A common measure of a restaurant’s success is how long it can keep its doors open. Yet longevity isn’t the only way to make a buck in the business. Pop-ups—restaurants that open on the fly for a few days—are short-lived by design. Chefs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City have been turning unassuming restaurants into hot spots, and now local restaurateurs are turning to pop-ups at a time when opening a restaurant is financially harder to stomach (or at least until Chicago sorts out its food-truck regulations).
“People are attracted to precious, fleeting experiences,” explains Zina Murray of shared commercial kitchen space Logan Square Kitchen(2333 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-342-2333). She invited chefs Jason Hammel and Bill Kim to LSK to run a pop-up last July (pop-ups are typically in other restaurants, especially those that offer only breakfast and lunch and want to make money by renting out their space for dinner service). Hammel, of Lula and Nightwood, offered doughnuts; Kim, of Urbanbelly and Belly Shack, sampled an Asian-accented picnic spread. Now Kim is a pop-up advocate, and for good reason: He can test a concept and get feedback without a lot of expense. “It’s like a pilot for a television program,” he explains. “A smart investor might say, ‘Let’s do a pop-up restaurant first.’ That’s what I would do.”
Pop-ups aren’t limited to indie restaurants. While X-marx (xmarxchicago.com) has historically trafficked in underground dining, it recently started taking over a couple of restaurants for an evening. As for Kim, he is plotting a vegetarian menu and a Japanese pub concept for future pop-ups (check Twitter handles @urbanbelly and @bellyshack for updates).
“There is an element of surprise,” notes Phillip Foss, who uses both a food truck and pop-ups for Meatyballs, his meatball-sandwich business. For Foss, who isn’t ready to open a full-fledged restaurant, a pop-up may even be crucial for business. “It keeps you on the scene and in the public eye.”