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Pop-up restaurants are a trendy but effective force in the food industry.
Looking for a low-cost way to test out new restaurant concepts and menu ideas? Are you a new or aspiring restaurant owner but don’t have the funds to open a restaurant?
A few years ago, your answer might have been a food truck. They, too, give you the opportunity to test the culinary waters and give new guests a chance to learn about your food and the teams behind that food — without having to invest too much in location, equipment, or labor.
But pop-up restaurants are a relatively newer trend that might be your answer to building a successful proof of concept — and they don’t usually involve preparing, cooking, and serving food out of a small vehicle.
Here are a few things to consider as you think about opening a pop-up restaurant.
“We weren’t feeling like we really fit into the culture of our companies, so we wanted to create one of our own," says Chih Lin.
What is a Pop-Up Restaurant?
Pop-up restaurants are temporary restaurants hosted in various spaces, such as existing restaurants on their off days, bars, arcades, bowling alleys, theaters, or even chef's homes. A pop-up restaurant can take the form of everything from an exclusive one-night takeover of a neighborhood restaurant to a food tent open for a few months at a local outdoor market.
Many established and aspiring restaurateurs are now turning to the pop-up trend, both to build community partnerships and to create buzz and collect feedback before making the investment in a full-fledged restaurant. They’re also a great way to start building relationships with the community and partnerships with other local businesses.
The Pros & Cons of Opening a Pop-Up Restaurant
Restaurant professionals are opening new pop-ups all the time, and guests are scrambling to get access to these events. But before you jump into opening one yourself, you need to consider all the pros and cons, as well as what exactly your purpose or mission is behind opening one. You’ll also get inspiration from other pop-up restaurants that have succeeded.
The pros of opening a pop-up restaurant
Ability to test a new restaurant concept or menu, as well as evaluate current skills and techniques, before investing further
Lower startup costs, including less overhead and labor
Opportunity for culinary creativity
Extra marketing power and built-in audience if “popping up” at an already existing venue
Option to test different pricing methods, such as flat ticket prices or prix fixe menus for exclusive dining experiences
Flexibility in location and ability to move from city to city with similar concepts or menus
The cons of opening a pop-up restaurant
Must be willing to operate with limited resources or equipment and/or in unfamiliar territory
Challenging food and labor costs to control, and can be difficult to turn a profit despite potentially higher check averages
May be difficult to create repeat customers if only opening occasional pop-ups
How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant: A Step-by-Step Guide
After reading all of the above, are you feeling excited about the idea of starting a pop-up restaurant? If so, here's 13 steps towards achieving your dream.
1. Choose a pop-up restaurant format
As mentioned, a pop-up restaurant can take many forms. Here are a few pop-up restaurant concept examples to consider.
FOMU in Boston tested a new location with a pop-up vegan ice cream restaurant in the neighborhood near Fenway Park, in the summer only, allowing them to test the efficacy of the new space. They have four brick-and-mortar locations in total around the city.
Smallman Galley in Pittsburgh hosts ongoing pop-up restaurants for young chefs looking to grow their career. Each chef manages the restaurant's operations, both front-of-house and back-of-house, for a limited time.
Singer's Significant Meats in Washington, D.C. hosts bi-weekly pop-ups at Bread Furst. This lets them create a menu based on seasonality, creativity, and spontaneity, keeping guests guessing about what kind of sandwiches — pastrami, corned beef, and more — are coming next.
Farm to Fork in San Francisco hosts a monthly pop-up event that shows a documentary at dinner about the life of the chef, how they source ingredients, and the story behind their food. Food from that chef follows the screening, so that the chef can build a community around their brand.
Congee & Me in Boston is a pop-up restaurant concept by Arielle Chernin that serves traditional Chinese rice porridge with a twist. They partner with popular local restaurants like Mei Mei to get their dishes in front of established customer bases — and usually see lines around the block. They’re also available for private events, dinner parties, and catering.
2. Create a pop-up restaurant business plan
Once you have your concept secured, the next step to starting any business is spinning up a business plan. Your pop-up restaurant business plan will act as a blueprint that outlines your entire vision, including the end goal of the pop-up. The plan will act as a roadmap to help you stay focused when you're in the weeds.
Here, you’ll talk about your company overview, your operations (who are your suppliers? What is your staffing and service model?), and even more detail that will help you get everything going.
