What is a Pop Up Restaurant?
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Pop-up restaurants are the 6th most popular restaurant concept trend according to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association. But what exactly is a pop-up restaurant? And what do you need to know before launching one of your own?

The defining feature of a pop-up restaurant is its temporary nature. Pop-ups can come and go. The length of time that a pop-up restaurant operates varies based on a number of potential factors. Pop-ups can last a single night, such as a pop-up for a charity event. Or pop-ups can go on for days or weeks. This is especially true if the pop-up is associated with another event such as a festival.

But often a pop-up restaurant is a testing ground for a new concept or menu type. Pop-ups offer a great learning opportunity for newcomers to the restaurant business. And they also offer industry veterans an opportunity to test out new concepts without as much capital investment. In these cases, a pop-up can last as long as is needed for the proprietor to work out the kinks of the concept or, perhaps, to secure funding for a more permanent location.

So what kinds of things do you need to consider when launching a pop-up restaurant?

A unique pop-up restaurant built into a shipping container.
A unique pop-up restaurant built into a shipping container.

Location

Choosing a location is one of the most important aspects of launching your pop-up. Pop-ups have their origin in the supper clubs of the 1960’s. These all-in-one cocktail/food/entertainment establishments had humble beginnings. Many were started in private homes and eventually opened more permanent locations.

Pop-ups can start the same way. In our recent feature on Eden Burger, we talked with the owners about their early days as a pop-up venue.

The Eden Burger team began by hosting pop-up events out of their home. These events invited diners to sample versions of what would ultimately become the Eden Burger, a plant-based alternative to the traditional hamburger.

“We were inspired by the pop-up model that would allow us to get in the game without the brick-and-mortar investment,” says Chad Goodwin, one of the founders of Eden Burger.

But pop-ups can be set up almost anywhere: parks, warehouses, rooftops, parking lots, etc. Pop-ups can even be set up within existing restaurants. You might think that you are only limited by your imagination. However, you might also be limited by your local laws and zoning ordinances.

It is important to check with the appropriate local authorities to be sure that you are permitted to operate a foodservice establishment in the location you choose for your pop-up. You may need to obtain permits or licenses and you might even need to be inspected by the health department depending on the circumstances.

It’s better to be safe than sorry as the fines for these types of violations can be hefty. Not to mention the fact that having your pop-up closed down by the authorities can really kill your vibe.

Food Prep On-Site?

This is a critical aspect of developing a pop-up restaurant. Some of the trendy locations where you might want to set up your pop-up can be less than ideal for food preparation. And in many cases, it could be prohibited by local laws. So before you set up shop in that Civil War era barn with no running water, permanent electricity and proper ventilation, you might want to consider off-site food preparation to sidestep some of these issues.

Preparing your food off-site isn’t a magical solution to all your problems. In fact, off-site food prep presents its own set of potential issues you need to be ready to tackle. How will you keep food warm or cool as needed on site? How will you manage demand if you are not able to quickly prepare more food?

And even if you prepare your food off-site in a commercial kitchen, you still need to check with the proper authorities about the legalities of serving food in the pop-up location of your choice.

Menu choice is a critical part of designing a pop-up restaurant.
Carefully choose your menu for your pop-up.

The Menu

Pop-ups tend to be smaller than traditional restaurants. As a result, the food options on the menu tend to be limited as well. A prix fixe menu (a fixed price, limited or no option set of menu choices) is often used by pop-ups.

Limiting the available choices can also help pop-ups to better plan for their food and supply needs. This is especially important if the food is not prepared on-site.

Your pop-up experience can be sullied by trying to do too much. The Eden Burger crew learned this lesson the hard way when they first tried expanding their pop-up concept to a local bar.

Meet Kuukua: What She Learned From Running Her Pop-up >

“We had never even seen a ticket print in the kitchen before,” says Goodwin. “And even though we had one burger and regular fries and sweet potato fries, the tickets looked like Chinese to us.”

The wait times on orders swelled to over an hour in some cases. This poor experience almost put an end to their business before it even really got started.

As you can see, menu planning is critical.

TableCraft GT159 Galvanized Steel 15" x 9" Oval Beverage Tub
Will you be serving alcohol at your pop-up?

Alcohol

Getting a liquor license is a big deal in most locations. And unless your pop-up is occurring inside a business that already has a liquor license, you may find that your pop-up is not even eligible for a license.

Some pop-ups are able to get around this limitation by allowing patrons to bring their own spirits. However, it is important that you check with the appropriate authorities whether this is an option for your pop-up as the laws vary by location.

Pop-up restaurants are often promoted through social media.
Social media and pop-up restaurants were made for each other.

Promoting Your Pop-Up Restaurant

What if you create a pop-up and nobody shows up? That would be bad. Very bad.

Fortunately, there are many ways to get the word out about your pop-up. Social media and pop-up restaurants are a marriage made in heaven. You can quickly build buzz about your pop-up by sharing it on social media. People love to be “in the know” and part of a special club. The more exclusive something appears, the more people want to be a part of it sometimes.

But you have to plan in advance. You can’t start promoting the same day you are opening. So consider your marketing strategy over the long term. Start building buzz and intrigue early and often.

Consider collecting email addresses of your early fans. If this is a recurring pop-up, get your former customers to sign up to be alerted about future events.

Make your pop-up events shareable. Create Facebook events and be sure they are public and able to be shared.

Post pictures. Post your menu. Do whatever it takes to generate interest in your pop-up. And it’s never too early to start building buzz.

Get to Poppin’!

Whether you are considering a pop-up because you are new to the business or because you are a seasoned professional and have a new idea you’d like to try out, pop-up restaurants could be the right choice for you. With a little bit of planning and a whole lot of hard work, you could become the next restaurant superstar!

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