Pop-Up Restaurants: Everything You Need to Know
Mobile cuisine is creating a buzz across the nation – especially pop-up restaurants. Pop-up restaurants are a type of short-term restaurant that allows chefs to try out new concepts, test new audiences, experiment with edgier cuisine, fundraise money, or draw new investors without the expense of opening a traditional restaurant.
The National Restaurant Association’s 2018 “What’s Hot” chef’s survey named pop-up restaurants as the sixth most popular restaurant trend. What’s the appeal of pop-up restaurants to consumers and restaurateurs? We’ll discuss this and more about what you need to know when opening a pop-up restaurant.
What is a Pop-Up Restaurant?
Before pop-up restaurants, taco trucks were all the rage. Rewind back to 2008 when Roy Choi opened a Korean-barbecue taco truck that was such a smashing success that other food truck restaurateurs started moving in by the boatload. Although food trucks have been around for more than 100 years, Choi’s promotional strategies are what helped his restaurant gain momentum. From this point on, mobile cuisine would only grow in popularity.
Pop-up restaurants originated in the 1960s as supper clubs but have resurfaced within the last few years. Google Trends, a website that analyzes the popularity of search engine queries, shows that the term “pop-up restaurant” was pretty much non-existent before 2009. In 2014, the trend resurfaced and searches skyrocketed. This is mainly due to consumers’ crave to experience unique cuisine.
Pop-up restaurants are typically hosted in an existing restaurant, bar, abandoned businesses, building rooftops, airplane hangars, etc. Some restaurateurs are even opening up shared kitchen spaces. Options abound, so long as you can safely cook and serve food, though you’ll want to consider potential permits and requirements to qualify – in addition to costs.
The pop-up restaurant trend is typically appealing to new chefs as it allows them to sidestep a huge expense to introduce their concept. However, this trend isn’t only limited to new chefs. Seasoned chefs may want to try out a fresh concept but aren’t ready to commit to purchasing or renting a large space.
The length of time a pop-up restaurant sticks around is up to its operator. The idea is typically to make your mark but leave soon enough so you can make room for other pop-ups. For example, McDonald’s offered a one-day luxury pop-up experience. The pop-up featured butlers, a string quartet, silver cloches, and gold cutlery. McDonald’s did this as a publicity stunt for the launch of their signature collection. You could definitely stay open longer than a day but no longer than a couple of months.
In some of the most popular cities for pop-up restaurants, you can even find entire malls dedicated to this trend. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco all have spaces solely devoted to providing real estate to emerging pop-up restaurants. For example, Manhattan-based food hall Sous Vide Kitchen opened in early 2018. This food hall features four restaurants that are typically limited to delivery and catering orders.
Pop-Up and co-working kitchens are popular amongst delivery companies too. DoorDash, UberEats, and Postmates have experimented with kitchen trailers and renting out extra space to test out a new idea.
Examples of Successful Pop-Up Restaurants
Once a pop-up, now a permanent restaurant – sometimes. Here are a few of the most popular restaurants that got their start as a short-term concept.
This Nashville-based restaurant was the city’s very first ramen noodle spot. Along with ramen, owner Sarah Gavigan used locally-sourced pork bones to create a deliciously creamy broth that includes springy noodles, braised pork, and pickled ginger.
If you want to visit this San Francisco-based restaurant, you’ll need to plan ahead! Tickets go on sale every third Monday of the month to save a seat for dinner the following month. Lazy Bear only offers two seatings nightly and offers an interactive experience with guests. You are even invited to walk back in the kitchen and chat with the chefs!
You’d think when you hear “burger”, this restaurant would only appeal to carnivores. This unique East Village, NYC restaurant is equally appealing to vegetarians too. Lines are frequently out the door to pick up some of chef Brook Headley’s healthy spins on typically unhealthy grub.
Pros and Cons of Pop-Up Restaurants
Think you have a good idea to start a pop-up restaurant? You may want to weigh the pros and cons first. Here are a few items to keep in mind before moving forward:
- Ability to test out new restaurant concepts and menu
- Cheaper startup costs
- Flexibility to test pricing methods
- Easy to move from city to city to test different markets
- Small losses if the concept fails
- Repeat customers could be difficult since you are “popping up”
- Hard to determine food and labor costs
- Hiring could be challenging since it’s temporary work
- Limited resources and potential unfamiliar restaurant spaces
- Small margin for error regarding press coverage and word of mouth (i.e., social media) to get the word out
Opening a Pop-Up Restaurant
Still interested in opening a pop-up restaurant? Here are a few items to prepare before you open your doors.
Decide on a Location
Location is one of the most important factors in opening a pop-up restaurant. You’ll need to be close to your target audience but you’ll also need running water, adequate dining space, and a good sewage system. If money is a factor, make sure to compare prices of existing restaurant spaces vs. general locations (building rooftops).
Create a Business Plan
Though this isn’t a full-service operation, your pop-up restaurant will still need a roadmap. You’ll want to include an executive summary, sample menu, target market, competitive analysis, marketing plan, etc. If your pop-up is successful, you may even consider opening a restaurant.
Apply for Licenses and Permits
Before you open your doors, you’ll need the proper licenses, permits, and insurance. Consult with local authorities to determine what you’ll need to operate.
Obtain the Proper Equipment
What equipment will you need in your kitchen? What about your dining room, if there is one? Determining how long you’ll need the equipment will help you decide how much it’ll cost to open your pop-up restaurant. Consider renting or even borrowing to save money.
Create Your Menu
After putting together your business plan and target demographic, put together a killer menu. This should be your “greatest hits” for the concept you may commit to full-time, so be sure to engineer a menu that your guests will love.
How will you spread the word about your pop-up? Press coverage will be key for your pop-up. Start building relationships with media outlets and send over information about your concept to grow interest. Make sure you build up your social media presence and share plenty of pictures of dishes and information about your menu.
Get Started with Your Pop-Up Restaurant
Do you think you have what it takes to open a pop-up restaurant? If so, it’s time to give your food concept the platform it deserves. If at first you don’t succeed, try a new market or location. Luckily, pop-up restaurants give you the flexibility to keep coming back and trying different ideas.
This article was originally published on November 21, 2018. To keep it relevant, we updated it on January 26, 2021.
If your pop-up restaurant takes off, it might be time to look into opening a permanent location. Read more about what goes into opening a full-time establishment.
About the Author
Emily Elder was a Content & Social Media Specialist at QSR Automations. Emily was born and raised in Louisville, but considers herself a die-hard University of Kentucky fan. For college, Emily attended Indiana University Southeast and obtained a degree in Communications with a track in Advertising. In her free time, Emily enjoys just about every water related activity, but she is partial to kayaking and whitewater rafting.