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Restaurants: Pop-up pilots

19 July 2013 by
Restaurants: Pop-up pilots

Pop-up restaurants are gaining popularity as a way for budding restaurateurs to test the water before seeking permanent premises, and social media is a vital tool to achieve success. Tom Vaughan reports

Statistics vary, but let's just say a lot of these ventures fail within a couple of years. "Learning how to make money out of restaurants isn't easy," says Alex Hunter, co-owner of London's Bonnie Gull. "They can be one of the quickest cash dumps if you get it wrong."

It was a case of all or nothing for aspirational patrons - site or no site, no in-between. Then up popped pop-ups.

Over the past 18 months, a style of restaurant that was a product of the recession - a means of delivering a culinary experience with no long-term financial commitments - has become the most fertile of breeding grounds for permanent ventures. MEATLiquor, a three-strong London restaurant chain, with a fourth planned for Brighton, started life as a mobile burger van and now has a turnover of £9m.

The Clove Club was an itinerant supper club before raising £250,000 and moving into a swish new site at Shoreditch Town Hall earlier this year. Beard to Tail, Bonnie Gull, Club, Flat Iron, MEATLiquor, Patty & Bun (all in London) - the number of concepts making the switch from pop-up to bricks and mortar is rising by the month.

For many, pop-ups are the ultimate low-risk acid test. "It's a way of testing the water," says Richard Wynne, co-owner of London's Beard to Tail, which took up a permanent site late last year after starting life as a pop-up.

"If people don't turn up to your pop-up, you will have to do some head-scratching as to why. It would have been disastrous for the restaurant and disastrous for Callooh Callay [his first permanent site, a bar in London's Shoreditch] if we had immediately gone permanent with Beard to Tail and it had failed."

For Charlie Carroll, whose steak concept Flat Iron moved into bricks and mortar in December 2012, a pop-up was a means of trialling both his concept and his own skills as a prospective restaurateur. "It was a way of finding out whether what we were doing was what people wanted, and whether we could deliver it in terms of operations," he says. "The hope was that if we did it and did it well, people would really like it and we'd build a following."

Joe Grossman is another who launched his burger concept Patty & Bun as a pop-up with the aim of securing a permanent site in central London, which he achieved late last year. And life with a mobile restaurant taught him some invaluable lessons.

"I learnt a huge amount about operational stuff - dealing with suppliers, trying to establish exact cover numbers, sites, food, costs," says Grossman. "It was a rollercoaster. And half the time you are doing this in derelict sites not set up to serve food."

Guerrilla training Daniel Willis, co-founder of the Clove Club, calls this "guerrilla restaurant training". He explains: "We were always in foreign environments for the first time, forced to think creatively about how we could execute the event we were doing. We got increasingly good at it.

"Whatever stress levels we reach now, they almost pale into insignificance when compared with some of the situations we found ourselves in while we were the 'Littlest Hobo' of London restaurants."

The nature of pop-ups means all this is done at relatively low financial risk. The Clove Club boys admit they had to beg, steal and borrow equipment to help run their supper clubs because there was no money to buy their own.

Meanwhile, Carroll admits that if things had gone badly early on, he could have walked away without too much financial consequence. "A pop-up let us trial our concept at a fraction of the cost of opening a site," he says. "It was relatively low risk. It would have been a sad thing to see it go down the pan. But in the scheme of things, there was a relatively small amount of money tied up in it."

Luckily, the project didn't go down the pan. Customers lapped up Flat Iron's inexpensive steak concept. And building a following like this is imperative to the process of moving from pop-up to permanent. Once upon a time, it required a huge, and expensive, PR campaign for a restaurant to hit the ground running on opening. Nowadays, social media can build much of the hype.

"Pop-ups are as much a marketing tool as a tester," says Wynne. "We had 2,000 followers on Facebook by the time we opened our doors for the first time."
Grossman adds: "It's a way of building momentum and interest in the brand. Twitter and Facebook help you establish a rapport with your customers and get some traction."

Sense of urgency But what is the difference between marketing a pop-up and marketing a permanent site? Wynne says: "Because it's a limited time only, a one-off special event that you can only get between certain dates, it adds a sense of urgency. You kick yourself if you miss it because when it's gone, it's gone."

