Here today, gone tomorrow: the value of restaurant pop-ups

By Sylvia Tomczak

Pop-ups aren’t an entirely new concept, but lately, they do seem to be appearing on just about every abandoned street corner or empty restaurant facade. From grocers to retailers and, of course, restaurants, the magic of the pop-up is that it’s here today and gone tomorrow. Either moving to a bricks-and-mortar location or peacefully easing into oblivion, pop-ups are quickly becoming the ideal business concept to launch in today’s unpredictable world.

In light of the current pandemic, those working in the food and beverage industry have had to adapt. Of course, delivery reigns supreme in an era where lockdowns are recurring and the Canadian weather — which is ideal for patio dining for only a short window of time — makes you want to hide under a multitude of blankets, ordering takeout endlessly. However, many industry moguls have pivoted, offering patrons an elevated dining experience at home that goes beyond simple takeout by creating restaurant-inspired meal kits or takeaway cocktails kits and tasting flights.

What’s particularly interesting is that beyond these solutions to keep customers engaged and enticed, restaurateurs have actually begun to rethink their business model not just as B2C but also B2B.

In response to increased consumer demand for delivery options, ghost kitchens have become uber-popular, so much so that market research actually suggests that ghost restaurants will be a $1 trillion industry by 2030. Fully-equipped, commissary-style kitchens or even domestic kitchens (following the relaxed regulations welcomed in Ontario) are unique in that they have no dining room for guests, but instead, rely on partnerships with food delivery apps like Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, and DoorDash. This model has been a cost-effective way for aspiring restaurateurs to enter the industry without the investment of a physical restaurant and staffing costs.

But what has the seasoned restaurateur done? Proposed the idea of a host kitchen and embraced the concept of the pop-up restaurant.

Deciding to leverage facilities, some restaurateurs are giving budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to share restaurant space for a cost so that they can generate more profit to keep themselves afloat. With all the perks of a fully functioning restaurant in addition to the support and backing of an already established eatery, pop-ups can especially benefit by being hosted.

Some of the many pop-ups that Toronto alone has welcomed this past year include Sunny’s Chinese, Sherm’s Bagels, Mac’s Pizza, Breadhead Bakery, Sohmers Pizza, and Gertie’s. There were some other notable pop-ups that appeared like Kusinera that were also at liberty to step back for ventures given the flexibility of the pop-up biz.

Unsurprisingly inundating big cities, the temporary restaurants known as pop-ups are a wise business model to follow for those who are looking to break into the food industry in such a time of uncertainty. What makes them so appealing is the ability for entrepreneurs and chefs to gauge consumer interest.

Given the fickle nature of the pandemic, those in the F&B industry have been particularly susceptible to major economic losses. That’s why it is so vital that emerging restaurateurs proceed with caution, ensuring that their business idea is worth the risk. By entering the food scene as a pop-up, business owners have the flexibility of deciding whether their venture will succeed or be a flop without fully investing in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

Likewise, even for those struggling with limited resources, capital, or rights, pop-ups provide the ideal outlet. Energizing the foodscape not only in creative ways, pop-ups have also welcomed inclusivity, which means that we can expect to see a rise in the number of female, BIPOC, and LGBTQI+ restaurant owners in the near future.

But what makes the pop-up restaurant so magical? Well, the success of pop-ups is widely due in part to its malleability — blink and you’ll miss it. The limited, get-it-while-you-can attitude of these temporary restaurants generates immense consumer interest. This frenzy to visit the restaurant before it’s gone generates publicity and draws consumers in.

However, like any kind of business, having an online presence is also crucial. Generating brand awareness is key for pop-ups, as they only have a short window of time to do their marketing and generate sales. This is why creating content constantly and engaging with consumers, influencers, and other local businesses is so important for a pop-up to thrive.

But, the level of trendiness also factors into the success of pop-ups. Consumers are always looking for something new, an unheard-of novelty, or to be a part of a bigger social trend. But trends disappear just as quickly as they reappear, making pop-ups the ideal space for brands to explore the wild world of food trends!

Coupling this appeal with clever concepts and niche themes like the many holiday pop-up bars that littered the streets of Toronto this winter like Fairmont Royal York’s Thirsty Elf, Papi Chulo’s Mistletoes & Margaritas, Little Sister’s Java Jingle, and even the outdoor Sweaters N’ Snowflakes, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

With incredible staying power, pop-up restaurants, though temporary, are an exciting addition that restaurateurs will most likely be incorporating into their business plan well after the pandemic is over. A weekly or monthly kitchen takeover by a pop-up is a fun and creative way to drum up new business and generate publicity for both brands.

Just as food trucks were the solution to the 2008 economic downturn, pop-ups are proving to be working the same way with many businesses created as a means of supporting themselves, like Little Sister Baking and SuLee Dosirak and Madras Kaapi. Unsurprisingly, 2022 is predicted to see an increase in pop-up concepts, with many others transitioning into physical brick-and-mortar locations.

In many ways, pop-ups have reintroduced a culture of dining that sees the congregation of people together by melding together new concepts, ideas, and experiences in fluid ways that differ from the standard restaurant experience. With consumers paying attention, the potential for pop-ups is prosperous. Here today, gone tomorrow. Or maybe not? That’s the beauty of the pop-up restaurant.

Sylvia Tomczak is an alumna of the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online. Find her on Instagram at @honeyandtruffles.

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