Planning a Pop-Up Restaurant on a Shoestring Budget

Pop-up restaurants are all the rage among foodies from Los Angeles to New York. Open for one day to one year, these temporary establishments — often used by chefs to test concepts before moving to more permanent digs — provide a means of perfecting dishes and getting buzz going in a community. Vinaigrette salad with salmonWhen planned carefully, a pop-up restaurant can also operate on a shoestring budget. Perhaps you read our post that offered strategies for launching a pop-up restaurant? To a similar end, here are some guidelines for keeping costs down while running a provisional kitchen.

Seek affordable digs. Your own kitchen and dining room could serve as a makeshift restaurant, though you’ll want to make sure that using them doesn’t break any food-safety laws (or else risk the consequences). To keep things on the up and up, try taking over the remainder of a failed restaurant’s lease or renting space in a commercial kitchen during times when it’s not in use. The website PopUpInsider.com lists available spaces by location, and you can find many more by asking around locally. If you’re working in an existing restaurant or store, negotiate with your host: Perhaps you can use the space for free during off-hours in exchange for the publicity your venture will bring to the parent’s location?

Borrow equipment. It’s rarely worth buying furniture or kitchen gear to open a restaurant for a finite period of time. If your space isn’t equipped with everything you need, ask foodie friends for loaners. Because the focus of pop-ups is the food, having a posh dining room shouldn’t be a big concern. For example, the Vancouver pop-up One Hundred Days (which was open, appropriately, for 100 days) sported picnic tables and folding chairs — and sold out every night.

Consider crowdfunding. Although you can generally keep pop-up restaurant costs lower than those of traditional restaurants, you’ll still need to invest in ingredients and staff. If you don’t want to pay for everything out of pocket, look into crowd-funding models such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, in which people make donations to help fund your goal. If you find it tough to entice donors, try offering a free meal at your restaurant for anyone who pledges above a certain amount.

Plan your menu carefully. To keep costs low, offer only a few specialty dishes based on what’s in season at local markets. Many pop-ups offer a single tasting menu for a fixed price, which takes much of the confusion out of cooking and serving, not to mention billing customers.

Take note of what works and what doesn’t. A pop-up restaurant provides the perfect opportunity to experiment without consequence, so don’t be afraid to introduce bold ideas and flavors. If you’re using your pop-up as a precursor to a full-fledged restaurant launch, the customer feedback you collect will help you craft a solid business strategy. Knowing what your best-sellers are in advance will make you more likely to succeed in your permanent location right from the start.

About Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is a principal at the content marketing agency Eucalypt Media. She's written about business, marketing, and entrepreneurship for publications including BNET, TheAtlantic.com, Inc.com, and owns and operates the positive news site Gimundo. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynhawkins.
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