A pop-up restaurant is kind of like the culinary world’s version of a military deployment. The eatery is set up in some sort of non-traditional location, perhaps with a bit of jury-rigging that is within the bounds of the law and safety standards, and is meant to only be there for a short time or to only serve meals sporadically. Meant primarily to promote a chef or their restaurant, they are also sort of like an individualized (and more ambitious) version of the stands set up at a food festival.

The pop-up restaurant can potentially set up anywhere it can operate legally and safely. They’ve been found everywhere from the roofs of city buildings to the inside of barns. Existing restaurants are generally the easiest choice, as all the necessary equipment is on hand, and the hosting restaurant can additionally get some cross-promotion buzz going.

They also do sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. This is especially true of those set up in private homes, which are almost never zoned for such things. If they “pop up” just for one night, however, there’s very little chance of a law enforcement response unless something goes horribly wrong. The ones that operate out of a residence on a regular basis usually maintain an erratic schedule, shared by word of mouth among only a relatively small group of trusted friends and acquaintances, and only the most popular or careless get noticed by the local Health Department. A bigger legal danger comes in the form of serving alcohol without a license. In some areas, this can be side-stepped around by having diners BYOB, but this isn’t always a safe legal defense.

The big appeal of the pop-up is the relatively low cost to get going.

Assuming one is going the entirely legal route to promote their work or build interest in starting a more traditional restaurant, the big appeal of the pop-up is the relatively low cost to get going. Due to the transitory nature and usual lack of a full kitchen, the menu of the pop-up restaurant is almost always limited to a few dishes. Of course, the dishes will be something very unique or original to heighten the sense of being part of a special event, usually with the chef showing off their personal best dishes.

POP-UP PROS

  • It’s a relatively inexpensive way for a chef to get their name out and start getting people familiar with their work or helping them to establish themselves in a new area.
  • It’s also an inexpensive way to do a “test kitchen” of sorts that is detached from an established restaurant. New menu items can be introduced and experimented with while keeping them disassociated from the restaurant until there is certainty that they will work.
  • Chefs from different restaurants can cook together, which is not only great for a one-off event that patrons get really excited about, but also provides them with an opportunity to share some knowledge and technique.

POP-UP CONS

  • These are not great money-making operations. Even though diners are willing to pay good money to be a part of a pop-up if the right buzz is generated, the cost will be offset by the need to have a full staff to really make a good impression. A pop-up restaurant should be looked at more as a promotional measure that the chef can break even or only spend a small amount on rather than a way to bring in extra income.
  • There’s a pretty hard cap on the number of people that can be present, and you’ll often find there’s more interest than you can accommodate.

A pop-up restaurant should be looked at more as a promotional measure that the chef can break even or only spend a small amount on rather than a way to bring in extra income.

Our conclusion? Pop-up restaurants have been popping up for a few years now, so the trend isn’t entirely fresh, but it does seem to have strong legs so go for it as long as there’s good promotion and people are actually interested in the concept.

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