Photo: Julian Fang/@DJJewelz)
Pop-up restaurants—those fleeting eateries that once served as culinary experiments for only the most plugged-in foodies—have entered the mainstream, and increasing numbers of chefs are setting up temporary shops in other people’s kitchens.What’s in it for these nomadic restaurateurs, who ostensibly would rather be running their own establishments, and for their hosts, who allow outsiders to take over their businesses?
Are pop-ups a legitimate model with staying power, or simply vanity projects for lauded but unemployed chefs?
The pop-up is said to have originated in 2007 in Los Angeles with Ludobites, a mobile restaurant led by chef Ludo Lefebvre. Now that his “here today, gone tomorrow” concept has caught on nationally—chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association have named pop-ups, along with food trucks, as the biggest expected industry trend for 2011—reality TV has come calling.
Lefebvre’s Sundance Channel series “Ludo Bites America,” in which he opens temporary eateries nationwide, premieres July 19.
While Lefebvre has capitalised on the concept, the primary goal of most chefs who turn to pop-ups—usually after losing their own kitchens—is to remain in the public eye.
“It’s all about staying relevant,” says François Renaud, manager and sommelier of the pop-up Quartier, which operated in May from the kitchen of a café/market in Toluca Lake outside of Los Angeles. “Even more so in big cities. You tend to be forgotten pretty fast. If you stay away for a while, you’re as good as dead.”
On Saturday and Sunday nights in May, Renaud’s partner in Quartier, chef Gary Menes, churned out six- and seven-course tasting menus for around $55 per person (without wine). Dishes—such as asparagus served with a 62-degree egg, or tri-tip with bone-marrow crouton, potato, baby leeks, and poached radish—showcased market-driven local ingredients. The venue was the casual spot Olive & Thyme, which is typically closed on weekend evenings.Menes, a veteran of the French Laundry who has helmed kitchens at acclaimed L.A.-area restaurants such as Marché and Palate Food + Wine, says the pop-up was a way to tell his fans, ” ‘Hey, here we are, I know you’ve been jonesing for some of that pork belly I make.’ To kind of remind people that we’re still here.”
The Bottom Line
Every pop-up has its own financial arrangement with its host kitchen, and everything is negotiable. Some agree to a split of sales; others pay a flat rental fee. In some cases, a restaurant will host a pop-up for nothing more than publicity and exposure to a new type of clientele. The host kitchen’s staff may be utilized, or a pop-up may bring in its own. Often, staffers are paid under the table.
Quartier was self-financed by Menes and Renaud, who paid the café’s owners, Melina and Christian Davies, 25 per cent of profits, according to Menes. The fee covered use of the Olive & Thyme point-of-sale and accounting systems, as well as water, electricity, gas, and wear-and-tear on the facility.
“Everything is on a consultant basis,” Menes says. “That helps us out liability-wise. It helps as far as taxing is concerned. Once we pay them, they report to the IRS, and it’s all clean.”
Menes says he and Renaud had a solid idea of what they would bring in, based on the prix-fixed menu price, and had budgeted their costs at 30 per cent for food, 25 per cent for labour, and 20 per cent for beverages (purchased under Olive & Thyme’s beer-and-wine licence). At the beginning of the pop-up’s run, he says, they were making enough to cover expenses; by the end they had turned a small profit.Melina Davies confirms that Olive & Thyme took a cut of Quartier’s profits. But, she says, hosting the pop-up had other benefits—including the obvious perk of getting diners in at times the restaurant would normally be closed.
“It’s a way for our customers to get their weekend fix,” she says, and, for the counter-service café, “it’s a really great way to give our customers a formal dining experience.” But the real prize was the exposure and cachet that came from being associated with a prominent chef.
“Gary is known everywhere, so to have people who follow him see what we’re about is a great thing,” Davies says. “It makes us more legitimate, in a sense, as being real foodies.”
A Unique Proposal
Chef Laurent Quenioux, celebrated in L.A. culinary circles for his elaborate, avant-garde preparations, shuttered his latest restaurant, Bistro LQ, in March. In June, he began cooking five-course menus Sunday through Tuesday, every other week, in the most unlikely of places: Starry Kitchen, a casual, pan-Asian spot, whose owner, Nguyen Tran, has been known to promote his crispy tofu balls by wearing a banana suit and carrying a sign saying, “Please enjoy our balls in your mouth.”
Starry Kitchen itself has roots in “underground” dining: The scrappy restaurant, which opened downtown in 2010, evolved from an illegal eatery that Tran and his wife, Thi, hosted in their apartment.
When Quenioux lost his restaurant, Tran says, “I reached out to him really quickly. I said, ‘I want to give you a unique proposal. I want you to rebrand yourself, and I want you to do it here, because this is the least likely place people will look for you.’ “
Indeed, Quenioux, whose pop-up venture is called [email protected], is keen to engage in what he calls “bistronomy”: serving haute cuisine in a casual setting.
“We want to be able to focus and spend money on ingredients, and not to have all the formal, expensive things that come with a restaurant,” he says. One of his goals is to “democratize” fine dining, so that “people can have foie gras and sweetbreads and don’t need to go to a $100 restaurant.”
