One minute they’re here, and then they’re gone.
The pop up shop is nothing new to retailers. Think of the stores and kiosks that make regular seasonal appearances selling Halloween costumes, Christmas decorations, or calendars. In recent years, we’ve seen stores like Target and Nike bypassing the vacant storefronts of suburban malls for prominent urban locations that create instant buzz for high-profile product launches. The Gap took to the road with a school bus full of flip flops and floppy hats, setting up shop at beaches on both coasts. Even the decidedly stodgy Wal-Mart ran a 2-day ‘Fashion Cabana’ in Miami’s trendy South Beach district.
Unique challenges for restaurants
A pop up restaurant is hampered by the limitations of a temporary location. It needs an inspected, commercially-licensed kitchen, cooking equipment, seating and tableware, and ideally a liquor license. One response has been the underground dining movement. The foodie version of a rave, the underground experience occurs when people in or out of the food industry host a meal in a private, unlicensed location— an apartment or loft, a gallery, warehouse, or even a parking garage. Often clandestine gatherings, invitations might emanate from a password-protected website, maps are scrawled on post-its, and the threat of a Health Department raid makes the diners’ hearts beat faster.
The legitimate version is the increasingly popular pop up restaurant. Falling somewhere in between underground dining and full-fledged restaurant, pop ups have both the indie cachet and the Health Department’s blessing. They take one of two forms. A would-be restaurateur borrows an existing kitchen– a cooking school or catering facility, a restaurant during its off-hours (a Monday night when it’s normally closed, or a breakfast joint that closes up at night), or a complementary food service business like a cheese shop or bakery. Alternatively, an established restaurant temporarily reformats its menu and service, often turning the kitchen over to a guest chef or a junior staff member for the night.
Restaurants love pop ups
They can audition potential hires, wring a little extra revenue from the off-hours, and test the waters for new concepts and menu items.
Chefs love them
Young chefs get to strut their stuff for the public, and established chefs get to stretch a bit and break out of the structure and routine of restaurant formats. High profile chefs like Rachael Ray, Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, and Cat Cora of Iron Chef America have all embraced the pop up.
The appeal of pop ups is undeniable. They are the embodiment of our 21st century consumer mindset, combining the status of scarcity and small production with the urgency and short-attention span of our high-octane, twittering culture. They are both edgy and law-abiding, liberating to chef and diner alike. Their very anti-status turns dining at a pop up restaurant into an event.