3. Decide on a pop-up restaurant location
If possible, taking over an old pop-up restaurant location, or one closing soon, is easier for obvious reasons. Markets that rotate out new pop-ups regularly are also great locations to look at. But if you're starting from scratch, research restaurants or bars in your area that host pop-ups, or brainstorm unique venues — like bowling alleys or arcades — that your pop-up restaurant could open in.
Here are a few things to consider before choosing the right location for your pop-up restaurant:
- Your Style – Rustic? Hip? Elegant? Family-friendly? Casual? This can determine the type of customers you’re likely to appeal to.
- Target Market – Different areas of your city appeal to different people. Consider whether you're looking to attract young professionals, families, students, tourists — and adjust your plans accordingly to match where they're typically found.
- Accessibility and Parking – If you’re attracting tourists, parking isn't a problem since they’re likely to use public transit or a rideshare. If you're in a walkable area, you're probably ok for parking to not be a make-or-break factor. But in the suburbs? It'll be critical.
- Zoning Restrictions – Can you open a pop-up restaurant here?
- Rent and Utilities Costs – Will you be able to make this up in sales with the type of customers you’re going to draw in?
4. Look into pop-up restaurant legal requirements, licenses, and permits
When it comes to getting your hands on the permits and licenses needed to open a pop-up, it’s a good idea to start with state-specific requirements. Each and every state (and some counties) have their own regulations when it comes to opening new businesses, so you’ll want to start the process of obtaining them as early as possible.
Start this step by figuring out which restaurant licenses and permits you will need between now and opening day — do some research on your local requirements and make a thorough list, as some forms will depend on the completion of other permits. Outline everything that needs to be done, in order, to make sure you don't miss a step.
The licenses and permits needed to open a pop-up may include, but are not limited to:
Food handler’s license
Health and safety inspection
5. Collect the tax, DBA, and EIN information for your pop-up restaurant business
In addition to having various restaurant licensing and permit requirements, states also have differing tax and employer requirements that are required for opening a pop-up restaurant. And similarly, it’s also a good idea to start this process early to avoid missing deadlines. Understanding restaurant tax requirements is key to avoiding fees and fines as a new business.
Collect the necessary tax paperwork through either an in-house or third party tax professional. Then, if applicable, file for your DBA (Doing Business As) — also known as your unique trade name. Then, if you plan to hire employees, you'll need an EIN (Employer Identification Number) that will allow you to file income and payroll tax returns.
These are just a few of the important regulatory steps that you’ll need to follow, so just like with licenses and permits, get googling and find out exactly what you need to do in your state and county, and consult with a professional.
6. Design your pop-up restaurant branding, marketing, promotion, and advertising strategy
Set up your grand opening for success and get customers in the door with great marketing. The best place to start is by creating your restaurant marketing plan - where you can set goals, choose which best practices you'll be trying out, and plan out your marketing calendar and budget for that critical first year.
Developing your marketing strategy begins by defining exactly what it is you are marketing. The specific offering of your pop-up restaurant and its intended audience will drive your branding, which is the look and feel of your restaurant, website, plating, social media — it's where it all comes together.
When determining your approach to marketing and advertising, consider your target customer, what platforms they use on social media and online, whether or not you want to pay to boost social ads or place other kinds of advertisements wherever your one-day customers tend to hang out.
When you launch your new shop, developing a strong restaurant social media marketing strategy can help to showcase your food in a visual and shareable format. Social media helps put pop-up restaurants on the map and attract new customers.
You can also use Toast’s Restaurant Marketing Plan template to build out your plan for how you’ll keep the guests coming through your door — and coming back for more.
And, get your pop-up restaurant off to a great start with a grand opening. Here are some ideas to get you started, and generate early buzz for your pop-up restaurant.
7. Figure out your pop-up restaurant finances, sales forecasts and operating expenses
At this stage, it’s time to revisit your restaurant business plan and look at your initial financial projections for your pop-up restaurant so you can plan out day-to-day operating expenses. With a more thorough understanding of your operating and marketing costs, you can more accurately predict the future earnings.
How much does it cost to start a pop-up restaurant? While there isn’t any set amount, the general cost of opening a pop-up restaurant is significantly less than that of a traditional permanent business, with lower initial costs of investment.
For more information on the typical costs of opening a pop-up, check out this post, and consider how a minimal location cost and much leaner staffing costs will cut back on the average.
How much does it cost to run a pop-up?
