Restaurants in foodie cities like Seattle are putting to use at least one night a month to either host a pop-up restaurant of their own, or open their doors to emerging chefs who as yet have no restaurant.
“Pop-ups offer an opportunity for line cooks and sous chefs to rent restaurant space to run a once-a-week pop-up, or it's the chefs getting playful in their own restaurants — looking to street or comfort food that you wouldn't find on typical menus,” explains Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at the Bellevue, Washington-based consumer consulting company The Hartman Group.
“Similar to the food truck, the pop-up is an economical way for aspiring chefs to test new concepts or dishes until they have the finances or loyal following to go brick-and-mortar. It’s becoming the new model for lower risk foodservice without the investment required for a traditional restaurant.”
Mary Chapman, director of product innovation, Technomic, Inc., Chicago, agrees that there are a number of reasons for the increasing number of pop-ups.
“It allows them to have fun and be creative without having to worry about food costs and reprinting menus, and if it will suit the menu,” Chapman says. “At the same time, a chef can test new items for possible inclusion on the menu, take risks, try a new neighborhood or market—all without having to commit to anything or invest a lot of money. It’s also a way to stir excitement with the staff overall or with a standout cook you want to endorse.”
Plus, many restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays, traditionally the slowest days of the week for dining out. Pop-ups offer restaurants an opportunity make a small amount of money while supporting up-and-coming chefs and gaining publicity with minimal effort on the owner’s part.
Ericka Burke, owner of Volunteer Park Cafe in Seattle, started hosting pop-ups at her popular restaurant in June 2011.
“The inspiration came from wanting to help young creative cooks have a venue to create and bring to life their vision,” Burke says.
“I think it's a good way to test and tweak your vision and food style, while not committing to the expense of a restaurant build out.”
Chefs like DavidHowe and Kalen Schramke, both from Seattle restaurant Rover's, started in September 2011 doing monthly ethnic-themed pop-ups at Volunteer Park Café, partly because of the convenience factor, and because they wanted to start cooking their own food.
Each dinner had its own theme including African, South American, Korean, Italian, Slovakian. The menu is completely changed each time, dictated by the style of food.
“We both had been cooking professionally for 20-plus years combined and I guess it just came naturally that it was time to take what we had learned and do our own food,” Howe says.
“A pop-up dinner, by nature, allows that ingenuity and creativity to be fully realized. Kalen and I didn't have the resources or connections to just buy a truck, rent a space, navigate through tax, employment, safety, legal, etc. Doing pop-ups we figured, could be lucrative. It seemed like a safe bet.”
The chefs hosting the pop-up bring food and should carry a valid foodservice card.
“The pop ups are not about me, or my restaurant, they are a growing experience for cooks,” Burke says. “Obviously, you need to trust them with your restaurant. There’s no cost impact for me; the risk is on the pop-up.”
When it comes to marketing, social media and word-of-mouth play large roles.
Burke had her public relations person send out a release announcing the series and the pop-ups took it from there with word of mouth and social media. All of the dinners sold out, she says.
“Facebook is a godsend for marketing,” Howe says. “We can update dinners, post menus, show through pictures what we are working on, and hype upcoming dinners.”
So will there be more pop-ups to come? Most say yes.
“It has to grow,” Howe says. “There are too many talented cooks in Seattle and so few people willing to invest a large amount of money in buying a restaurant. I see it being something mutually beneficial for both parties.”
While no other pop-ups are planned at Volunteer Park Café, Burke says she foresees more in Seattle.
“I have to say doing pop-ups has been the best education any aspiring restaurateur can experience,” Howe says. “It's thrilling, painful, joyous, exciting, stressful and rewarding. I highly recommend it to anyone courageous enough to expose themselves to the public.”
By Amy Sung