Pop-up restaurants are thriving, literally popping up everywhere and catering to consumers who clamor for out-of-the-box, exciting, novel, and ‘different’ dining experiences. While they are currently trending in the food industry, this informal dining concept actually harkens back to the underground speakeasy clubs of the prohibition-era, followed by the popular high-end ‘supper club’ dining destinations, where the social aspect of the gathering was just as important as the food itself. Food trucks of the 2000s followed a similar trajectory, paving the way for today’s popular pop-ups.
If the term is new to you, pop-ups are basically temporary restaurants that can last anywhere from a few hours, to a few days, to a few weeks, or even for a few months.
Their goal is to ensure that diners enjoy getting treated to a one-of-a-kind eating extravaganza that can be set up in traditional in-store locations, or put up in venues as varied as rooftops, beachfronts, parking lots, used-car lots, public festivals, abandoned factories, and more.
Pros of Pop-Ups
As consumers the plethora of pop-up benefits for foodservice pros includes:
- An opportunity for aspiring chefs, culinary students, and new restaurateurs to test their skills and services and gain exposure in the industry without the expense of opening an actual restaurant
- An opportunity for seasoned chefs and bakers to try out new recipes, test consumer reaction to new concepts, and experiment with edgier or more global cuisine
- An opportunity to cater to new customer demographics, to attract investors, and to create a marketing buzz
- A successful experience could become a permanent restaurant feature, while a disappointing outcome can be packed up and closed just as fast as it was set up
Industry Giants Join the Pop-Up Movement
And there is more good news: It’s not just locals and small businesses that are cashing in on the now-trending-again pop-up paradigm. Some of the biggest names in food service are grabbing a piece of the action, including industry giant Taco Bell, whose recent experiment with a pop-up hotel and resort made headline news when the 4-day vacation spot sold out in two minutes flat. In August 2019, Taco Bell took over the V Palm Springs, decked the surroundings with Taco Bell themed ‘everything,’ pampered guests with familiar Taco Bell foods and beverages and used the promotional event to test-market and debut new menu offerings, resulting in an event that was deemed a resounding business success.
Given that the dining concept’s popularity is hot with a projected impressive ROI (return on investment), let’s sink our teeth into what exactly your food-and-beverage business will need to do in order to reap the promised rewards of the pop-up experience.
There are many good reasons why a survey of chefs created by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in 2018 placed pop-up restaurants among the sixth most sought-after venue. One of the main magnets for consumers, and especially for millennials and Generation Z-ers who are their biggest fans, are the anything-goes pop-up themes that can be as wild as your chef’s imagination. Coming up with a theme for your catered affair is a great place to start. To help you out, some standout past themes include blockbuster movies, nostalgic breakfast cereals, famous literary figures, Gummy Bears, and the San Francisco Museum of Ice Cream’s current ‘summer camp’ experience.
Post the Details on Social Media
Any event deemed worthy by your guests of being posted on social media bears pop-up promise, especially if photos of your one-of-a-kind dining experience get posted on Instagram or Pinterest, where a single view can go viral in mere moments, attracting an even more hungry and thirsty crowd of customers – and hopefully drawing the attention of some valuable media exposure.
Another niche market for a pop-up can be catering to a specific type of diet or consumer lifestyle, such as vegetarianism, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, paleo, keto, and more. Alternatively, your event can highlight a specific type of food (i.e. mac-and-cheese, croissants, homemade soup) or a specific cuisine type (i.e. sushi, Italian, Greek, Asian, etc).
Collaborating with local caterers and manufacturers is another crowd-pleasing action and a sure-fire way to add credibility to your venue, continue to generate interest, and boost your brand for the future.
If you are already in the catering business, a pop-up is already in your storehouse and many of the logistics involved will be familiar. If owning a restaurant is your lifelong but as-of-yet unfulfilled dream, then following the basics on how to create a successful pop-up is just the recipe you need to get started.
The great news is that, in either case, today’s consumers are ravenous for novelty, creativity, and savory taste adventures – and they are willing to pay a premium price for foodservices that deliver. To stack the odds in favor of having your eatery high on their list of favorites, pay close attention to the following expert guidelines and tips:
- Ensure Your Legal Ducks Are in a Row
Avoid legal hassles and a negative industry rep by making sure you have the proper business and liquor licenses. You need to make sure that your venue is covered by public liability insurance, that you adhere to proper food safety practices and implement an FDA-approved HACCP program (a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points Plan), and that your bookkeeper keeps accurate records for tax purposes.
- Invest in Mobile Kitchen Equipment
Sometimes it may be more practical to cook and bake items off-site, which inadvertently frees you to entertain, mingle, and network during the course of the event instead of being glued to the kitchen.
- Multiple Payment Options
Safe, secure, and easy payment systems are a big win in the eyes and stomachs of consumers, so stay up-to-date with and provide the latest options, including chip cards, magnetic stripes, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and the host of options offered by all modern restaurant POS software systems.
- Advertising Your Pop-Up
If you are preparing food in real-time, however, outfit your operation with mobile kitchen equipment, including: An electric deep fryer, portable stove, countertop convection oven, backup generator, extension cords, mobile coolers and/or freezer units, mobile work stations, outdoor restaurant furniture, and more.
Needless to say, establishing an online presence and spreading the word about your upcoming event via Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms is essential. If you have a website or an existing email marketing list, those are also great ways to promote and generate excitement. However, when it comes to restaurant pop-ups, do not rule out the tremendous potential of marketing your venue through more old-school methods, such as printing and posting flyers in the vicinity, reaching out to local media and newspapers to get press coverage, and collaborating with other local businesses who might participate by spreading the word or selling their wares.
Pop-Up Tips for Foodservice Pros
Just to spice things up, here are some hot tips on how to help your pop-up thrive:
- Throughout your event, attract hungry consumers by posting real-time pictures on Pinterest and Instagram. And don’t forget to tweet your pop-up location each day!
- If you’re not sure how long to operate your pop-up, keep in mind that short-and-sweet may win the day as you can market it as “a time limited offer only,” creating a greater sense urgency and enticement for consumers to arrive and not miss out
- For a real media buzz, consider inviting a gourmet chef, renowned baker, or another acclaimed culinary figure to participate and even demonstrate at your affair
- Time your venue to coincide with a local happening where a huge crowd is already expected and where your pop-up will get plenty of traffic and hopefully plenty of new customers
With consumers hungry for new food experiences and with dining-out options rapidly expanding, now is the perfect time to experiment with creating a pop-up restaurant that stands out. Good luck on your adventure