Culinary Pop-Ups: Keeping a Cool Head and a Hot Plate

how to pull off culinary pop-ups

Culinary pop-ups are all the rage this summer, as suddenly ubiquitous as robot-delivered beer on college campuses. Cast your eyes through the humidity of any town square, and you’re bound to see offerings of customized gelatos, gourmet grilled cheese, or CBD oil-infused vegan burgers. Even large companies like MasterChef are spotlighting their wares on a worldwide scale, with contestants hosting exclusive culinary experiences for fans, and Pantone recently partnered with LG to promote the their OLED screens with vivid pop-up cafes in New York City.

The ultimate benefit — and appeal — of a culinary pop-up is its temporary state. If you’re not satisfied with turnout, menu, or response, it’s a low-cost way to tweak your strategy and try again elsewhere. For guests, it’s a guaranteed unique and exclusive experience. But while FOMO is your friend when it comes to flash food, you can’t base your entire premise on it. So how best to pull off memorable culinary pop-ups?

Think about your brand

Whether you’re an established proprietor or a new entry in the culinary scene, creating an exciting pop-up is one of the best ways to showcase your brand. It is also possibly one of the surest bets to attract a crowd—who doesn’t like great food?

However, before you even look at a menu, take the time to codify your brand strategy. Are you looking to showcase your wares to a broader audience? Or are you using a pop-up to spread the word on a new brick-and-mortar elsewhere or entice new investors in your kitchens? Or is the pop-up is meant to showcase something else entirely: a destination or a product, perhaps something that resonates with a taco-loving demographic? With a decisive end goal in mind, you’re more likely to achieve maximum ROI on your unique food offerings.

Think about your audience

Are you trying to showcase seasonal and local flavors? Is this a ticketed event for VIPs, a word-of-mouth event targeting the in-the-know local foodies, or a public event where everyone is welcome? Some culinary pop-ups can be used to bring expensive, gourmet fare at an affordable price. Others can be used for a trial run on a menu. Free pop-ups are great way to cast a spotlight on a new product that can be bought down the line — assuming your food-loving audience gives it high marks. Tailor your offering to the audience. Foodies tend to make up the bulk of most pop-up attendees, but if your pop-up is in a busy public space you may encounter a whole range of palettes.

Think about your location

On a pier, on a city sidewalk, in a secret supper club or smack in Times Square — wherever you are, you need to account for the basics: accessible water, electricity and trash receptacles. How much of your kitchen can be onsite, and how much do you have to prepare ahead of time? Think about how you can sub in more portable cooking devices, like high-performance burners, grills, stoves and cookers. If you’re going to pull off your own culinary pop-up, be sure you cover all your bases and plates. You don’t want to be left holding the skillet while your customers flee as your pop-up flails or worse, burns down around you.

Don’t forget about getting the proper permits and licenses. Look to the city or town government to see what you need. While you might like the guerilla-style atmosphere of serving wherever you set up, but the penalties will leave more than a sour taste in your mouth. Think about renting an existing space with a kitchen, offering up a flat rental fee or a cut of the profits.

Think about the experience

Just like a restaurant, the food is only part of what leaves an impression on guests. How are you setting the scene? Will you be offering table service, or do customers serve themselves? Based on your decision, you will need to rent tables, chairs, cutlery and linens. Don’t forget to stay as eco-conscious as possible — you’ll appeal to a broader audience with compostable cutlery and minimal waste.

If there’s more to the pop-up than a tasty bite, make sure the food matches the rest of the experience. Don’t serve sauce-drenched ribs if guests are going to be using touchscreens. No crunchy food in crinkly bags if there’s a talk or a performer. The food, the service, and the setting all work together to tell a single story.

Oh yeah, think about the food

Most culinary pop-ups feature a set menu, as the lack of space and equipment makes à la carte more problematic. It also makes it easier to charge a set amount, which then makes pricing out the experience more straightforward.

Be smart about the offering. You may want to show off your fanciest high-wire-act of a meal, which can work in a restaurant setting — but the pop-up situation often demands food that can be made quickly in quantity.

And remember: One person’s tempura taco is another person’s vegan chocolate cake. Culinary pop-ups are experiments, and sometimes you have to tweak an experiment to get it right. All you have to do is keep a cool head and a hot plate.


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