How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant in Five StepsHoping to test out your restaurant concept with little risk? Here's how to successfully launch a pop-up restaurant.
Over the years, pop-up restaurants have, quite literally, popped up all over the country. More diners are seeking ticketed, limited engagement dining experiences as an alternative to traditional sit-down meals.
A pop-up restaurant is one that opens in unexpected locations, runs for a limited time, and/or serves a menu that’s often themed or experimental. Some move from city to city, whereas others move from location to location within one city. One thing all pop-ups have in common is that they don’t have a permanent location and only serve at a predetermined date and time.
Pop-up restaurants are opened for many reasons. Most commonly, they are created by chefs who want to test out food concepts and menus before investing in costly brick and mortar locations, according to Jean Valcarcel, executive chef and founder of Re Creo Supper Club, a Los Angeles based supper club that also hosts pop-ups in Los Angeles and San Diego.
“The overhead costs are minimal thus allowing the chef to create without the involvement of investors,” Valcarcel said. “With a pop-up, chefs can refine their food while testing out presentation, delivery, and ambiance.”
Such dining experiences not only allow chefs to experiment, but they can build an audience, create hype, and win over the press for a forthcoming restaurant.
“Chefs start pop-ups as a way to have immediate, unfiltered access to diners who are hungry for adventure and want to break away from the predictability of a regular restaurant,” Valcarcel said.
Ready to open a pop-up? Here are the five steps to take to ensure you’ve planned accordingly.
1.Make a plan
Professional pop-ups should not be informal affairs run by those with cooking hobbies, Valcarcel warned.
They require extensive experience and organization to get it right. So before choosing a venue or testing recipes for a pop-up, Valcarcel said it is important to research whether there is an audience for a pop-up where you intend to host one. Research previous pop-ups and reach out to those who ran them. Ask how they sold out tickets and advertised.
Prospective pop-up hosts need to research where they will purchase food, how long it takes to prepare, and who will serve it, said Greg Spielberg, managing director of We Are Pop Up, a network of pop-up spaces in New York and London.
“You need to build a team,” he said. “You can’t cook, clean, promote, serve, bus, prep, break-down, and capture the mood all at one time.”
Though pop-ups are a far smaller investment than full restaurants, there are still costs. Beyond the food, you may need to rent the venue, dish-ware, kitchenware, linens, decorations, and insurance. Menus will need to be printed, and it may be worthwhile to hire a public relations firm or marketing company to help get the word out.
2.Choose a venue
The most common locations for pop-up restaurants are either mixed-use spaces such as galleries and venues with kitchens or existing restaurants, which Spielberg said are popular for late night food pop-ups or special pop-up events with guest chefs.
In either case, such venues are the easiest spaces to execute a pop-up restaurant because they already have the required seating, bathrooms, and kitchen equipment. Plus, such venues are already licensed for serving food.
“You can just worry about the food, drink, and guest list,” Spielberg said.
Choosing a unique space such as a rooftop, art gallery, or other space not intended for serving food will often require building a kitchen and dining space with rental equipment, Valcarcel said. “It’s more work, but the uniqueness of the venue has the potential to translate into a higher than average number of tickets and seats sold,” he said.
Spielberg recommended always meeting the owner of the space to see what the venue has in terms of equipment, tables, linens, and serve ware. And don’t be afraid to test out all the appliances.
3.Choose a menu
It’s not enough to plan a menu you want to test out for a potential restaurant. Pop-ups require a unique concept that will attract adventurous diners and sell tickets.
For example, Valcarcel said that in most major cities, there is a lot of competition not only between pop-ups, but also with restaurants.
“A simple Thai pop-up will not be as exciting to diners as a more niche Northeastern Thailand comfort food pop-up,” he said, because diners may already have a lot of choices for eating Thai food.
Pop-up restaurants shouldn’t try to compete with existing established restaurants. And once you’ve set your menu, do a dress rehearsal. Some dishes may be too time consuming or difficult to execute in the space, and you don’t want to find this out the day of your first pop-up.
4.Announce your pop-up
Pop-ups with big name chefs can afford to promote their concept through their PR firm, which will spread the word to local outlets and food bloggers, as well as through social media and email blasts. But hiring a PR firm is an additional expense that some pop-up chefs don’t have the budget for, so start your own media outreach and social media campaign early and often.
Spielberg also says to consider inviting people you want to impress, such as potential investors and members of the press at the beginning.“There’s a lot of other fun things to do in cities,” he says. “No matter how special your pop up is, people need to hear about it.”
With all the planning that goes into picking a venue and menu, it’s easy to forget about the actual service aspect of a pop-up. Valcarcel said failing to deliver great service is a critical mistake and one that is often made, because many chefs do not have front of the house restaurant experience.
“It’s why some diners are put off by the informality of service at some pop-ups,” he said. Enlist a talented support team to ensure a positive experience for everyone.
To actually sell tickets for your pop-up, there are a few channels to consider. Some pop-ups announce ticket sales through social media (usually when they have a big following already). Others also take out ads or announce through local media coverage.
Additionally, you can choose to announce the venue after diners purchase tickets to keep it secret, or announce the location before the event to entice diners to a particular venue.
Though pop-up restaurants require a lot of forethought, a well-executed pop-up has the potential to lead to restaurants and other opportunities.
“Chefs and startup food brands use pop-ups to showcase themselves in their city,” Spielberg said.