In fact, pop-ups are increasingly not disappearing at the end of their allotted run but, thanks to financial backing, moving into permanent sites. But all of this depends on their success. Flat Iron began to gather prospective backers as it gained popularity and the pop-up became a sales pitch in itself.

"A number of people in the industry became interested in it and wanted new restaurant ideas," says Carroll. "And when we engaged with investors and landlords, we didn't just have a piece of paper but reviews, figures, illustrations of how the kitchen was run. Most importantly, we could bring them along to the pop-up and show them first-hand."

Pop-ups can breed confidence in a concept, confidence in the creator's abilities and confidence among potential investors. But don't get over-confident. If the goal is to open a permanent site, the first battle may have been won, but there is still a long slog ahead.

"Opening a restaurant or bar is always a traumatic experience, no matter whether you've started with a pop-up or not," says Wynne. "With a pop-up, you are given a space and it is up to you to fill it. With a permanent site, you are relying on builders, contractors, planning permissions - things that are out of your control. Also, it's all very well having two chefs in a temporary kitchen, but all of sudden you have a brigade and waiting staff and you have to make sure the consistency is right."

Without pop-ups, Grossman, Hunter and Wynne all admit they might never have had the confidence to launch their concepts. "I'm not saying you have to do a pop-up first to launch a site," says Grossman, "but it gave me the confidence to really go for it.

"It's partly about yourself, partly about seeing how your product is received and partly about building hype on social media. You might think you have a really great product, but it is the customers who will tell you that. And it's best they do it when you're a pop-up."

Getting out into the publicThe Gardener's Cottage, Edinburgh

Chefs Dale Mailley and Edward Murray had already earmarked their site - a derelict former gardener's cottage in Edinburgh's Royal Terrace Gardens - when they launched a pop-up at the city's farmers' market. But with six months' worth of renovations needed at the property, they took the opportunity to put themselves 
out to the public.

"We got an al fresco communal table of 10, marketed it with Twitter and Facebook and started getting our name out there," says Mailley. "We had a tight budget and instead of spending money on PR, we used our own time as PR, doing what we do best - cooking."

The pop-up ran for two weeks and not only did it put their names out there and enable them to interact daily with their suppliers - who ran stalls at the farmers' market - but it gave them the confidence to forge ahead with plans when they finally opened their permanent site.

"The restaurant has communal tables, a set menu, no choice - lots of things that aren't common in Scotland," Mailley adds. "The feedback we got from the pop-up gave us the confidence that it would work full time and that it was something people wanted."

Showcasing a concept to investorsBonnie Gull, London

Unlike many ambitious pop-up entrepreneurs, aviation salesman Alex Hunter started the seafood-themed Bonnie Gull as a temporary project with a housemate, with the sole aim of making a bit of money on the side and with no dreams of making it as a restaurateur.

"I'd run businesses before and knew how to run a business to make a profit," says Hunter. "British seafood was just something I was passionate about and we thought it would be a fun way to make a few quid. I got a few good people around me and put it together as a business model. It was only after the response we got that we thought maybe we should do something more permanent."

Friends, and friends of friends, all came on board as investors. "No one was investing large amounts of money, but all were doing it as a business proposition," says Hunter. Two further pop-ups followed, with the team set on going permanent come the last, which was something of a showcase to investors.

"We got them all along and put them on one big table on one of the nights and they got to try our food, see first-hand what we could do and see that it was packed out and making a profit. It just gave them the confidence and we ended up getting our last couple of investors from that, and it went from there."

How to turn a 
pop-up to permanent

1. Don't be too clever "If you've got a good idea for a brand, it doesn't have to be some brilliant new food," says Alex Hunter of Bonnie Gull. "It just has to be genuine and let the food sell itself."

2. Don't over-commit "The most important thing is you don't dump a load of money into it," says ,mm Hunter. "Everyone out there is a foodie, but it's not going to work just because you love food."

3. Market, market, market Every pop-up restaurateur will tell you that social media is your most powerful ally to attract interest.

4. Use it as a showcase "When we were looking for a site, we could show the landlord what we were about," says Joe Grossman of Patty & Bun. "He could see we had some traction behind us and a great following and that we were the kind of restaurant he should be attracting."

5. Listen "Once you've gone permanent, take all the feedback from the pop-up -good and bad - and analyse it again and again," says Richard Wynne of Beard to Tail. "Then make sure, when it comes to opening night, that all those suggestions are on board."

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