Kim Lawton's headshot.
Enthuse Marketing Group

All it takes is one Instagram image or TikTok-driven experience to go viral for a pop-up diner to get traction.

5 Keys to a Successful Pop-up Cafe Experience

Today, the overall pop-up industry is estimated to be worth around $50 billion.

The concept of temporary, pop-up restaurants dates back nearly a century. Consider the famed supper clubs of the early and mid-20th century. These eateries served as precursors to the modern-day pop-up cafe that, thanks to social media’s megaphone effect, have won serious acclaim.

Today, the overall pop-up industry is estimated to be worth around $50 billion—a sizable chunk of change by anyone’s standards. It’s also one reason so many restaurants, chefs, and budding restauranteurs are engaging in pop-up culture.

What are these pop-up aficionados hoping to achieve? For many, the answer is simple: credibility through massive social buzz. All it takes is one Instagram image or TikTok-driven experience to go viral for a pop-up diner to get traction.

Pop-ups are all about experiences, especially given younger audiences’ penchant for preferring moments over mementos. In fact, travel and experiences is one of the top three categories consumers aged 22 to 34 are most likely to splurge on, according to a 2021 survey. What better way to give them what they want than through pop-up dining?

Earning social media attention with a here-today, gone-tomorrow eatery isn’t simple, though. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are known for being pop-up-restaurant-friendly—and TikTok isn’t far behind. Nevertheless, getting eyes on pop-up dining experiences using hashtags, pictures, videos, and user-generated content takes effort and planning.

Below are five characteristics that most social media-successful pop-ups share:

1. An awesome location.

The real estate adage of “location, location, location” applies to pop-ups, too. High-traffic markets offering access to an abundance of target consumers tend to deliver sweeter results. Whether the pop-up is stationary or mobile, consumers need a friction-free way to partake in the activation.

This is why Café Bustelo chose Houston and Philadelphia as locations for its Café Bustelo pop-up tour. Both communities had been identified as growth markets for the brand, and during its events, the company sold Latin-inspired coffee beverages, traditional Latin desserts, and snacks. Leveraging social influencers to drive awareness and local engagement, Café Bustelo attracted culturally open Millennials and entertained around 30,000 guests to generate more than a quarter-million dollars in sales.

2. A completely unique approach.

People think of their pets as family. But who would imagine so many pet parents would be willing to dine like cats? Fancy Feast created a one-of-a-kind pop-up experience at Gatto Bianco in New York City, where humans were offered fine-dining entrees, such as braised short ribs and Italian-style salmon, to replicate the feline sensory dining experience. It was a fun way to dabble in the pop-up world and spread “fur-ociously” across social media.

Fancy Feast’s unique approach garnered lots of attention because it was unusual. All pop-ups can learn from this “purr-fectly” deployed marketing initiative. The more a pop-up stands out, the more likely it will get some cultural nods on social platforms and online publications. As long as the uniqueness is palatable to target audiences, it’s worth trying to leave lasting impressions.

3. An on-trend vibe.

The marketing industry is awash in trends that are leading campaign messaging. Think sustainability, diversity, equity, inclusion, and corporate social responsibility. In the restaurant world, these trends translate to themes like farm-to-table plates, locally sourced nibbles, and international fusions. Leaning into one or more trends that reflect the brand’s mission can amplify its presence.

Tiffany & Co.’s Miami holiday Tiffany Café is a great example. Held during Miami Art Week, the installation continued Tiffany & Co.’s longstanding legacy of supporting the arts, incorporating corporate social responsibility into the event. The experience satisfied foodies and art enthusiasts alike, as it included designs inspired by Andy Warhol. The event’s design made for an extravagant atmosphere, further amplified by inviting honorable guests and celebrity stars who shared their experiences on social media.

4. A resounding authenticity.

The best pop-ups showcase transparency and authenticity. Consider The Golden Girls Kitchen, an immersive, casual restaurant riddled with nods to the TV series. From photo-ops in the girls’ kitchen to Sophia’s Lasagna al Forno (and, of course, cheesecake!), the Kitchen conveyed a genuine affection for the legacy of “The Golden Girls.”

Pop-ups need this kind of feel-good honesty to encourage consumers to form an emotional tie with the experience, as well as the brand behind it. By truly connecting with audiences, taking care of the littlest details, and acting with sincerity, restaurants can make a big impact that encourages genuine social media exchanges and engagement.

5. A personalized environment.

Personalization has proven to be a solid tactic for pop-ups. This isn’t surprising, given that 71 percent of consumers expect personalized interactions from businesses. The more customized a pop-up is, the likelier it will prompt positive sentiments and long-term brand loyalty.

Some methods to create personalization are custom menus, individualized digital marketing touchpoints, and multiple locations or formats. For instance, Spotify launched a pop-up cafe around its Spotify Wrapped campaign. The goal was to introduce attendees to Spotify’s ability to deliver customized entertainment. Accordingly, the pop-up offered “Wrappucinos” that included artists’ faces on the foam and Wrapped-theme arcade games, among other activities. 

People appreciate being surprised. They welcome having “Wow!” experiences to shout about on their social pages. Consequently, restaurants interested in providing target audiences with something to talk about on social media may just want to taste-test the pop-up eatery scene.

Kim Lawton is the founder and CEO of Enthuse Marketing Group, a woman-owned small business based in New York City. Kim has 25 years of proven experiential operations and marketing experience spanning branded consumer products, and she has cross-functional expertise in both creative development and marketing campaign activation, measurement, and management.