Operating a pop-up is a great way to test the market and expand your reach. Just be sure to match your strategy to your goal.

According to GQ Magazine, pop-ups are alive and better than ever in the foodservice industry. These types of temporary food setups are continuing to take over cities in the United States.

“In the age of the rock-star chef, pop-ups are their world tours.” – GQ Magazine, How Pop-Ups Took Over America’s Restaurants

Man and woman serving food at food stall

What Is A Pop-Up Restaurant?

The National Restaurant Association defines a pop-up as a “mini restaurant that temporarily operates in parks, plazas, galleries, warehouses, event centers, and larger restaurants” (other variations also may be considered pop-ups). A pop-up is a good way to test a restaurant concept before committing to a full rollout. If you have an existing restaurant, a pop-up in a different location can introduce your brand to a broader audience. And in a market rich with the competition, the novelty of a here-today-gone-tomorrow concept can generate much-needed buzz.

Know why you want to do a pop-up. Operating a pop-up can be as complicated and involved as opening your own restaurant. Or it can be as easy as catering an event—if you’re already set up to do catering. Depending on where you operate your pop-up, you may even be able to leverage the location, extra marketing power and customer base of another restaurant.

Here are a few ways real operators have made the model work for them:

Goal: Increase awareness in the community

Solution: Collaborate with a local charity

A great way to support your community is tying in with a local charity, either to raise funds or awareness of a good cause. In some cases, you might become part of an existing event; in others, you create the event for the charity.

For example, Farm to Fork, a San Francisco collective of organizations and individuals committed to sustainability, hosts a monthly brunch and lecture series that features a different chef each time. Chefs showcase local purveyors and explain their contribution to the cause. Pop-ups in other cities have supported local food banks. Manhattan restaurateur Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, created an entire menu made from food waste to draw attention to the environmental impact of food waste.

Goal: Attract a new audience

Solution: Create a win-win for you and another operator

You may be able to partner with another operator by sharing your restaurants when they’re not busy, especially if you have complementary menus. If you do a bang-up breakfast or lunch, for example, host a pop-up in a restaurant that does primarily dinner. Offer your restaurant on a night you’re usually closed in exchange.

Arielle Chernin, creator of Congee & Me, a Boston pop-up, partners with local restaurants to give her space. Usually, the popular restaurants that host her, like Mei Mei Street Kitchen, have complementary menus but no congee. The restaurants’ customers are exposed to Chernin’s twist on the classic rice porridge, and her partners gain from the new customers Chernin’s followers bring in.

 

Goal: Test the viability of a new concept

Solution: Incubate your business in a restaurant concept hothouse

Food halls continue to grow in popularity. Many these days serve as labs and incubators for fledgling local operators and new concepts. Fishers Test Kitchen, Fishers, Ind., is a city-sponsored nonprofit launchpad for new culinary concepts that opened in November 2019 with three restaurants.

Smallman Galley, Pittsburgh, hosts pop-ups for up-and-coming chefs who run their own concepts for about three months. Concepts in place now include Liminal (healthy bowls), Sultry and The Smoke Pitt. Food hall incubators elsewhere include R. House, Baltimore; Fulton Galley, Chicago; Workshop, Charleston, S.C.; One Eleven Food Hall, Chicago; and Food Lab, New York.

Goal: Showcase what differentiates you

Solution: Offer a venue something it doesn’t have

When Boston-based FoMu started out selling vegan ice cream, it opened a pop-up near Fenway Park for the summer only to test the space and neighborhood, giving baseball fans something not typically available in or near a ballpark. The company now has four stores around the city.

Singer’s Significant Meats, Washington, D.C., has a biweekly pop-up in Bread Furst, a bakery and neighborhood store. Owner Doug Singer cures or roasts his own meats—pastrami, corned beef, citrus roasted pork and more—and always brings some new sandwich to the pop-ups. The collaboration has been so successful that Bread Furst buys sandwich meats from Singer, and Singer buys bread from the bakery.