What's a low-cost way to test out new restaurant concepts and menu ideas? If you’re a new or aspiring restaurant owner and don’t have $10,000 to dish out to start a restaurant, what are your options?
A few years ago, you might have said: start a food truck. You can 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.
However, now a new trend has been popping up – literally.
Pop-up restaurants are temporary restaurants hosted in various spaces, such as existing restaurants, bars, abandoned arcades, bowling alleys, theatres, or even chef's homes.
A great way to start building a partnership with the community, many established and aspiring restaurateurs are turning to this trend to create buzz about their food. Plus, they're cheaper to start than a fully-fledged restaurant operation, at only $2,500 a week to cover ingredients, insurance, and rental space according to Wise Son's Jewish Delicatessan in San Francisco.
So where did this trend come from, and why is it only now popping up on your radar? Let's delve into the history of pop-up restaurants.
The History of Pop-Up Restaurants
A relatively new trend, more and more restaurants – established and aspiring – are considering starting a pop-up restaurant, and more and more guests are getting excited about these unique dining experiences. Pop-up restaurants showed an 8% increase in trend growth on the National Restaurant Association’s Movers & Shakers list for 2016. According to the association’s What’s Hot survey, nearly 60 % of respondents say pop-up restaurants are still a viable trend.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, the term “pop-up restaurant” only became common in 2014, according to this Google Trends report.
However, the term “supper club,” from which pop-up restaurants evolved, has been around for a while.
Let me explain. Back in the 1960s, the term "supper club" referred to traditional restaurants that also served as exclusive social clubs. They would present themselves as "high-class," even if the price was relatively affordable. Eventually, the term "underground restaurants" became synonymous with "supper clubs." These were "closed door restaurants" where famous chefs would cook food out of their home for the masses - or at least, for those who were "in the know" about the event.
In 2007, Ludo Lefebvre brought the underground restaurant concept to the public with one of the first pop-up restaurant concepts: LudoBites, in Los Angeles. LudoBites was a series of temporary eateries that appeared all across LA, seemingly by random - a few days here, a few weeks there - and then disappeared.
“I think the pop-up model can work great for quick service,” Lefebvre says in this QSR Magazine article. “It is a really great avenue to test-market a new concept. It can also help give a little energy to a quick-service restaurant that might be stale or boring. Instead of testing or launching a single product, think about a concept within a concept.”
Since then, several restaurateurs have hopped on the trend, and several diners have made it their mission to find exclusive pop-up events to attend. In fact, Eventbrite analyzed more than 40,000 of these events in our look at top food and drink event trends and found that the fastest growing trend was the pop-up dining experience, with 82% growth.
So You Want to Open a Pop-Up Restaurant?
Now that we’ve shared some key statistics about pop-up restaurants and proved that guests are literally scouring event sites for these exclusive events, I’m sure you can’t wait to get your hands dirty planning a pop-up restaurant concept. But hold on! You shouldn’t just jump in. The decision to open a pop-up restaurant can’t be based out of fear or on a whim. You need to consider the pros and cons of opening a pop-up restaurant, as well as your purpose or mission for opening one.
Weigh the pros and cons, and research how other restaurateurs are experimenting with the pop-up concept.
- 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 rare dining experiences
- Flexibility in location and ability to move from city to city with similar concepts or menus
- 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
- Heavy reliance on public relations, community building, social media and marketing
Related Article: Restaurant Business Plan Template
- FOMU in Boston tested a new location with a pop-up vegan ice cream restaurant in Fenway, in the summer only, allowing them to test the efficacy of the new space.
- 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, and the restaurant uses Toast POS software to manage their consistent flow of orders.
- Batch in Austin opened a kolache and barbecue pop-up at Blue Owl Brewery's anniversary party. Because the restaurant isn't open yet, this was a a good strategy because it piggy-backs on an already existing event and highlights both brands, generating interest in the Austin food scene.
- 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 showing, so that chef can build a community around their brand.
Your Step-by-Step Guide to How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant
After reading all of the above, are you still itching to start a pop-up restaurant? If so, here's your 8-step plan.
- Create 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. Download a template to get started here.
- Choose a location. Research restaurants or bars in your area that host pop-ups, or brainstorm unique venues, such as bowling alleys or arcades, that your pop-up restaurant could open in.
- Apply for insurance, permits, and licenses. Make sure that you apply for your foodservice permit, business license, and insurance. Learn more about the permits and licenses required to open a restaurant.
- Set up a mobile kitchen. Invest in restaurant equipment that’s not too bulky and is portable, so you have flexibility in your pop-up restaurant location.
- Set up a temporary dining room. Depending on your concept, this can be extremely easy (your dining room might already exist in the restaurant) or extremely hard. Search for design inspiration here.
- Write & price a pop-up 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. Enroll in Menu Engineering Bootcamp to learn how.
- Get the right technology. 79% of guests say restaurant technology improves their guest experience. Make sure to partner with a restaurant POS system that will grow with you, especially if you have aspirations to transform your pop-up restaurant into a fully-fledged restaurant operation.
- Follow a marketing and PR plan. Pop-up restaurants rely heavily on marketing and PR plans, so partner with publications such as Eater, Thrillist, and local newspapers and magazines that cover new restaurant openings. Get your Restaurant Marketing Guide today.
Your Turn: Have You Opened a Pop-Up Restaurant?
Have you ever started a pop-up restaurant? How did you measure success, and what advice do you have for fellow restaurateurs looking to follow the trend? If you're thinking about opening a pop-up restaurant, what would your concept be?
Share in the comments below, and don't forget to download your business plan template to help organize your thoughts.