Fly-by-night: The trend of restaurants which pop up, then disappear

SEATTLE, Washington: If you missed the fried rice with pungent shrimp paste at Shophouse Seattle Monday night, well, too bad. The down-home Thai joint has already shut its doors.

Shophouse creator Wiley Frank spends most nights as sous chef at an upscale restaurant called Lark. But once a week, Frank and his wife transform a nearby bar called Licorous into a short-lived eatery dedicated to simple, authentic Thai street food.

His venture is just one permutation of an emerging class of restaurants called pop-ups, in which chefs set up temporary shop in breakfast spots, art galleries, financially troubled eateries and places that don’t normally serve food. Then, after a day, a week or a month, they shut it down.

For chefs, pop-ups are a way to test new dishes, let off some creative steam, expand their brand to new neighborhoods and otherwise take risks without the hefty up-front investment required for a traditional restaurant.

In Frank’s case, the pop-up is an outlet for his entrepreneurial tendencies that, unlike a full-on restaurant, leaves him time to spend with his family.

For customers, pop-ups mean access to high-end food at more affordable prices, as well as the thrill of taking part in something fleeting.

Pop-ups, together with food trucks, were voted the top operational trend for 2011 by chefs surveyed by the U.S.’s National Restaurant Association.

Pop-ups are gaining traction as culinary schools crank out a growing number of chefs eager to reach a younger generation of restaurant-goers with an increasingly sophisticated palate. Plus, the rise of social media gives these entrepreneurs a way to generate buzz quickly for a temporary eatery.

Dan Moody, a California-based chef, got his feet wet in the pop-up scene cooking for one of its pioneers, chef Ludo Lefebvre, who has been orchestrating pop-ups in Los Angeles since 2007. When Moody decided to strike out on his own, his first thought was to go pop-up.

“I get to be more playful,” Moody said. “At a restaurant, you have to think about how it would work operationally for a long period of time.”

For instance, Moody said that at a physical restaurant he wouldn’t want to change the menu frequently, because people expect a permanent restaurant to keep offering favorite dishes. A lean pop-up gives Moody the freedom to offer some out-there dishes, such as his own riff on beef Wellington: sous vide filet mignon with porcini-dusted seared foie gras and mustard ice cream.

“I think what makes [pop-ups] hot and trending is the ability for a chef to come out and do something people wouldn’t normally get. People get to see a chef’s creativity, completely unconstrained by an owner, investors, anything like that,” Moody said. “It’s the chef’s food as he wants to do it.”

Opening a pop-up isn’t without hassles. It took Moody about three months to find a location, and another two to get Relate Restaurant in shape to open.

Moody picked an existing cafe in Encinitas, California, about 25 miles north of San Diego, that was only open for breakfast and lunch. Both parties would benefit from the arrangement – Moody would get inexpensive kitchen space for a month without having to navigate the tangle of licenses and permits, and the cafe owner could pull in extra revenue, generate press and, hopefully, score some new repeat customers.

Other pop-ups, like the two-man business called Eat in Boston, keep costs minimal by hiring few workers.

Eat’s Aaron Cohen, a marketing consultant with a foodie bent, and Will Gilson, chef at the Cambridge, Mass., gastropub Garden at the Cellar, take over a non-restaurant space once a month and transform it for the weekend. With the help of friends paid mostly in beer and whiskey, they swoop in and serve whimsical dishes that reflect the setting – an angel hair pasta dish in a hair salon, soup that looks like a latte in a coffee shop.

For Eat customers, who eagerly snap up tickets just hours after they go on sale, one payoff is not knowing exactly what to expect.

“People come to experience something different,” Cohen said. “It’s an opportunity to try one of the good chefs in Boston in a place that nobody else has had that experience.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 11, 2011, on page 12.




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