As restaurateurs work to lure new patrons and set themselves apart from the competition, a few are testing the idea of pop-up restaurants; temporary eateries that “pop up” in non-traditional spaces like antique stores, art galleries, even foreign consulates.
It may sound like a sweet way to easily amp up revenue and let chefs test-drive new dishes, but setting up a pop-up restaurant requires both creativity and careful planning.
Aaron Cohen has been organizing monthly pop-ups in and around Boston since last fall. He, along with Will Gilson (chef at Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge, Mass. and at their pop-up events), is the cofounder of Eat Boston. He shared with us his five biggest tips for creating a successful pop-up restaurant.
- Plan your kitchen space. Cohen says every pop-up has its challenges, but lack of kitchen space is often an issue because these spaces weren’t designed as restaurants. In one instance, Cohen arranged to use a nearby kitchen. Other times, his team prepared the meal in a food truck. Brainstorm workarounds and make arrangements well in advance.
- Be flexible. Think through the details, but also be ready for some surprises. “You have to be adaptable,” says Cohen. “Nothing is going to work out the way that you plan it, regardless of how much time you put into planning.” At one event, Cohen’s team had planned to use their food truck but it broke down, so they wound up using a caja china (or pig-roasting box) and cooked the entire meal over hot coals.
- Focus on a few memorable dishes. Unlike traditional restaurants, where patrons choose from several different appetizers, entrees, and desserts, pop-up restaurants typically streamline the process with prix fixe menus. That makes things simpler for the chef and servers. “If someone lets us know ahead of time, we’re usually able to accommodate a special request,” says Cohen. “We don’t want to get into the habit of serving 60 different meals to 60 different people, but so far it hasn’t been a problem.” Plus, since everyone pays the same price and eats the same dishes, it’s easier to predict revenue and reduce wasted food.
- Get creative. The appeal of pop-up restaurants is that it gives chefs a chance to experiment outside of their regular menu and lets patrons enjoy a meal in an unexpected place. In other words, novel spaces paired with inventive menus. Cohen points to the chocolate-inspired Valentine’s Dinner he planned at the Taza Chocolate factory earlier this year. “The idea of doing a pop-up dinner in a chocolate factory on Valentine’s Day is ideal because there’s a story there,” he says. “Millions of Americans go out to eat on Valentine’s Day, but only 120 people got to eat in a chocolate factory.”
- Tap into social media. Cohen maintains an email list of people who’ve attended pop-up events in the past. Eat Boston is also active on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. But Cohen says the reason his pop-up restaurants and other events often sell out in advance is positive word of mouth. “We create events that people will want to talk about, and they talk about it online,” he adds. “It’s most important to come up with a good event that people want to come to. That makes marketing pretty easy.”