If you go past a new, trendy-looking restaurant in your neighborhood you’ve never noticed before, chances are you have just found a pop-up restaurant.
These places are popping-up (pardon the pun) more and more recently in cities and towns across the world. As food becomes more mobile and people more connected through social media, these restaurants are viral marketing goldmines. Of course, when something is “marketed” there is always a fair chance that it could be oversold and not as wonderful as it sounds. Just because an establishment is billed as a pop-up restaurant doesn’t mean that it’s definitely going to be great. Similarly, like food in more permanent restaurants, taste is subjective and the food is hit-or-miss.
So, if you are confused about pop-up restaurants or just curious about them, worry no more. We’re going to answer all the big questions about them: Why do people like them? What do chefs run them? Why do they run for a limited time? And so on. However, we will also show how a pop-up restaurant might be the perfect way for chefs, investors, or entrepreneurs who want to break into the food service business. A pop-up restaurant can be so much more than a viral stunt, but only if you do it right.
A Bit About Pop-Up Restaurants:
Let's dive right in to the meat and potatoes of pop-up restaurants. This relatively new phenomena is taking dining to new places and levels.
What Is a Pop-Up Restaurant?
The term pop-up restaurant may be new, but the concept goes back as far as the concept of chefs showing off their skills for a few people in the hope of gaining employment. Essentially, a pop-up restaurant is an eating establishment run by chefs looking to show off their talents in a setting that doesn’t present much financial risk for them. Any restaurateur knows that it’s a risky business because to succeed, everything has to go right, whereas to fail, only one thing has to go really wrong. Thus, chefs design pop-up restaurants to be both a place to showcase their culinary skills and to be a social event.
Typically, these restaurants essentially charge patrons a flat-fee for their meal. The menus are usually pre-determined, which helps keeps costs low and allows the chefs to showcase something specific. Sometimes, these places are designed to be trendy or “go viral” in some way, and many usually do. However, the most successful pop-up restaurants are the ones that are driven by the chefs. The food should always be the main attraction, because that’s the whole point of these little experiments. Whether as a trial-balloon for their own restaurants or a place to try out new and experimental dishes, a pop-up restaurant is a wonderful place for both the people eating and preparing the food.
Where Can You Put a Pop-Up Restaurant?
Local laws vary, but a pop-up restaurant can go anywhere that’s safe to prepare or serve food. This means that if chefs have mobile equipment, like a food truck, they can put the restaurant anywhere from an abandoned warehouse to a tent in a public park. So long as they have permission, the food can follow their vision. Sometimes, if a restaurant shuts down, a pop-up restaurant can be in and out of the space before a new permanent tenant arrives. There are even places in major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and New York that cater exclusively to pop-up restaurants or other similar short-term businesses.
For a chef with name-recognition, people will travel (even take flights!) to visit the restaurant during the limited time it’s open. However, for everyone else, there are two things to consider about the location. The first is to ensure it’s a place where you will attract customers. Setting up in abandoned warehouse might be cool, but if no one goes to that part of town, the food will go to waste. The second thing to look for is a place that already has a kitchen. Some restaurant owners will allow chefs to essentially rent their business for a short-term pop-up restaurant. Beyond that, the only limit is the creativity of the people running it.
What Kind of Food Do Pop-Up Restaurants Serve?
What sort of food you will find in a pop-up restaurant depends solely on the chefs who are running them. Sometimes the restaurant is meant to showcase specific kinds of food, such as Google Translate’s pop-up restaurant in New York City run by a crew of chefs showcasing international cuisine. However, in most cases, it’s a chance for a chef to try out dishes that most people haven’t heard of (or even thought of) before. A pop-up restaurant is a place where chefs can play a little jazz with their recipes, especially those who already have a day-job at a regular restaurant.
For example, Jessica Koslow, known for her work at L.A.’s counter-service restaurant Sqirl, recently held a residency in Manhattan’s Food Lab, a space for pop-up restaurants. She tried out the menu for her restaurant Tel, which she planned to open later that year. She served “creamed yogurt with shredded pickle, quail shawarma, and sturgeon with a green Yemeni curry called sahawek,” according to GQ. No stranger to pop-ups, Koslow often hosts other chefs at Sqirl who serve their own strange and marvelous dishes. While they may not be a great place to grab a burger or a steak, they are a fun way to try something new you might not get to try again.
Why Are Pop-Up Restaurants So Popular Right Now?
