Google the term "pop-up dinner" and you'll be greeted by hundreds of results from restaurants all over the country and beyond. While the concept is nothing new, underground dinners held in random locations are gaining in popularity, and Milwaukee-area residents are taking note.
Maria Miller and Daniel Cline are just two of the food professionals who see pop-up dinners as a way to share their creative energy with the public. Thanks to simple word-of-mouth advertising, their company, Ball 'n Biscuit Catering, has been cooking up a wide variety of dishes for small gatherings, weddings and events for over six years. And now they've decided to take on a new challenge.
The duo has partnered with a motley band of creative minds to create a brand new pop-up concept, And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Crumbs (Trail of Crumbs, for short). Named with a nod to the band And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, a group known for their wild, energetic concerts and post-performance guitar smashing, Trail of Crumbs aims to provide Milwaukee-area residents with unique dining experiences that depend upon an air of mystery.
"People who buy tickets will not know where the event will be held until 48 hours beforehand and will not know the menu until the event," Miller explains. "So in a sense, we are leaving them a trail of crumbs."
The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and very little cost associated with food and labor. Generally speaking, the events aren't usually enough to sustain chefs financially, but they can be a great way for them to make a name for themselves and pull in some income. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch their creativity in ways that might not fly in an established restaurant.
In addition, most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place. And in this, Trail of Crumbs will be no exception. While the pop-ups won't focus solely on locally procured food, the group hopes to aim at holding events that pull together the identity of place with the flavors of the food.
"We will all be attending the Outstanding in the Field in August, which is a mobile restaurant that travels the world, creating dining experiences that celebrate place and honor the farmer and other food producers of a region," Miller explains. "We will be taking these same concepts and adding other elements to them."
And it seems like the Trail of Crumbs concept is being greeted with solid interest. Their first event sold out in a matter of days. The theme was "Chef BFF," for which each participating chef was asked to create his or her favorite dish. Menu items included pan-seared bay scallops in basil pesto; red lentil soup with cumin, fresh dill, olive oil and sumac; teriyaki tofu lettuce wraps; gratin dauphinois with potatoes, taro and sage; seared hanger steak with garlic butter spinach; and for dessert, three layers of guajillo-infused chocolate topped with a dollop of Mezcal whipped cream. Chefs shared anecdotes about each of the courses, which were served up with specially chosen musical playlists.
"In addition to serving interesting and fabulous food for each pop-up event, something that sets Trail of Crumbs apart from other pop-up groups is focusing on making each event a truly unique and different experience. This encompasses the entire gambit – aesthetics, locations, decorations and themes. It's all in the details," says Marybeth Kressin Kunesh, set designer for Trail of Crumbs.
"Our committed and dedicated group all come from different backgrounds, but all with a passion for food, service and creating one-of-a-kind events. The food will speak for itself – what I am interested in is really developing the theme, look and location of each pop up – all of which will be secret until 48 hours before the event. I am very detail-oriented and get excited to be able to aim that passion toward a fun project. Our end result will show the layers of creativity and talent of all members of our group. We plan to produce spectacular pop-up events that will be completely different from each other – never the same and never boring!"
When asked about possible themes for future dinners, Miller just smiled. "Hmmm ... music, art projects, movies, bands, books, fairy tales, war, death row, vegan, fundraisers," she intimates. But, she wouldn't get more specific than that. "Dropping little clues is the name of the game; you get the full adventure when you decide to attend!"
The next Trail of Crumbs event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m. Themed "Happily After Ever...?," this multi-course dining experience will explore fairytales, folklore and food in an intimate setting. Tickets are $65 when paid with cash or check, and $70 per person when paid through Paypal. Additional information is available online.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.