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The basics of pop-up restaurants

Why the current forerunner of restaurant alternatives is a great avenue for an immersive culinary education

Photo by Michael Browning/Unsplash

Alternatives to traditional dining establishments had long been neighborhood fixtures even before the concept of restaurant pop-ups was introduced. In the US, the demand for “underground dining” reached a definite peak during the Prohibition Era, when prohibition roadhouses and underground speakeasy clubs became major dining destinations.

The end of that era saw an upsurge in what were then called supper clubs—high-end, nightclub-style dining destinations. Not much could be said about the kind of food that was served in these establishments, as it seemed that what the proprietors and the diners truly cared about was the social aspect of such a setup. It was the music that mattered; the dancers and the jazz musicians; the free-flowing booze that dissolved social inhibitions. This scene lasted for about 40 years, up until the ‘60s, which marked the beginning of casual family dining and chain restaurants.

A lot has changed since then, but in the past decades, there has been a renewed interest in alternative dining establishments. Not in supper clubs per se, but in this idea of an informal dining setup in which the social aspect of eating was just as (or perhaps even more) important as the food. The mid 2000s saw the rise of food trucks, but more recently, it is pop-up restaurants that have taken the reins over the alternative dining scene. On paper, the idea of a pop-up is quite easy to grasp: It is an informal dining establishment set up in homes, empty warehouses, or even beside an already existing restaurant.

It is the execution that takes a lot of time, patience, and planning. All the same, here are some basic facts you need to know if you’re planning to set up your own pop-up.

WHY WOULD ANY CHEF OR RESTAURATEUR CONSIDER OPENING POP-UPS?

The majority of people who have opened pop-ups are chefs and would-be restaurateurs who want to share their ideas for a future restaurant to an audience. In this regard, pop-ups are like sneak previews or market tests of both culinary and business ideas. It’s also an effective way to draw in potential investors for future business. Some organizers have also cited the experiential aspect of pop-ups as reason enough to consider setting one up.

“It allows for practical and experiential teaching and learning as well as invigorate the industry and excite the dining public,” says cookbook author Angelo Comsti.

“Not only does it foster camaraderie among the chefs, but it also encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. I’ve organized a good number of pop-ups and the results had always been positive, both from the guests who got to experience it, but also from the parties involved who end up inspired,” he adds.

A lot of the people who come to eat at pop-ups have high expectations not just in terms of the quality of the food but also of the service. Some people come in expecting a pop-up to be like a restaurant. Such expectations are obviously difficult to manage, but the key is to bridge the gap between those expectations and the limits of the pop-up design.

WHAT ARE THE COMMON CHALLENGES IN OPENING AND RUNNING POP-UPS?

Right off the bat, a major problem with pop-ups has a lot to do with logistics. It is a lot like catering a large event, except pop-ups go on for days or even months. If we’re being really specific here, there’s the temperature of the food to consider. What strategies can you employ in order to make sure that the food you’ll be serving will be warm or cold enough before diners arrive? You also need to be precise about the amount of ingredients and which pieces of kitchen equipment to bring for service hours.

Another thing that poses an issue is the expectations of diners. A lot of the people who come to eat at pop-ups have high expectations not just in terms of the quality of the food but also of the service. Some people come in expecting a pop-up to be like a restaurant. Such expectations are obviously difficult to manage, but the key is to bridge the gap between those expectations and the limits of the pop-up design. It’s almost impossible to temper the expectations of diners, so try to control what you can by knowing which aspects of the setup you can use to your advantage.

Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park puts it best:  “You [diners] have to understand that you’re walking into something different. But the quality of the food and the seamlessness of the service around it should be consistent.”

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF RUNNING A POP-UP?

The beauty of pop-ups lies in the looseness of its design. The structures of a traditional restaurant setup are absent, and so there are certain things you can get away with. James Lowe of The Young Turks points out one advantage: “The situation is always different and lets you be creative and adaptive and off-the-cuff. You also have less overhead, so you can pay your staff more than you normally do and you can have a higher food budget.”

There’s also the novelty of getting to enjoy well-prepared food in a relatively unorthodox environment. You can freely interact with other diners and even the pop-up organizers. And, as Comsti again says, a lot could be gained from the educational aspect of running, organizing, or attending pop-ups. “It allows chefs to learn from each other. It’s a different kind of school because unlike a YouTube video or a book, pop-ups let a chef learn from a fellow chef who speaks the same language but of a different flavor”

“The situation is always different and lets you be creative and adaptive and off-the-cuff. You also have less overhead, so you can pay your staff more than you normally do and you can have a higher food budget.”

ARE POP-UPS OVERRATED?

As with most culinary trends and patterns of diner behavior that have graced the pages of food magazines, the rise of pop-ups is bound to be met with accusations of being overrated. So, is it?

“It’s definitely not overrated. Honestly, I think they’re needed. As a diner, I wouldn’t want it to be a trend. We need pop-ups as many benefit from it—the consumer, the chefs, and the industry,” says Comsti.

Perhaps the smart way to think about pop-ups is to focus on the experiential advantages it entails and avoid demanding from it the kind of features and perks normally attached to traditional restaurants. Again, there is a looseness to it—as diners or pop-up organizers, it would be futile to expect a perfect dining experience from it.

Bill Kim of BellyQ tells Eater, “It’s the idea of it—the exchange and the desire of chefs to interact—that is nice. When I go to a pop-up, it’s not so much for the dining experience. I round up people that I know, enjoy the conversation, and if the food’s a hit, great. If not, I get to see something new and still see my friends.”

DOES IT ACTUALLY MAKE MONEY?

As mentioned, pop-ups are normally opened with the intention of sharing ideas—running through a group of eager diners and fellow chefs or restaurateurs some ideas you may have for a potential restaurant; experiencing and learning firsthand what it’s like to run a dining establishment.

But do pop-ups actually make money?

“It can make money, but that’s not really the primary reason why such pop-ups are held,” says Comsti. Earning profit is actually a secondary concern when it comes to such an endeavor. Otherwise, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. As Paul Qui of East Side King tells Eater:

“If you want to do a pop-up that makes a good impression, you can’t want to make money off of it. The chef has to go in with the mentality that they aren’t going to be making the same margins they will at the restaurant. I think most of the complaints come when the chef or the venue start charging more than what the actual food is.”

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