What’s The Deal With Pop-Ups?

There are plenty of reasons that chefs and foodies alike enjoy these opportunities to get out into their communities and experiment with different menus and options.

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February 23, 2017 5 min read

Pop-ups have been a huge trend in the restaurant world for the last couple years, and the rate of their appearances in spaces from hip city lofts to retail shops doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. There are plenty of reasons that chefs and foodies alike enjoy these opportunities to get out into their communities and experiment with different menus and options. Here’s what any up and coming chef with an online culinary arts certificate should know about this movement:

“Chefs can use pop-ups as trial runs.”

What is a pop-up?
A pop-up is a temporary restaurant that, well, kind of just pops up. These establishments can run in a number of ways – which is part of the reason they’re so appealing! Pop-ups can last a night, a weekend, or a season. Your promotion can explicitly state that it’s a limited-time experience for its customers, or chefs could use it as a trial run if they’re already thinking of taking over the space. In most cases, pop-ups have limited space in the kitchen, so many restaurants offer a prix fixe menu. Some people open pop-ups in old restaurants or storefronts, but others take it to another level, opting for creative spots like apartment building roofs or even abandoned warehouses.

Benefits of pop-ups
Pop-up restaurants are a great option for up-and-coming restaurateurs and chefs, because there is such a low level of commitment. If a chef isn’t completely satisfied with the dishes, he or she can change the menu up the next night. If he or she ends up not liking the space the pop-up is in, he or she can pack up after it closes and never return. It’s the ultimate way to have your cake and eat it too.

Another reason new chefs can really benefit from running a few pop-ups before opening a bona fide restaurant is that the publicity and marketing is so simple – and can even be free! A lot of chefs are able to build a pretty decent local social media following even before they have a steady cooking job, especially if they already know how to leverage social media. Most pop-ups solely spread the word through social media and require guests to RSVP before showing up for dinner.

A chef can also take the opportunity that comes with a pop-up to showcase the dishes that he or she is most proud of. You never know who might be on the list that night – like the head chef of a trendy new restaurant looking for more chefs to work the kitchen or an influential food critic. If you’re working a pop-up, you should make sure you’re on the top of your game and showing off what you know will really wow patrons.

Pop-ups often open in unlikely places.Pop-ups often open in unlikely places.

What’s tough about them?
Though pop-ups are temporary, there is a great deal of planning and stress that comes along with them. Chefs have to network to find a suitable space to hold the pop-up, and obtain the proper permits. Many chefs partner up with people they already know who own spaces that can work as a makeshift kitchen.

“Pop-ups aren’t usually much of a money maker.”

Pop-ups certainly aren’t the biggest money-maker out there. Most chefs think of them as opportunities to experiment and get their names out there, as opposed to a quick buck. Though a meal at a trendy pop-up restaurant is typically pretty pricey, chefs have to make sure they’re staffed enough to make the experience worthwhile for their customers.

East Side King chef Paul Qui told Eater, “What I’ve learned doing events is that you can’t not bring a full crew with you. You have to nail it. I just did this pop-up in New York, and I brought four people with me. I think the key is that if you want to do a pop-up that makes a good impression, you can’t want to make money off of it. You need to just make your money back, because if not you risk charging more than it’s worth.”

How to promote
Think you’re ready to dive head first into your own pop-up restaurant? Once you’ve nailed down your dates and location, you need to make sure you spread the word far enough that people are lining up for their chance to try your dishes. While you can certainly print flyers and use physical marketing materials, especially in a close-knit neighborhood, the ultimate way to get people’s attention is to use social media.

Before launching your pop-up restaurant, you should already have a decent-sized social media following. But your followers shouldn’t sit idly by, either. When you post a dish, do people like the post and comment on it? Do you have people messaging you asking how to get the opportunity to try your dishes? If so, you probably won’t have a hard time filling your temporary restaurant. If not, work on building your brand before embarking on your own pop-up. Engaging with foodies and other chefs online – through social media and food forums – is a great way to start expanding the reach of your brand. You can even get your start by teaming up with other local chefs for an all-star pop-up restaurant experience.

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