Like so many of Michigan’s hottest food popups, Basil Babe started as a pandemic project.
Haluthai Inhmathong (or “Thai,” as her friends call her) found herself with a bunch of time on her hands and a 9-to-5 job she hated.
So, naturally, she taught herself to make dumplings and began selling them on Instagram.
But the jump to dumplings wasn’t too far a leap for the Ypsilanti-born daughter of Thai and Laotian immigrants. Her mother, Vasanna, owned the beloved Thai restaurant Siam Square in Ann Arbor her whole life, and her father owned an Asian grocery store a few streets over.
“I grew up an only child pretty much crawling on the kitchen floor and in the dining room,” Thai recalls. “I would be taking naps on rice sacks in my dad’s grocery store, so I definitely just grew up around amazing food.”
But her parents never pressured her to get into the family businesses. So in college, she pursued marketing at Eastern Michigan University, landing a job at an ad firm after graduation.
“I was pretty much miserable the whole time,” she admits. “It was more numbers than creative, like I wanted to be.”
Out of sheer pride, she started taking pictures and posting them on Instagram. But then people started asking how they could get some.
As a way to connect with people during lockdown, she decided to take orders and drop them off on friends’ porches.
That first order was mostly for people she personally knew. But demand got out of hand quickly.
“I knew something had to change when I had to make 12,000 dumplings in two weeks,” she says. “I can make 100 in an hour, but it was a lot.”
Instead of driving around with her mom to drop them off, she changed the business model to allow people to pick up their orders from an igloo in her driveway.
Soon, restaurants began to reach out asking to sell her dumplings, and then Ann Arbor’s York offered a space to do a pop-up.
“We were just doing frozen dumplings and now it’s like, ‘OK. I have to provide hot food without a kitchen in this parking lot,’” she says. “It was insane. We had a huge line. People were standing around in the cold in November for like an hour and a half just to order food. That was our first popup and it snowballed into this huge thing.”
In early 2021, revenue from Basil Babe was enough to allow her to leave her advertising job and pursue the popup full time.
Her mother, who retired from the restaurant business in 2018, joined her, and the two continue to collaborate on the Basil Babe menu, cooking together.
“Mom is who I learned everything from,” she says. “She taught me everything, but I’m much more of an adventurous eater than she is. I’m new school; she’s old school.”
The pair pop up all over Ann Arbor and Thai hopes to one day open their own Basil Babe brick-and-mortar.
But for now, she says she’s never been happier, making dumplings with her mom by her side.
Find Basil Babe during their Thai & dumpling residency Wed.-Sun. at FRAMEbar June 8-30, and follow Basil Babe on Instagram @basilxbabe.