Photo: Danny Chen/@KungFoodPanda
Those items were indeed on the first week’s menu at [email protected]—the foie gras in the form of a teriyaki served with oxtail, rabbit meatballs, miso, and yuzu; the Asian-style sweetbreads marinated, lightly fried, and served with shishito peppers and wild mushrooms. The entire five-course meal, plus amuse bouche, sold for $45, without tax and tip.Tran says Starry Kitchen is taking a cut of less than 20 per cent to cover costs such as water and electricity; he is also advancing the cost of Quenioux’s food through his existing credit line and is attempting to keep those costs at a manageable 30 per cent of gross. “All of his processing goes through my system, so I have to pay him out…I can see how much I spent and how much he made. So there is a clear accounting.”
While both Tran and Quenioux are profiting from the venture, Tran says, at the end of the day, “it’s a long-term investment of time, not necessarily money. I want to build our brand as well.” The benefits for him, he adds, are obvious. “We get back in the press; people are like, ‘These aren’t just goofballs in banana suits; they have relations with renowned chefs.’ “
Quenioux, who changes the menu constantly, says the on-again, off-again schedule is a boon for experimentation. “It allows me to be so creative, really take my time, go to this market, that market, go to the countryside … I would not be able to do that in my own restaurant, because it’s day-in, day-out.”
Menes feels differently; he saw his pop-up as simply a means to an end—namely, opening his own restaurant. “Cooking is natural for me,” he says. “That’s a given. What’s not a given is to see if your concept works, makes money, and if your budget model works. That’s what’s most important about this whole practice. It’s not cooking; it’s not farmer friends … but is this a viable business model?”
At the end of the day, what’s most important to Menes is to attract financing, “to be able to say, ‘This is what we do; here’s what it tastes like. If you enjoy that, come invest with us.’ “
Hermit Crabs In The Kitchen
Operating a restaurant in borrowed space can be a logistical nightmare.
Faced with limited storage facilities at Olive & Thyme, Renaud each day brought in, then removed, such items as glassware, napkins (personally hand-stamped with the Quartier logo), cheese boards, carafes, and decorative candles. “It’s very much like starting a new restaurant every day,” Renaud says. “You have to utilise a few hours to your best advantage.”
“It’s a pain in the neck,” Menes says plainly. Every shift, the self-described hermit crab transported his own advanced cooking equipment, such as a Cryovak and four immersion circulators. There was little room for elaborate prep work; Menes handled much of that at home or at a friend’s kitchen near the restaurant. The dearth of storage made shopping for fresh ingredients a challenge—pop-up managers must take special care not to overbuy—and the lack of a walk-in refrigerator forced Menes to keep food in picnic chests packed with dry ice.
Despite the hardships, would he do it again? “Absolutely,” says Menes, whose goal is to sign a lease in early 2012 for his own restaurant, which he would preview during the construction phase with a pop-up in January or February, “right in time for truffle season.”
Starry Kitchen, meanwhile, has a bigger space, with ample storage and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. For [email protected], Quenioux brings in his own fine-dining dishes and silverware and does most of the prep for each three-day run on Sundays, when Starry Kitchen is closed. For waiters, runners, and kitchen staff, he uses many of the people who worked with him at Bistro LQ, and fills in the holes with Starry Kitchen staffers and culinary students who work as unpaid externs.
Starry Kitchen has no liquor licence. However, for [email protected], Tran admits, “we’re not discouraging people from bringing recreational beverages to pair with recreational foods.”
[email protected], after taking a few weeks off in July, will run through the summer and possibly longer. “Why not keep it going while we’re having fun?” Tran says.
Fanning The Flames
Like gourmet food trucks—which rely on the blogosphere to spread word of their ever-changing locations in real time—pop-ups use social media as their principal, and often only, means of publicity. The rise of consumer-targeted social media marketing, not to mention recent media coverage such as Lefebvre’s TV show, has helped shift the pop-up from an insiders-only phenomenon to a more accessible movement.
Hardcore foodies are already plotting new experiences reserved for the privileged few. Some pop-ups are moving from restaurants to home kitchens, morphing into ultra-exclusive supper clubs. Meanwhile, The New York Times has reported on a planned Manhattan version of the “Dîner en Blanc,” the highly secretive annual Paris event whose guest list consists of “trusted friends who invite their own trusted friends.”
Still, the days of gimmicky concepts may be waning, as ever-more-savvy consumers seek to regain control of their dining experiences. Menes cites the cyclical nature of restaurants, which for now seem to focus squarely on the whims of chefs, not patrons. “It used to be that a tasting menu was a novelty, and now it’s mainstream,” he says, pointing out that pop-up customers rarely have a say in what they eat and are forced to accept fixed prices. “It used to be that people liked choosing.”
In other words, the young people who now enjoy pop-ups may in a few years be clamoring for a return to a more traditional dining experience: à la carte menus, in enduring, comfortable restaurants that put customer service first.
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.