Why pop-ups pay off

Pop-up restaurants have obvious marketing appeal for chefs—you’re getting your name out there through a different channel. A chef might want to introduce a new concept before it launches, as seen by chef Dirk Flanigan holding pop-ups around Chicago to preview his upcoming Il Coniglio restaurant. A chef might put on a pop-up at a high-traffic event, such as when chef David Burke held the “New Roots” pop-up for charity in collaboration with nonprofit organization The International Rescue Committee at this year’s New York Fashion Week. Or a chef might simply want to use the format to try something risky. The biggest challenge facing those wanting to do a pop-up, according to Chris Dexter, partner at Chicago multiconcept operator Element Collective, is finding a space.

Some operators have taken up the role of host, offering their restaurant or event space to outside chefs. Miami-based The Genuine Hospitality Group, for example, shuts down to regular business at its Harry’s Pizzeria about once a month for “Chef Pop-Up Dinners.” And this February, Element Collective launched Ampersand, a small space within Kinmont, one of its existing restaurants, entirely devoted to pop-up food and drink events. Ask any of these operators why they’re playing host, and you won’t hear anything about profits. In fact, they don’t make a lot of dough from them. “We’re not even trying to make money,” says Dexter. Instead, you’ll overwhelmingly get a warm and fuzzy answer about fostering talent, promoting collaboration and supporting entrepreneurship. While that is undoubtedly true, there’s also good business sense to hosting pop-ups.

A leg up on young talent. It’s nice to give sous chefs, who work long hours and do not always understand the logistics of operating a restaurant, a chance to showcase their talent. However, it also gives the operator a chance to scout up-and-coming chefs in the industry. After all, you never know who will be the next big thing for your business.

Getting current customers in one more time. The pop-up itself might not be bringing in the dollars, but offering a new service or a unique event is an opportunity to get diners in the door again and create customer loyalty. The Genuine Hospitality Group has built a strong group of regulars through its pop-up events. “About 60 to 75 percent of attendees are repeat pop-up enthusiasts,” says Jackie Sayet, the company’s brand director. And The Genuine Hospitality Group makes sure to show appreciation for its loyal followers; tickets to each event are first made available to those who have previously attended a pop-up before being released to the public.

Attracting new business. Bringing in outside chefs means attracting some of their followers. There’s also an advantage for visiting chefs: exposure. The pop-ups held at Harry’s Pizzeria all showcase out-of-town chefs. There’s no competition within the market, and the chefs have an opportunity to market themselves to future vacationers in their hometowns. An added marketing bonus for pop-up chefs at Harry’s Pizzeria is that they can promote their cookbooks, as signed copies are often included in the ticket price.

An opportunity to learn. Pop-ups serve as a way to test out ideas for the visiting chef and operator alike. Dishes that are successful at the pop-up may spur new specials, menu items or ideas for service. Pop-ups also may lead to future collaboration between chefs, as Element Collective’s goal is to create an “environment where people feel comfortable working with [them],” says Dexter.

Built-in testing ground. Think Food Group held a year-long pop-up in a building it already owned in Washington, D.C., to test America Eats Tavern before finding the concept a permanent home in northern Virginia. “It’s ideal to not only create a concept on paper and in theory but to put on a full dress rehearsal,” says CEO Rob Wilder. “It’s always better to have it running in full motion and see all aspects—server uniforms, menu printing, etc.—put into action.” They were able to learn from their mistakes, such as loosing money to theft of real-deal copper mugs, in this testing phase and make tweaks along the way. Element Collective agrees; Dexter says the company will use Ampersand to test out its new concepts in the future.

Hosts of these pop-ups do most of the heavy lifting. In addition to providing the space, the company handles all of the ADA compliances, logistics and legal aspects, says Dexter. Harry’s Pizzeria is in its third season of “Chef Pop-Up Dinners.” With a number of events under its belt, The Genuine Hospitality Group has gotten all the steps down cold, from interviewing the chef ahead of time on food needs, to selling tickets through a service, to reorganizing the restaurant space and furniture for the events.

Tips of the trade

Here are some tips for putting on successful pop-ups:

Sell tickets ahead of time to take the guesswork out of who will show up. “People already make the commitment,” says Jackie Sayet of The Genuine Hospitality Group. There are companies that take care of online ticket sales for a fee.

Price the meal wisely. The Genuine Hospitality Group charges guests a flat fee of $150 for all pop-up dinners held at Harry’s Pizzeria. Prices for Element Collective’s events vary depending on the style. The company works with the chef on pricing, so that the chef’s takeaway is between 15 and 20 percent of ticket sales.

Use social media to find extra staff. “We used a mix of our team and volunteers we found via Twitter,” says chef Graham Elliot Bowles on staffing his pop-up at Chicago music festival Lollapalooza. “[It’s] amazing how many people want to help out and be part of the party,” he says.

Master the timing. Many pop-ups do only one seating, so chefs must be prepared to serve all the diners at once. In that case, it’s key that the line is adequately equipped with heat lamps and other prep equipment to accommodate service, says Chris Dexter of Element Collective.

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