own role. Many of her current staff members are friends from high school and college, and she says it can be challenging to be a business owner, manager, friend to some employees, and family to others.
"It's difficult for me to just take one hat off and put another on," Inhmathong says. "So I'm still figuring that out."
Both Balduf and Inhamathong say they’ve learned a great deal in the last few years — knowledge they wouldn’t mind sharing with other entrepreneurs interested in opening a pop-up or in transitioning from a pop-up to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Basil Babe owner Haluthai Inhmathong, center, with her mother Vasana, left, and her aunt Somsri, right.
"For people who want to start their own business," Inhamathong says, regardless of the product type, "don't be afraid to show your personality, because you are the face of your product at the end of the day."
When she launched Basil Babe, Inhamathong took her own advice.
"I had no filter," she says. "It was always just me manically posting on Instagram — and people enjoy that. … They feel like they know me in person and they can approach me and have a conversation with me because they see who I am on the internet."
Their approaches have allowed Inhamathong and Balduf to build loyal customer bases — and their customers have followed them from pop-up events to the new brick-and-mortar establishments.
"It’s been great to see the food scene grow here in Ann Arbor," Balduf says. "The more the merrier."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
All photos by Doug Coombe.