How to run a pop-up restaurant: Jason Atherton

By Becky Paskin

- Last updated on GMT

Jason Atherton raised £20k for StreetSmart with his pop-up restaurant
Jason Atherton raised £20k for StreetSmart with his pop-up restaurant
In 2010, former Maze executive chef Jason Atherton decided to run a pop-up in a disused Caffé Uno in Mayfair, to raise funds for homelessness charity Street Smart. The venue, which ran for just two days, was entirely funded by donations, and raised over £20k.

Location

I don’t want to sound like Bono but London has been very kind to me in the past, and I felt like when I left Gordon I wanted to give something back. Every day I walked past homeless people, and as a fan of StreetSmart, I decided to raise awareness for the charity and make some money for those less fortunate than myself.

I’m very lucky to have a special relationship with Restaurant Associates – their resources are immense compared to someone like me. They helped me find a space in Binney Street, just off Oxford Street that was an unused Caffe Uno.

I asked a friend of mine, Russell Sage who owns the design company Russell Sage Studios, for help in the design of the restaurant. I told him I wanted to turn it into some cool, down and dirty French bistro and within two days he came back to me with an amazing job, and did it for just £800.

Menu

I had not long left Gordon Ramsay Holdings so although I was working on Pollen Street Social at the time (opens today), I didn’t want to view it as a test ground for the dishes on my new menu – I just wanted to have a bit of fun with it.

When you’re doing a pop-up it’s important to keep food really simple but exciting and sexy at the same time. But it’s still important to think your concept through. Just because it’s thrown together doesn’t mean you can throw the food together too.

I wanted it to be a cool, local, neighbourhood French restaurant where the chef knows what he’s doing. We did a set menu because it was easy mise en place wise. We did Orkney Langoustine with Lemon Peel Puree, Oyster Leaf and Brandy Head Dressing, and 35-day aged Spey-Side Beef Fillet and Braised Cheek with Organic Carrots, Garlic Snails and Creamed Lincolnshire Potatoes.

Logistics

When you do something like a pop-up, whether it’s for self-profiting or charity, people think, “okay I’ll sling a few tables together and cook some great food and charge people some money and Bob’s your uncle”, but it’s just not as easy as that.

There’s the whole question of whether you’re allowed to serve alcohol, there’s pest control to consider, safety for cooking with gas or electric, health and hygiene, you name it. You almost have to approach it as a mini restaurant opening in a short frame of time. If anything happens or anyone has an accident you have to make sure you’re insured. There are all these things to think about but people just think they’ll put tables together and start serving. You have to approach it like a proper restaurateur.

My advice would be do it for charity, it’s a great motivator and a great way to use your skill to help out others, plus you get a lot more support from the business community, like borrowing stoves, getting free wine, sponsorship for food and so on. If the money’s going to charity everyone wants to help. Then you can afford to sell your product a bit cheaper so there will be more demand.

The first thing I’d suggest is not to try and do it all on your own - you need support on these things. Without RA it would never have happened. I was very lucky to have their support. Get yourself some sort of support mechanism in place, like a corporate caterer whether they’re an outside catering group or someone with access to equipment, plates, glassware and has a network where you can do offsite mise en place.

I put the proposal to RA and asked them to back me with staff and give me use of one of kitchens to do back up mise en place while the kitchen was being built. Jeremy Ford the executive chef helped me get a kitchen and about four hours before service the kitchen turned up and we plugged it in.

All the food was donated, it cost nothing, and all the wine was donated too. Fairfax Meadow gave us the meat, Secrets and Watch gave us the vegetables. We were very well supported. We didn’t pay for anything.

People were more willing to get involved because it was for charity, but if you’re not a well-known name of course it will be more difficult. I don’t think I’m anything special by any means but it does help if your name’s in the media because people want to be associated with that and it helps their profile. But that’s not the be all and end all of it. The most important thing is that your heart’s in the right place and that you really want to make a change. It means you have to do a little more marketing than I had to to fill the restaurant and sell yourself to people you want to be your partner in it.

Marketing

London Restaurant Festival, an annual festival that runs for two weeks in October, got involved with the pop-up and within an hour of going on sale they sold out. Gone. People loved it - they said it’s so nice to see me back in the kitchen and even regular guests from maze turned up. It was wonderful.

Final Thought

I can’t say whether I’d like to do another as I’m up to my eyes in Pollen Street Social just now and I want my operation up off the ground. I wouldn’t do it for profit but definitely for charity.

I’m a big advocate of charity work and have just been made a patron of Hospitality Action - a charity close to my heart. Charity work is a big part of my life and I set myself goals every year of who to raise money for and how much.

If you do it purely for self-profitability then there’s more of a ball game. My main piece of advice would be to use a pop-up as a marketing tool to promote you and your brand and practise the cuisine you want to develop.

Next week we'll be looking at how Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka took their passion​ for fresh, locally-sourced food and turned it into mobile pop-up restaurant Street Kitchen.

Click here to see all the features in this series.

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