NEW YORK – Pop-up restaurants, many of which were started as a stopgap by struggling chefs and owners, may have staying power as consumers continue to prefer take-away and delivery services and the Delta option threatens to eat in one less as an option to make.
Pop-up restaurants can take a variety of forms, from a ramen maker who only appears for one night in an established bar or restaurant, to a taco maker who uses an unused space for temporary entertainment, to a chef who only offers meatballs for delivery.
Pop-ups are cheaper to run than regular restaurants because they have fewer overheads and staff costs, and allow chefs and owners to continue working and making a living during the early stages of the pandemic when dining rooms were closed and the economy surging to earn. They have helped excite existing restaurants that host them. And some have even turned into permanent new businesses.
Now that reopenings across the country are threatened by a surge in COVID-19 cases, pop-up creators and hosts are asking, “What’s next?”
The catering trade was hardest hit by the pandemic. It is still 1 million fewer jobs than it was before the pandemic of 12.3 million. Restaurant sales in 2020 were $ 659 million, according to the National Restaurant Federation, a decrease of $ 240 million from expected levels. Sales rebounded this year as the economy recovered and restrictions lifted, but now some economists are slashing expectations for US economic growth, in part because they expect fewer people to eat out.
“2021 is definitely a year of transition for the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Federation. “The industry is still being challenged significantly by the COVID situation.”
The flexibility of the take-out and delivery model helped Alex Thaboua overcome these challenges. Thaboua is a co-owner of Electric Burrito, which started as a pop-up at Mister Paradise Bar in New York in 2020. A permanent location was opened in May and focuses on take-out and delivery. the restaurant will be able to function, he said.
“That flexibility was something we found very important during our pop-up phases when the world was closing and companies were placing severe restrictions,” he said. “We have designed our business in such a way that we can continue to operate with a lean team and in compliance with all safety precautions in order to be able to serve guests both for take-away and delivery.”
Hathorne, a Nashville restaurant, has hosted about 10 pop-ups with local chefs since the pandemic began. For the pop-ups, this is a way to get known and have access to a fully equipped kitchen. It is a way for Hathorne to occupy seats on nights when they are usually empty. Since reopening for personal dining in October, the restaurant is only open Wednesday through Saturday.
“We knew that when we reopened we wouldn’t be open six or seven days a week because the staff and shops wouldn’t be there,” said John Stephenson, owner of Hathorne. “I knew I wanted to use the space.”
Stephenson was a Nashville chef for decades and knew a number of chefs who tried to stay afloat during the pandemic with projects like creating takeaway dinners or starting food trucks, he said.
The first pop-up at Hathorne started in October with a Mexican theme by Julio Hernandez that revolved around his homemade tortilla. It was a success and more pop-ups followed. Hathorne currently hosts Michael Hanna’s focaccia-based pizza company St. Vito Focacciaria every Sunday.
Hanna and his co-workers get work and “because of that, people keep coming into our doors,” says Stephenson. The agreement with St. Vito is long-term, which is why he hired Hanna as a cook. Hanna receives a percentage of the Sunday sales; Hathorne pays for all products and labor.
Stephenson said he plans to continue having pop-ups even after the pandemic has subsided instead of reopening them full-time.
Pop-ups can be a way to draw attention to new projects. William Eick bought a building earlier this year to open his own restaurant, but initially struggled to find investors.
“Most people were concerned about getting involved in restaurants during the pandemic,” he said. “So we had to get creative. I thought if we can do a pop-up, we can put the proceeds and profits into building the restaurant. “
In May, he started Naegi, a pop-up that served fried chicken sandwiches out of a window in the building he bought. The pop-up helped publicize the permanent Matsu restaurant, a more traditional Japanese eatery with a tasting menu that will open in a few weeks.
“It helped create a lot of awareness, it helped spread word of mouth more than we ever thought,” he said. He doesn’t anticipate another lockdown coming to Oceanside, California, but if it does, he’ll just keep running Naegi, he said.
For Marisa Iocco, who was the co-owner of Spiga Ristorante Italian restaurant in Needham, Massachusetts, a pop-up was a way to stay positive during the pandemic. She opened Polpettiamo in April 2021 in Providence, Rhode Island. It serves meatballs only and is takeaway only.
“Surviving during the pandemic was a huge challenge,” she said. The meatballs – which Spiga also offers as starters – are created in the kitchen of their main restaurant and refined in a kitchen in Providence with three employees.
She is considering having a stationary location in Providence and another location for shipments only in Boston and doesn’t expect any rising cases or future lockdowns to change these plans. But most of all, creating something new during the pandemic gave her a “vitamin B12 shot” of energy.
“It really helps keep your mood positive,” she said.
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