When factoring in the costs of running a pop-up restaurant business, think about equipment, staff, marketing, building, tech, and food. The typical operational costs for running a restaurant include fees such as rent, utilities, equipment and appliances, licenses, technology, inventory and labor. Some of these costs might be included in your rent if you are using space in a food hall or market, so specific costs will vary depending on your location and business agreements.
8. Secure pop-up restaurant funding and loans
Most people don’t have the cash on hand to just start a new business tomorrow. But luckily, restaurant financing is available, and there's a ton of options to consider. Trying to figure out how to open a pop-up restaurant with no money?
Consider investigating how to get a business line of credit, an SBA Microloan for small-businesses, a startup business grant, or equipment financing for the pop-up restaurant kitchen — among many other options.
Once you've got your financing, you can start buying equipment and setting up your space with the basics that you'll need to get started.
Whether you’re opening a new restaurant, expanding your concept, or renovating within your existing four-walls, you’re going to need capital to make it all happen.
9. Build your pop-up restaurant menu
Use your pop-up restaurant as an opportunity to engineer a menu that surprises and delights new guests. Make sure to consider food costs and prime costs when pricing the menu, whether it's prix fixe or item-by-item, to make sure you're turning a profit.
Start building your pop-up restaurant menu based on your individual concept. Are you offering a full food menu? A small-bites menu? Changing every day? This the time to figure it out.
Start by simply writing down all of your ideas before organizing them into groups based on ingredients and supplies needed. Take a peek at what your competition offers, and see where you can fill a gap in the market or jump on industry trends. Then, use menu design strategies and menu engineering to craft a pop-up restaurant menu that will improve sales and draw in new guests.
10. Find your pop-up restaurant inventory supplier
Now that you have determined your menu items — in addition to the ingredients and materials you’ll need to make them — you can begin purchasing your inventory. Of course, first you’ll need to decide where you’ll be purchasing your supplies from. it’s always a good idea to take your time reading reviews and chatting with your peers about potential suppliers. Overcoming supplier delays and miscommunications can be a real hassle for pop-ups, especially when they are just getting started establishing themselves. To avoid inventory hassles, partner with a supplier who you trust and respect.
There are many food industry wholesale platforms that you can use for your inventory. Additionally, depending on your location, you’ll be able to find a collection of local retailers from which to obtain your products.
11. Invest in a pop-up restaurant point of sale system
Another important decision you’ll have to make regarding the operations of your shop is choosing your point of sale system. The best POS systems for emerging organizations are user-friendly and make the payment process seamless for guests and for staff. Make sure to partner with a restaurant POS system that’ll grow as you go, especially if you have aspirations to transform your pop-up restaurant into a full-fledged restaurant operation one day.
Toast’s POS system does just that, while providing you with the reporting and analytics that will help you keep track of your business’s performance and health.
Restaurant POS software benefits pop-ups with features like:
Simple interface: For quick order turnaround, large buttons and an easy user interface can speed up long lines on busy weekends.
Handheld devices: On-the-go pop-up restaurant operations need handheld POS devices to take customer payments and sell products from anywhere.
For more information, here’s everything you need to know about Toast’s restaurant POS System.
Learn how a better point of sale system can help you run your restaurant.
12. Craft your pop-up restaurant design and atmosphere
With a thorough restaurant business plan and vision, you’ll now need to design a layout and atmosphere that will align with your pop-up restaurant business goals. The decor should align with the food and your concept, and your service style should reflect the ambiance you hope to create.
Depending on your concept and pop-up location, this can be pretty easy — you might be able to use the dining area of the restaurant you’ve partnered with — or a bit challenging, depending on space and resources. Search for design inspiration and check out these restaurant layout examples.
13. Hire your pop-up restaurant team and management
A great staff is the backbone of a successful restaurant. When hiring for a pop-up restaurant or other restaurant, you can start by tapping your network, former colleagues, and local industry facebook groups. You can also try out industry job sites like Culinary Agents, Jobs On The Menu, or Poached.
Check out this complete guide to restaurant staffing for more information on hiring, retaining those star employees, and managing your staff.
Open your doors
And you’re off! Though the process of opening a new pop-up restaurant can be daunting, but taking it one step at a time and doing your research will make the process easier. Maybe one day your pop-up will turn into a brick-and-mortar business, or perhaps you'll love the flexibility of pop-up life.