Get Ready to Pop!
Test the waters for your new concept with a temporary, ‘pop-up’ culinary installation.
You’ve long dreamed of opening a new restaurant concept. You acquire investors, find a space, test recipes and finally open the doors—only to close six months later when your idea didn’t work. Perhaps you should have first thought about establishing a short-term, pop-up concept.
“A pop-up (restaurant) is fertile testing ground,” says Aaron Gadiel, head of the Gadiel Group, a marketing and brokerage consultant specializing in pop-up retail experiences. “For restaurants, the investment to open is massive and a pop-up allows you to try out the concept without committing to the investment.”
Gadiel says for pop-up establishments to succeed they must be in high-traffic areas that have a built-in audience and have a unique concept so you’re introducing something no one else is doing.
The owners of Revival Food Hall in Chicago’s Loop business district know this. Since 2017, they have hosted a handful of chefs for 90-day stints at a now-dedicated stall in the middle of the food hall. Participants have included local chef Sarah Jordan (burgers and acai bowls), the team behind Honey Butter Fried Chicken (TriBecca’s Cubano sandwiches), Pub Royale (Indian kati rolls) and Michelin-starred chef Kevin Hickey (Duck Inn Dogs’ duck-fat hot dogs).
“It’s a nice marketing experiment to see if this is something sustainable,” explains Revival Food Hall general manager Tim Wickes. “If it wasn’t successful, you can say you won’t invest more or you can stay in a food hall scene.”
Gadiel adds that chefs should look for second-generation restaurant spaces already built out with equipment to reduce costs or work with an existing restaurant on off nights. Another way to drive traffic? Stress it’s a limited run and use PR and social media to get the word out.
“There’s nothing worse than opening a pop-up that no one comes to,” Gadiel says. “If you can create something that’s available only a short period and present it in a cool, authentic, unique way, it’s a great way to position your brand as a cool thing.”
Some local governments, possibly seeing a tax revenue source, have started to make it easier for small businesses to get lower-cost permits to launch these concepts. Chicago passed an ordinance that went into effect Dec. 1, 2018, giving operators, including restaurants, shorter-term pop-up licenses that lets them get into business faster and at a lower cost.
Before the license was green lit, businesses would need to get a minimum two-year lease. Now, the new rule offers five-, 30-, 90-, 180- and 365-day licenses that don’t require on-site inspections. In addition, the license is tied to the business, not the location, so business owners can move their pop-ups to different areas. While this is available to many business owners, restaurants are still limited to 90-day licenses. This ends up being a win-win for operators, the city and landlords, who get short-term revenue by filling otherwise empty storefronts.
While this is a first-of-its-kind ordinance for a major city, others may follow suit, making it easier for you to create a pop-up experience and try out a new concept.