Whether you own a restaurant empire or you’re new to the industry, you should consider running your own restaurant pop-up. Pop-up restaurants are a great way to test new menu items, put a little more cash in your pocket, and promote your new or existing business.
The idea of “here today, gone tomorrow” appeals to foodies across the country, and people love exclusive, short-term access to great experiences. Restaurant pop-ups fulfill a desire for unique culinary experiences that people can’t get at any other point in time.
So if you’ve been thinking about creating your own restaurant pop-up but you’re not sure where to begin, here’s your ultimate inspiration list to get your creative juices flowing.
Best DIY Experience: ABQ (New York City, NY)
Fans of the AMC hit show Breaking Bad are familiar with chemistry teacher turned meth dealer Walter White. This Breaking Bad inspired pop-up bar in New York is reminiscent of Walter White's RV lab, where customers can concoct their own cocktails using molecular mixology techniques. To enhance the “Walter White” feel, staff are dressed up in the iconic yellow jumpsuits and White’s alias in the show, “Heisenberg”, spray painted on the wall.
The takeaway: Strong themes resonate. Jump on a pop culture phenomenon to help carry your pop-up to success.
Best Undercover Operation: La Carnita (Toronto, ON)
What do tacos and an ad agency have in common? La Carnita.
Toronto’s OneMethod agency wanted to test their ability to set trends but legally wasn’t allowed to sell food. So to get around the rules, the agency launched an art shop and included three “free” tacos with every purchase.
Word started to get out that the operation could be shut down at any moment, and this only served to attract larger crowds. La Carnita has since gained a cult-like following and now has four locations in Toronto.
The takeaway: Don’t be afraid of some controversy. We wouldn’t recommend breaking all the rules, but know that a little risk can create some excitement around your pop-up.
Best Use of Social Media: B.L.U.D (San Francisco, CA)
A team of three talented women make up the San Francisco pop-up known as B.L.U.D – which stands for “Bitches Liven Up Dinner”. The dining experience is described as “bomb food, beer and wine, 90’s hip-hop and R&B.”
Once a month the women of B.L.U.D host a six-course tasting menu that is focused on a theme and/or type of cuisine. To make reservations for either two or four people, diners must follow their Instagram page and private message the account, which reveals upcoming menus and future event dates.
The takeaway: Use Instagram for reservations. It’s the “secret password” of social media.
Most Picturesque: Araxi (Whistler, BC, Canada)
Do you live in a place known for its picturesque beauty? You may want to use it for the backdrop to your restaurant pop-up like Araxi did in Whistler, BC.
The Araxi Longtable series happens at Mount Currie’s North Arm Farm gardens, where diners are treated to an al fresco dining experience. The annual event includes a four-course family style meal featuring award-winning Executive Chef James Walt’s farm-to-table dishes.
The takeaway: Ambiance matters. You may not have access to the Rocky Mountains, but don’t be afraid to hold your event outside if there’s somewhere breathtaking in your own backyard.
Perfect Pairing: Bacardi Paladar (Toronto, ON)
A three-course Cuban family-style meal paired with signature Bacardi drinks sounds like a match made in heaven. Bacardi Canada teamed up with Toronto-based chef Matty Matheson and Miami-based chef Eileen Andrade to promote two product launches, Bacardi Gran Reserva Maestro and Bacardi’s newly re-packaged Ocho Años rum.
Bacardi aimed to create an experience for their audience, which they identified as people who love the culinary world, are intrigued by other cultures, and support local chefs. The menu was accompanied by signature Bacardi cocktails and some twists on the classics.
The takeaway: Partner with a brand. Food and alcohol brands are always looking to promote themselves, and you may just be able to call in some financial help if the fit is right.
Most Literal Farm-to-Table: Outstanding in the Field (various locations)
Founder Jim Denevan had one goal in mind when he created Outstanding in the Field: to bring people to the farmers and land where their food comes from.
Outstanding in the Field hosts long table dinners across the world with events in the United States, Canada, France, and Tokyo. Showcasing locally sourced ingredients, guests are treated to meals that come from the fields that lie just inches from their table. Past and future event locations include farms, gardens, ranches, mountain tops, inside sea caves, and on islands.
The takeaway: People want to know more about food. If you have something to teach, use your pop-up as an opportunity to educate an eager audience.
