In a grassy lot between two vacant commercial buildings on Dexter and Monterey, chicken wings slowly cook in a 55-gallon drum grill. Next to the smoker is a small white tent, one folding table, a few camping chairs, and a tiny neon lighted-speaker playing “ABC” by The Jackson 5.
There’s no storefront, food truck, or even a sign. But Detroiters know what’s up: It’s one of many unofficial food pop-ups scattered across the city – a beacon of Detroit culture, tasty food at unbeatable prices, and for many founders of the food stands, a way to give back to the community.
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Pop-ups or supper clubs have long been popular in Detroit, but have grown even more popular recently: Between April 2022 and March 2023 the amount of pop-ups nationally grew 105%, according to a Yelp State of the Restaurant Industry report. The Dexter pop-up is among them, getting started earlier this year.
“We do dollar wings, dollar sliders, and every Sunday we give away free meals to anyone who wants a meal,” said Frederick Lamar, the originator of the grill on Dexter, and owner of the adjacent building, which he owns and plans to turn into a clothing store and barber shop. “It brings us into the community,” he said.
Listen: Hear an audio feature profiling Dollar Wings N’ Things
He uses the money he makes selling wings and sliders every day for the Sunday meals which might include baked chicken, cabbage, and cornbread. He estimates he gives away 200 meals every Sunday.
Every day on her way home from work Lakethia Morgan stops by Lamar’s stand for the wings, with the sauce on the side.
“I been eating them for forever,” Morgan said. “It’s grilled, the barbecue sauce is…yes, the sweetness of it. I like it all, but I mainly come for the chicken – I come every day,” she said. “I love it.”
As she spoke she waved at her sister who was coincidentally driving by, prompting her to make a U-turn, pull up, and try the wings too. Laughing, Morgan said to Lamar, “I was hoping that nobody take them all [today].”
Lamar isn’t making any money yet, but is providing a vital service for the community where healthy prepared food options are slim, and expensive. The neighborhood has a few fast food options and small grocery stores. In March, Linwood Fresh Market, a convenience store-turned grocery, opened down the street from Lamar’s spot, partially filling the healthy and affordable food access gap.
Across town on Mack and Concord, Tim Johnson also isn’t making money with his food pop-up, Corner Boyz, but said he is unbothered.
Corner Boyz is on a lot that was abandoned and overgrown with weeds, adjacent to the home his grandparents’ owned and is still in the family. You won’t find grilling pop-ups on front porches in Detroit anymore after it became the only major city in Michigan to specifically ban front-porch grilling in 2017, due to resident urging and in an effort to prevent accidental fires.
Listen: Hear an audio feature profiling Corner Boyz
So Johnson transformed the lot next to him, and set up shop.
“I have a four-year-old son so I wanted to set a better example for him,” he said.
To clean up the lot Johnson removed a buildup of concrete, whacked the weeds, and set up a few tables, a tent, and of course, the grill. Johnson has a custom-made, three-barrel drum grill for smoking ribs and a smaller grill for making wings.
“The poor Coney Island down the street don’t stand a chance because this is way better than Coney Island,” said Johnson, who’s been cooking since he was 10. In addition to wings and ribs, Corner Boyz offers macaroni and cheese, mixed vegetables, chili, and other items.
“KFC got nine spices – I got more than that in there for a nice rub,” Johnson said about the chicken.
But the ribs are the main attraction, made special by the love and attention that goes into smoking them. “Our ribs are fantastic,” he said. Into the colder months, Johnson plans to add a more permanent tent to continue the pop-up, and have a television for watching football games.
“People can sit out there and eat. It’s just a good vibe, just a good peaceful vibe,” he said. “It’s like any restaurant – your first year is rough so you have to just stick with it, build it up, keep going.”
His custom grill was made just down the road in a small shop on Gratiot.
At One Source Grills, Don Smith and Justin Goedecke, donned with protective face masks, saw through steel to create steel drum barrel grillers. The custom smokers range in complexity and price from a couple hundred dollars to $2,000 for a grill with a table built on the outside, add-on smoke units and a custom paint job.
Listen: Hear an audio feature profiling One Source Grills
“We pretty much make anything that you want to do with cooking, from trailers, open tops, flat tops, any kind of barrel pit that you might want,” said Smith, a Southwest Detroit native and owner of One Source Grills.
A contractor by trade, Smith began making and selling grills 15 years ago after people kept coming up to his construction shop, asking to buy one he had out front for his own personal grilling use.
But his journey to custom grill making started decades ago, at the age of nine when his dad built a grill in their basement.
“We cooked on the grill, had it for years,” Smith said. Years later, when Smith became a contractor, he went to his dad’s house to get the grill and bring it to the shop to cook outside. Then people came by wanting to buy the grill, so eventually Smith made and sold one.
“Made one – they bought it,” he said, “made two, they bought it. Made eight, they bought ‘em, and we’ve just been going from there.”
Building the grills that make Detroit grilling culture possible is “amazing” Smith said. He said he doesn’t know exactly how many they sell a month but it’s been enough that he was able to quit his contracting work and steadily make the grills over the last decade-and-a-half.
“I love the reaction that I get from the people that come and buy my grill. It’s always amazement. I drop them off to parties, I’m like the life of the party when I drop it off. I just love it,” he said.
Smith said he’s one of few people in Detroit making custom grills, despite grilling out being a cornerstone of Detroit culture.
“It’s something that we was brought up off of, I’m a ‘70s baby. It’s something that a lot of people are looking for, and they’d be amazed to get ‘em,” said Smith. “Grilling was always a part of Detroit life,” he said. “Always.”
This story was co-reported with WDET’s Laura Herberg. To hear more from Herberg, check out the CuriosiD podcast, where WDET answers listener questions about Detroit.