When acclaimed Danish restaurant Noma, known as the world’s best restaurant, recently announced it would operate a seven-week pop-up in Tulum, Mexico, reservations were filled out within two hours. Though the announcement of the pop-up was criticized for being non-inclusive to its cultural surroundings (by charging $600 for its tasting menu), it has made one thing crystal clear: the pop-up restaurant is much more than just a passing trend.
From supper clubs to food trucks to immersive dining experiences, temporary food experiences have become a thriving part of urbanized culture around the world. Contrary to Noma’s approach, it’s usually done the other way around: start with an idea, rent a temporary space, spread the word, test your menu and scale quickly – or fail fast..
In cities like London, Paris and New York, where rent is high, competition is fierce and choosing where to eat is a transient practice, the pop-up to permanent model is becoming the default way of doing things. As we see more restaurants starting life as pop-ups, what do those behind them have to say about their experience?
Starting small and scaling steadily
“I never wanted to open a proper restaurant– in fact, I couldn’t think of anything worse than the stress of being a chef. I had food truck business before, which went badly and I learned what not to do. I began hosting supper clubs. Then one day, the idea came to me to start a restaurant without being the chef. I couldn’t get it out of my head,” says James Ramsden, co-founder of Pidgin, a Michelin-starred restaurant that’s been commemorated for its weekly changing menu run by architect-turned-chef Dan Graham.
“We started Pidgin modestly, in a small space in Hackney. There wasn’t much footfall and we only opened on weekends. Taking a similar approach with the menu, we went from a set supper club four-course menu to gradually building it out into a huge range of interesting dishes. We’ve now been open for 97 weeks and have served over 500 dishes. We’ve never repeated anything.”
Now, James and his co-founder Sam Herlihy are using the experience to launch their new restaurant Magpie in Soho. “Starting small to test out everything felt like it played to our strengths. We wouldn’t have had the finances or experience to jump straight into having a 16,000 square foot restaurant in Soho.”
Supper clubs have opened up the industry by allowing young chefs to experiment with paying guests through using under-utilized kitchens in local pubs, unusual venues or even homes. It’s paved the way for new players to build a business plan and enter the market who otherwise may have never been able to take the financial risks involved with raising funds, paying rent, paying staff and so on.
London, with its growing lists of success stories, is at the forefront of the pop-up to permanent phenomenon: there’s Som Saa, the Northern Thai restaurant that went from a critically acclaimed pop-up in London Fields to crowdfunding it’s permanent location in Spitalfields; there’s Mac & Wild, the Scottish pop-up that went permanent in Fitzrovia with its gun room featuring a virtual shooting simulator; there’s Breddos & Tacos, a taqueria in Clerkenwell that started as a makeshift taco shack in a Hackney car park; there’s Clove Club, the Michelin-starred British restaurant that started as a traveling supper club… there are so many, it's hard to keep track.
Street food lessons
Starting a restaurant today has a lot less to do with brick and mortar than it used to. The rules of the trade have certainly shifted. Street food markets and food trucks have also levelled the playing field for passionate foodies to build businesses from humble beginnings.
“Even in Paris people are starting to realize that street food culture is a more relaxed way of eating– opposed to the traditional Parisian mindset that quality food can only come from top chefs in permanent establishments,” says Sabrina Goldin, who started an Argentinian street food truck called Asado Club together with her partner Stephane Abby two years ago. “Street food has democratized good food for the masses. You can offer high quality, simple food at an affordable price. It also lets you be in closer contact with people, as well as cook more honestly. There are no big kitchens or walls to hide behind. What you see is what you get,”
Alongside their street food stall, Sabrina and Stephane launched a 20-meter-squared permanent empanada shop next to Canal St. Martin last year, and are now gearing up to open up their permanent restaurant Carbón this summer in Le Marais.
“We’ve worked in very difficult conditions: under the rain, with unexpected rushes and no staff, which is one hell of a training. Restaurants have a more fixed structure with protocol. It’s exciting that we’ll have a place of our own where people can sit down and enjoy our service, because we’re very aware of Paris’ reputation when it comes to service!”
Tasting the world
Pop-ups and street food have also paved the way for a plethora of exotic food to become part of urbanised culture and bring totally underrepresented cuisines into the light. It’s those who truly find a niche and dedicate themselves to doing something different that seem to succeed.
“Iraqi cuisine was the food I grew up eating. My dad, from Mosul, cooks the most amazing dolma and kubba,” Philip Juma tells us about Juma Kitchen, his London-based supper club concept which rose to success over the past years. “I was working in wealth management before. Being a foodie, I couldn't find this type of food anywhere, so I thought I'd do something about it.”
As a self-taught chef, he at first found it daunting to cook for paying guests. Hosting supper clubs became a vehicle to learn, gather feedback and gain confidence in the kitchen. “Cooking at home compared to cooking for 40-60 people is a complete different ball game. Working between different kitchens meant that each came with a unique set of problems, whether a dodgy oven or a temperamental fryer, which also meant that mistakes were made. Now, I try to get to know the kitchen beforehand and alleviate risks. I’ve also invested in my own equipment and built an incredible team. It’s been amazing– I’m running consistently sold out supper clubs, currently with a residency at TT Liquor throughout June for London Food Month. There’s talk of potentially opening a permanent restaurant next year.”
Starting a restaurant is a challenge, no matter the circumstance. From the food sourcing logistics to budgeting to the finer service details, there’s a tons to factor in. Starting small and temporary proves to be a way to raise the chance of success. Those who do succeed, do so out of rigorous dedication to their concept and a genuine passion for what they’re doing. They’re not jumping on the next food hype bandwagon to make a quick buck.
Whether through a market stall or immersive dinner parties, the tools and resources now exist for any passionate foodie to test out their ideas through popping-up. If you are one to give it a go, who knows, you may even end up with a Michelin star.
Words by: Lisa Roolant