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Find Permanent Success with Temporary Restaurants

Rene Redzepi’s Kounta-powered Noma pop-up in Barangaroo is officially underway, and our involvement with it got us thinking about pop-ups …

By Dave Eagle

Noma Japan Photo Op
Noma Japan Photo Op, Photo by Chad McQuay (Flickr)

Rene Redzepi’s Kounta-powered Noma pop-up in Barangaroo is officially underway, and our involvement with it got us thinking about pop-ups in general. To us, it’s the perfect kind of venue to spotlight the flexibility of mobile POS and—bonus—it’s a focus keyword we’ve never used on our Search Engine Optimised blog. The timing couldn’t be more perfect to present to you an insider’s look at the secrets to a successful pop-up. The temporary nature of a pop-up can make it seem like it’s an easy score, but the fact is it’s a lot of hard work. A pop-up is more than a temporary location for a restaurant. Done right, it’s an event unto itself, albeit an event that can last for weeks or even months at a time. An attention to detail is a must, and every aspect of it must be planned out in advance with extreme precision. With that in mind, here’s the number one criteria for staging a successful run:

  • Keep the menu simple. This doesn’t mean you have to limit the quantity or variety of offerings, it just means that the menu has to be easy to work with. You’ll be working in an unfamiliar kitchen, where the more you can choreograph ahead of time, the better. Limit choice or, better yet, stick a fixed price tasting menu. The more control you have over the meal—and there’s simply no more control than knowing exactly what you’re going to be cooking at the beginning of each seating—the less things will go wrong. The pop-up should be a special experience, not a comedy of errors.

    noma australia
    Instagram / @reneredzepinoma
  • Use social media to build excitement. When Chef Redzepi announced his intention to set up shop in Australia for a little while, he made it nearly a year in advance. He was also clear in letting people know that he and his staff would be taking several research trips to the area to get to know local ingredients and start preparing a menu. And then he Instagrammed those trips like crazy, showing off ingredients he’d foundfrom the beautiful to the bizarre. Through it all, he gave very little hint at what would make the cut or how they would be prepared, building up anticipation for his followers.
  • Find a great location. In some cases, the location is the star, as was the case a few years ago when Helsinki’s Muru restaurant ran a two week popup 262 feet below the earth’s surface in a mining museum. This, I’m sure, was a fun time for all, but the food should generally be the main attraction. This means scouting a location that’s got a full kitchen, and enough room for seating so that you can at least break even each night. The so-called “Pop-Up Impresario” Ludo Lefebvre created his wildly successful LudoBites when he asked a friend if he could use his bakery during hours it would otherwise be closed. If you haven’t got any friends with commercial kitchens, you can try and partner with some other place that wouldn’t mind the publicity of such an event—hotels with ballrooms, private meeting spaces, or even defunct restaurants are all viable options.

    Foie Gras Croque-Monsieur, Lemon Turnip Chutney at Ludobites 4.0Photo by Julian (Flickr)
    Foie Gras Croque-Monsieur, Lemon Turnip Chutney at Ludobites 4.0
    Photo by Julian (Flickr)
  • Get creative. Try new things, food-wise, and give your customers meals they can’t get otherwise. The nature of a pop-up means that you can charge a premium for access, but it also means you need to step up your culinary game. You could make the most amazing, mouth-tender filet mignon in the world, and pair it with a white truffle mashed potatoes, and it will most likely be a disappointment. People with the money to drop on a pop-up meal can get a great steak anytime they want. Pop-ups are also a great way for chefs to attract investors for a new idea, and these are the kinds of people who are not easily impressed by a meal.
  • Consider partnering with another chef to create something truly unique. Perhaps you’re a sushi chef, and your friend is master of Italian cuisine, and you want to do a hybrid where you wrap tuna in lasagne noodles. I know, that sounds terrible. This is why I don’t have my own pop-up and chefs won’t be my friend. But two chefs working together can serve to minimise the financial risk. And if you each have your own followings, so much the better.

Pop-ups are one of the few ways to dip your feet in the hospitality industry without worrying about taking a bath on the losses if it doesn’t work out. Unless you’re in a major city like New York or LA, startup costs are relatively low. Even then, if you find the right space, you could get going for very little. In 2011, the owners of Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco created a one-day-week popup with costs around $2,500 per week of operation. Even though the risk is limited, that doesn’t mean you should expect to get rich off the venture. The pop-up should be a one-off experience, maybe a way to try new things out or—as mentioned above—get noticed and attract investors for a more traditional restaurant. Paul Qui, the chef over at East Side King in Austin, Texas, puts it bluntly:

I think the key is that if you want to do a pop-up that makes a good impression, you can’t want to make money off of it. You need to just make your money back, because if not you risk charging more than it’s worth…I think most of the complaints come when the chef or the venue start charging more than what the actual food is.

Rene Redzepi can charge $485 a meal in Sydney, because he’s got international recognition and a global following. But he also brought 100 members of his staff with him to make sure he gets it right. Most other chefs will not have the luxury of being able to charge that much or hire that many people. Just remember the true measure of success for a pop-up is people raving about it afterwards. If that’s your goal, you’re already ahead of the game.