As we’ve mentioned, the pop-up restaurant option is a kind of trial-balloon for chefs and restaurateurs. However, unless the chef is a big-name celebrity, what is in it for the customers? For some people, it’s about the food. They don’t just like trying new things, they want to be the first to try them. For others, it’s not so much about the food but the ambiance of the place. There is an in-the-moment kind of freshness to being in a pop-up restaurant. It says you know your city and you know where the “hot” places to be are.
Yet, the real reason pop-up restaurants are so popular is social media. In a city like Los Angeles, with millions of people, a quick post on Snapchat can be all a chef needs to pack the house for a night. Similarly, the customers who take part want the world to know they were there, so they snap photos, shoot videos, and hang out. When all these things combine, it becomes a “scene.” Once that happens, it becomes a kind of self-perpetuating machine, a pop-up ouroboros. At least it stays that way until people stop sharing their experiences and, eventually, stop showing up.
The Business Side of Pop-up Restaurants
Running a full-fledged restaurant is difficult and risky work. Are pop-up restaurants subjected to the same forces? Let's look into the investment side of these eateries.
Is a Pop-Up Restaurant a Good Investment?
If building a restaurant business the old-fashioned way is tough to do, you might wonder how opening a place only to close it shortly after makes good business sense. For the chefs, it’s a chance to show off without staking too much on it. If a chef opens a restaurant and it fails (even for reasons not related to the food quality) it will be a stain on that chef’s record. Therefore, a pop-up restaurant is like a sample of what chefs’ restaurants would be like. Because it is only open for a limited-time, curiosity will help bring in people initially. But it will be the food that will keep the seats packed until you have to shut down the place for good.
It’s also great for actual investors, as well. It’s less of a risk than a regular restaurant, and unlike those, it has a finish line to reach. If you make good decisions about the location and other costs, a successful pop-up restaurant can make money for investors. But in most cases, it’s more of a marketing expense. The real investment is not in the concept but rather in specific people. If you find chefs who keep the seats packed, generate buzz, and prepare great food, your next restaurant with them could operate for decades. Of course, it doesn’t always go well. Despite having a great turn in the Food Lab, Koslow’s Tel did not open on schedule. She told Eater Los Angeles that it fell through because of problems with city government and the property owner.
Does It Ever Go Wrong?
As Ryan Bradley reported for GQ, most of the pop-up restaurants he encountered over a month in Los Angeles and New York were “not so much about the food as they are about all the stuff around the food—how we eat, not what we’re eating.” Your run-of-the-mill urban foodie, it seems, is just as discerning as say, affluent travelers. They tend to value “experiences” more than the product, in this case: food. Bradley cites the example of a pop-up restaurant marketing effort, just for a television show and not a chef.
When Showtime brought back David Lynch and Mark Frost’s iconic turn-of-the-1990s television show Twin Peaks for a long-awaited third season, they set up a pop-up of the diner featured heavily in the show. Yet, instead of a Lynchian take on the diner, it was more of a gift shop than a restaurant. There were lines of people on the first day, all waiting to get their social media pic to prove they were there. But there were few “damn fine” cups of coffee or anything more than cherry pies to be had. However, there were plenty of Twin Peaks kitsch for sale. Once everyone got their lunchbox and selfie, no one had any reason to come back.
So, What Would Make the “Perfect” Pop-Up Restaurant?
When it comes to the arts, including the culinary kinds, taste is often subjective. A chef could use the finest ingredients on the planet to prepare a masterpiece dish, only for a person to say it isn’t good because they don’t like fish or chicken or some other key ingredient. So, the first element in a great pop-up restaurant is a chef who has a passion for the food they want to make. If they don’t think it is amazing, chances are the crowds won’t either. You should also pick a great location that keeps diners comfortable and offers the kind of “experience” that makes for great social media traffic.
Still, no matter what flashy accoutrements or viral gimmicks at play, the fate of a pop-up restaurant lives and dies by the food. If the food is excellent, then the chef responsible will walk away with a nice accomplishment for the CV. Great food can make up for a lack of atmosphere, but not the other way around. If the food is bad, people may get some great pictures but that’s all there will be to show for the experience.
Pop-up restaurants aren’t going anywhere, and they are worth checking out no matter what.
The pop-up restaurant trend is very hot right now, so you might as well take advantage of it while you can. At the very worst, it will be a different dining experience than you are used to. At best, it could be one of your greatest meals and favorite memories. Whether pop-up restaurants go the way of the dining car on a train or change the business like the drive-through-window, there is no reason not to try them. Look for local food blogs or social media influencers to find out what sort of pop-up restaurant action is happening in your area.
What do you think about this? Have you ever been to a pop-up restaurant? Share your thoughts, reactions, and stories in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article online to get your friends in on the conversation.
Related Article: Best Food Photography Tips to Capture Images Like the Pros