As part of one of the industries hardest-hit by COVID-19 health concerns and restrictions, many restaurateurs and chefs across Washtenaw County have had to cook up creative ways to reinvent their culinary careers. Dishing up their fare from pop-up food carts, trucks, and other mobile kitchens has become a popular, low-cost, and successful way to keep on cooking.
Staying in business was the obvious original plan, but some have discovered that the pandemic actually provided a perfect opportunity to push themselves to the next level. Their journeys in the last year have not been just about bottom-line survival, but also about personal expansion and feeding their community in the days beyond COVID-19. We spoke to four local chefs who've succeeded through pop-up operations, and asked them to share their recipes for success.
Ellen's Fine Goods
Did Ellie White ever think she'd ever be running her own business today?
Chef Ellie White of Ellen's Fine Goods.
"Absolutely not. If you told me something like that 10 years ago, I would have told you that you're completely crazy," says the mastermind behind Ellen's Fine Goods.
White is a graduate of the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College, and has over 20 years' experience working in restaurants. You can find the Ypsilanti resident popping up to vend her fine cakes and gorgeous pastries at Bløm Meadworks
in downtown Ann Arbor. She's also renting space at Milk + Honey
in Milan. And on top of that, White is delivering her ready-to-order and custom-made goods directly to local customers.
White says the pandemic "shook" her and "it was like someone just ripped off a Band-Aid all at once." At the time, White was working at Sweet Heather Anne
as a cakemaker. She ended up being laid off due to COVID-related cutbacks.
In the face of unemployment, she took a leap of faith and started Ellen's Fine Goods last October. For about three years prior, White had been creating and selling holiday cookie boxes and had a small customer base that she reached out to first. It didn't take long for things to heat up and she was flooded with interest.
"I decided that I was just going to be brave and go in full tilt. I literally just started saying 'yes' to every order and opportunity," she says. "And then Bløm reached out to me and the rest is history. I'm busy all the time."
White also has something simmering on the back burner: visions of opening a small shop one day in the future.
"I can see it for sure, but for now I'm just hanging on to this very wild ride," she says.
When The Standard Bistro and Larder in Ann Arbor closed down last March, executive chef Allie Lyttle and her staff knew that it was time to make a change – and one that would benefit not only themselves.
Chef Allie Lyttle of Lala's.
"We wanted to better serve our community than a fine dining restaurant could. We were all passionate about making a switch we believed in," she says. "After lots of meetings I presented the idea of LaLa’s, an elevated comfort food restaurant, and everyone was on board."
Last July, Lyttle and her team decided to make use of the space at The Standard, and tested the waters by offering LaLa's pop-up fare there for several months. They first opened for just three days a week and customers were treated to a completely different menu every week. They held fast to a basic tenet of their original pop-up plan: work with whatever is in season and offer the items that they love to make.
Positive reception there, and at a number of events at Miss Kim's
in Ann Arbor, was the green light the LaLa's team needed to take the next steps. They are currently busy doing pop-ups whenever they can — while they wait to sign a lease on a brand-new brick-and-mortar space of their own. There, folks will be able to really settle in and feast on fan favorites such as LaLa's fried chicken sandwich, BBQ tots, and rotating gnocchi and pies.
"Restaurants always have a high probability of closure, pandemic or otherwise," Lyttle says. "We all decided it was better to go for it, try to give our community some sense of normalcy, and get back to what we love."
When Jamaican-born Valancio Bailey arrived in Michigan in 2015, he brought a love for his native fare with him. And for the last three years, the Ypsilanti resident has been sharing this passion with countless people across Washtenaw County.
Chef Valancio Bailey of Jamaican Spice.
Bailey started Jamaican Spice with just $50, popping up at various locations with just a little tent, a stove, a grill — and fresh, authentic Jamaican food that customers raved about. As the business grew through word of mouth, Bailey was able to buy a hot dog cart and then a mobile food truck in 2019.
Bailey didn't know if it would be feast or famine for his business when the world started closing down last March. Luckily, the pandemic brought blessings, not blight. Since last year, he's had a significant increase in requests for private catering. And whether it's his homestyle jerk chicken, curry vegetable stew, or rice and peas, it's all been flying off his truck.
"I've been in demand more than ever. I easily sell 60-70 dinners in about three hours when I pop up somewhere," he says. "I've had to prepare way more food and I'm getting invited to more events, bars, and neighborhoods."
Bolstered by the success he's had during the pandemic, Bailey can easily see himself opening a small restaurant where everyone can "eat good food, listen to soft music, laugh with their family, and enjoy some island vibes right in Michigan."
Jamaican Spice has become so popular since COVID-19 that Bailey's calendar is already pretty full right up until October. His formula for keeping his business flourishing during the pandemic while so many others have failed is simple.
"It's hard times. I have been giving extra care to each person that comes up to my truck," he says. "I make sure I treat them like gold and I put 100% into each and every meal I serve. That's come back around to me."
Before the pandemic hit, chef Amanda Fisher happily had her hands in many pots. The feather in the Ann Arbor resident's culinary cap, however, was her highly successful catering company (aptly called Amanda's Kitchen). All was well until her family fell ill with COVID-19 in March and her catering business came to an abrupt standstill.
Chef Amanda Fisher of Shuk.
"It was all-consuming, and by the time we recovered it seemed like everyone else had already made changes to their businesses and reinvented themselves," she said. "I soon realized that I needed to stay positive and figure out what makes me happy."
Fisher started experimenting with different foods at home with her kids and found that it was Middle Eastern cuisine that "was speaking out most strongly." She created Shuk (a Hebrew word for marketplace) and has been popping up since last October with a regularly rotating menu of regionally inspired meals.
The cuisine holds a tender place in her heart — her mother was born in Egypt. Also, Fisher lived in Israel for 10 years, where she worked in several restaurants.
"I honed in on a part of me, my history, heritage, culture, and of course some good childhood memories," she says. "My wish was that people would respond to how I was putting new love and inspiration into the food I make."
Fisher's hope has paid off. She usually sells out quickly wherever she goes, her customer list is growing steadily, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. She currently has a kitchen set up at Beth Israel Synagogue in Ann Arbor and is doing contactless pickups.
"Shuk hasn't slowed down a bit. Everyone loves the food, and I have people coming back every month," she says. "I love what I do, and it seems that other people are loving it too."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe except LaLa's and Shuk courtesy photos.