When the pandemic hit in March 2020, lives altered dramatically. For those in the Ann Arbor restaurant industry, like Jordan Balduf and Gregorio DiMarco, formerly at Homes Brewery and Sparrow Market respectively, that meant losing their jobs. For others, like John Moors and Haluthai “Thai” Inhanthong, it meant spending time with family and ultimately choosing to leave their non-food careers for a life in the kitchen.
Being isolated for a month away from her family, Inhanthong began making a new dish every day to cure her loneliness. Once she made her first homemade dumpling, she found her calling. She began exploring new flavors, and including her mom, former owner of Thai restaurant Siam Square, once restrictions were lifted and she could return home to visit. Together, the two of them launched Basil Babe, an Instagram dumpling delivery service that quickly grew to unmanageable demands.
“When I started in June it was friends and family, but it quickly blew up,” Inhanthong says. “I was driving over 250 miles around metro Detroit on the weekend delivering dumplings to strangers. It got out of hand.”
Inhanthong shifted delivery to driveway pickups at the end of July, quitting her 9-to-5 job in advertising to pursue Basil Babe full time. Unbeknown to her at that time, several others in the Ann Arbor area were already doing driveway pop-ups of their own. Through Instagram, they all connected and created Misfit Biscuits, a renegade pop-up crew. In addition to Balduf, Inhanthong, and Chef G, there’s also Sean Morin and Doug Botsford of Juicy Oistre, and John Moors of Lucha Puerco.
“We started from our driveway and now we’re here,” says Balduf, owner of Side Biscuit, which launched in May 2020. Now with a brick-and-mortar location that opened in March 2021, Side Biscuit began after Balduf parted ways with his former employer. His vendors knew he had a passion for chicken wings, and he knew sales were at an all-time low with bars being closed.
“The culinary world is usually competitive, secretive, and closed,” says Balduf. “This is counterproductive. There’s a power in numbers.” “Our renegade pop-up crew – Misfit Biscuits – became really close, “ he says. “We share equipment, systems and processes, labor, and regularly collaborate.”
“Jordan’s at the helm, but for good reason,” says Gregorio DiMarco, known as Chef G in the pop-up community. “He works his butt off and makes sure to share his success with the community.”
For Moors of Lucha Puerco, Balduf is his mentor. Moors quit his job of 14 years managing operations for Best Buy when the pandemic hit to homeschool his daughter. After becoming a regular customer of Side Biscuit, he decided to run his own driveway pop-up focusing on his true passion, Mexican food.
“I spent years trying to figure out a way to jump into the culinary world but wasn’t able to find someone who would take a chance on me, he says. “Jordan taught me a lot about cooking professionally – things a home cook would never know. We have built a supportive community because we are all finally doing what we want to do and we vibe off each other’s passion.”
With demand far exceeding driveway supply – Moors caused a regular traffic jam out of his street onto the main road – these driveway businesses took to partnering with local businesses for regular pop-ups. Both Basil Babe and Lucha Puerco have permanent residencies at Cultivate Coffee in Ypsilanti, and other pop-up locations include Ann Arbor Distilling, Beer Grotto, and York Ann Arbor. They’ve even begun collaborating with others not in their pop-up team, including David Kwiatkowski of Dave Makes Pasta and Miss Kim.
“The pop-up community has brought life to the Ann Arbor food scene with creativity and motivation,” says Chef G. “The food we are all making is pushing the envelope.”
“We all learn from each other,” says Inhanthong. “Chef G teaches professional kitchen skills, I share my wok burner, which is better than any burner you’ll have in a kitchen,” she says. “We support each other through thick and thin.”
Whether it was selling out her first pop-up in under an hour to a round of applause like Thai experienced, or pre-selling over 400 pounds of chicken out of his driveway for Balduf, each of these creators had a moment where they realized this was more than just a hobby. They have found opportunities from the pandemic to pursue their culinary dreams and foster a community, in one of the most isolating periods of our lifetime.
With the world opening up, these pop-up owners say they aren’t going anywhere. Goals of opening brick and mortars, food trucks, and continuing pop-ups are all on the horizon. While the future is unknown, one thing they agree on is that Misfit Biscuits will continue to support each other’s ventures well beyond the pandemic.