Dinner with a Message: Seafood Stories (San Francisco, CA)
Seafood Stories aims to serve delicious seafood dishes while teaching diners how to support healthy oceans with their purchasing decisions. Dinners are themed around a different conversation topic each time, ranging from fish species to the lives of fishermen. Proceeds from the events go towards Fish Revolution, a non-profit that educates consumers on sustainable seafood business policies for chefs, restaurants, and seafood industry members.
The takeaway: Your pop-up can help change the world. Pair your pop-up with some feel-good charity work and people will remember a lot more than the food.
Best Travel Inspiration: Doi Dua (Washington, D.C.)
Upon returning from a trip to Vietnam, chef-owners Sarah Bui and Anna Vocaturo decided to offer a series of monthly pop-up dinners to reflect their new knowledge of the cuisine. Ingredients are sourced locally while also taking advantage of authentic imported Asian goods. Bui’s take on her own traditional family dishes creates a new experience of Vietnamese food that takes from other forms of cuisine as well.
The takeaway: There is room to interpret your traditional family meals. Be adventurous with the food you know and love, and you’ll become known for putting a spin on the classics.
Best Behind The Scenes: “Saved by the Max” (Los Angeles, CA)
For those who aren’t familiar with the early-90s sitcom Saved by the Bell: um, please go back and watch it immediately. For those who have seen the show, you’ll remember Bayside High School students regularly visited The Max for dates and hangouts. Saved by the Max is a pop-up that has brought The Max to life in Los Angeles. NBCUniversal has given diners an opportunity to take a step back into their childhood and fantasize over their crush on Zack Morris or Kelly Kapowski. Character-inspired dishes are the final nail in the thematic coffin.
The takeaway: Retro is in. When you tap into people’s nostalgia, you’re touching them on a whole new level. Millennials are all about the 90s retro experiences, so consider a spin on an old favorite to draw a crowd.
Waste Awareness: WastED (New York City, NY)
WastEd created a menu strictly using food waste. Yup, you read that right! A menu of food waste.
Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, dedicated a pop-up in 2015 to draw attention to the environmental impact of food waste. Barber went so far as to put a “Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad” on his menu – we wonder how many times it was ordered.
The takeaway: Be bold with messaging. Pop-ups can be just as much about the experience as the food, so don’t be shy in sending a strong message if you feel passionate about an issue and want to express that with your event.
Best Fusion Cuisine: Genghis Cohen (Los Angeles)
What do shmaltz toast with chopped liver, Chinese chicken salad, and pastrami fried rice have in common? If you guessed the epic brunch collab between LA’s Genghis Cohen and SF’s Wise Sons, then you’re correct!
The well-established Chinese-American restaurant and the famous Jewish deli teamed up to provide a $40 prix fixe menu. Diners got to experience a tasty and unique marriage of flavors featuring traditional dishes from both cultures. This pop-up emphasized how the chefs were not afraid to break mainstream culinary boundaries.
The takeaway: Collaborate with someone whose vision is much different than your own. Magic happens amidst diversity, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you never thought you’d work with.
Turned a Dream Into Reality: Powamekka Cafe (New York City, NY)
Tupac Shakur was known as a successful American rapper whose tragic death shocked millions. Prior to his death, Tupac jotted down lyrics and career plans in a notebook – and as it turns out, one of his dreams was to open a cafe for people to come together.
From April 7-9, 2017, diners got to experience Tupac's vision at Powamekka Cafe in New York. The pop-up was adorned with carefully curated photos, lyrics, and quotes from the late legend; the menu highlighted some of his favorite southern dishes along with family recipes.
The takeaway: Paying homage to an idol can resonate. If you feel strongly about a famous person’s impact on the world, odds are others feel the same way. Pay tribute to your idol the best way you know how: through great food.
Leaving Customers Wanting More: FoMu (Boston, MA)
Now with three permanent brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Boston area, FoMu has seen the success that comes with hosting a pop-up. FoMu pop-ups leave customers wanting more by limiting their selection during events, but directing people to try their full selection at their permanent locations.
The takeaway: You can promote your static space with a pop-up. Make sure to curate your menu for the best of the best, maybe add some specialty items customers can’t get anywhere else, and voilà! – a great promo event for your actual restaurant.
Pop-ups are a great way to keep the food and drink industry interesting and competitive. With continuous success generated by pop-ups, it’s time to try one of your own – either to test your chops in the restaurant industry or promote your existing concept.
Want to get started with your own restaurant pop-up?
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