In a grassy Detroit lot between two vacant commercial buildings on Dexter Avenue and Monterey Street, 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.
Listen: Hear an audio feature profiling Dollar Wings N’ Things
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.
Pop-ups or supper clubs have long been popular in Detroit, but their appeal has especially grown over the last couple of years. Between April 2022 to March 2023, the amount of pop-ups in the U.S. grew 105%, according to a Yelp State of the Restaurant Industry report. The Dexter pop-up is among them, launching earlier this year.
“We do dollar wings, dollar sliders — and every Sunday we give away free meals to anyone who wants a meal,” says Frederick Lamar, the originator of Dollar Wings N’ Things on Dexter, and owner of the adjacent building, which he plans to turn into a clothing store and barber shop. “It brings us into the community.”
“I come every day. I love it.” – Lakethia Morgan, Dollar Wings N’ Things customer
He uses the money he makes selling wings and sliders every day for the Sunday meals, which might include baked chicken, cabbage and cornbread. Lamar 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 says. “It’s grilled, the barbecue sauce is…yes, the sweetness of it. I like it all, but I mainly come for the chicken,” Morgan shares. “I come every day. I love it.”
As Morgan spoke, she waved at her sister, who was coincidentally driving by, prompting her to pull up and try the wings herself. “I was hoping that nobody take them all [today],” Morgan jokes.
Lamar isn’t currently making a profit from his BBQ pop-up, but he is providing a vital service for a 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 food access gap.
Corner Boyz’s custom grill serves delicious ribs
Across town at Mack and Concord Avenue, Tim Johnson also isn’t making money with his food pop-up, Corner Boyz, but he’s “unbothered” by that.
Listen: Hear an audio feature profiling Corner Boyz
Corner Boyz is on a lot that was abandoned and overgrown with weeds, adjacent to the home his grandparents’ owned and is still held within 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. Proponents of the ban said it would reduce accidental fires.
“KFC got nine spices — I got more than that in there for a nice rub.” – Tim Johnson, Corner Boyz founder
Johnson revitalized the lot next to him, including the removal of concrete buildup and landscaping, to launch Corner Boyz.
“I have a four-year-old son so I wanted to set a better example for him,” he says.
Johnson has a custom-made, three-barrel drum grill for smoking ribs and a smaller grill for cooking chicken wings.
“The poor Coney Island down the street don’t stand a chance because this is way better than Coney Island,” boasts Johnson, who’s been cooking since he was 10 years old. In addition to wings and ribs, Corner Boyz offers sides like macaroni and cheese, mixed vegetables, chili and other food items.
“KFC got nine spices — I got more than that in there for a nice rub,” Johnson says 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,” Johnson states. As the weather gets colder, Corner Boyz plans to add a more permanent tent to continue the pop-up, including a TV to watch football games. A wise choice as the Detroit Lions currently sit at the top of their division.
“People can sit out there and eat. It’s just a good vibe, just a good peaceful vibe,” Johnson says. “It’s like any restaurant — your first year is rough so you have to just stick with it, build it up, keep going.”
Custom grills take street BBQ to another level
Corner Boyz’s custom grill was made just down the road in a small shop on Gratiot Avenue.
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,” says Smith, a Southwest Detroit native and owner of One Source Grills.
A contractor by trade, Smith began selling custom grills 15 years ago after people noticed his personal creation outside his construction shop.
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 shares. 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. People came by wanting to buy the grill, so Smith eventually constructed a new one to sell.
“Made one — they bought it. Made two…made eight, they bought ‘em, and we’ve just been going from there.”
“Grilling was always a part of Detroit life.” – Don Smith, One Source Grills owner
Smith says building the grills that make Detroit grilling culture possible is “amazing.” Smith doesn’t know exactly how many grills he sells a month, but it’s been enough that he was able to quit his contracting work and steadily make the grills over the last 15 years.
“I love the reaction that I get from the people that come and buy my grill,” Smith says. “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.”
According to Smith, he’s one of the few people in Detroit building custom grills, despite outdoor grilling being a cornerstone of Detroit culture.
“It’s something that we was brought up off of,” Smith says. “It’s something that a lot of people are looking for, and they’d be amazed to get ‘em.”
“Grilling was always a part of Detroit life. Always.”
Reporting for this story was done in partnership with Bridge Detroit’s Jena Brooker. Sign up for the Bridge Detroit newsletter and look out for Brooker’s food newsletter, JB’s Bites, every Thursday.