The past few months has seen a number of pop-up restaurants being used by up-and-coming talent as a platform for bricks-and-mortar operations. A temporary site allows an operator to trial a concept, raising awareness of the brand and themselves and making a pitch to a potential backer or landlord much more credible.
If there was a single location that could encapsulate this trend, it would be the East London district of Shoreditch. Take Flat Iron for example. Following a six-week residency above the Owl & Pussycat pub, the popular steak concept is set to move to a permanent sitein the heart of Soho next month – but was that always owner Charlie Carroll’s intention?
“I certainly hoped that a permanent site might be something that would come from it,” Carroll told BigHospitality. “We couldn’t have dreamed that we’d get the overwhelming response we did in Shoreditch and it really reaffirmed that we had something that people wanted and that we could go permanent.
Trialing a concept
“It allowed us to test for what works and what doesn’t, be it beef-sourcing, butchery or cooking techniques. We were able to put something that we thought the public would like in front of them, and we could get their feedback which was so important.”
And the Shoreditch success stories don’t stop there. Earlier in the year, Beard to Tail,Death by Burritoand Upstairs at the Ten Bellsall opened in the area – and all have now gone on to become permanent concepts.
Later this month, Middle Eastern street food concept Yalla Yalla will setup another container on Shoreditch High Streetfor a minimum of six months, following the success of its ‘Summer Shack’ on Southbank.
For Aga Yousseff, who runs Yalla Yalla with husband Jad, pop-up venues provide the perfect opportunity to trial a concept, spread awareness of the brand and ultimately build a loyal customer base around the capital.
“Pop-ups work so well for us,” said Yousseff. “The two locations of Southbank and Shoreditch have been new for us; Southbank was such a success that if anything comes up for a permanent site nearby then we would consider it. In Shoreditch, we’re still looking at a permanent site as well.”
“But at a minimum, the pop-ups give us an opportunity to move around and spread awareness of Yalla Yalla and ultimately raise our profile here in London and across the UK."
One man that knows a thing or two about raising a profile through pop-ups is Carl Clarke - the chef behind the pop-ups Rock Lobsta, God Save the Clam and Thomas Keller spoof The English Launderette is planning to bring some 'East End cool' to the City by taking up residency at The Rising Sun pubin St Paul's for the next six months.
“A pop-up is a great way for kids or people with not a lot of money to have a go at this industry,” said Clarke. “If you buy a truck, or you start up small with just a few tables and chairs, it will give you a bit of attention, and of course developers and landlords will begin to want you in there because of who you are.
Raising your profile
“Nowadays you really need to have done your work before you get to the stage of opening a permanent site. Doing something like a pop-up or a temporary residency will attract attention and will then add value to your name and brand identity.”
Carroll from Flat Iron agrees. “To be honest, there’s no chance that we’d have got the new permanent site in Soho without the pop-up,” he said. “Our residency at the Owl and Pussycat gave a far more compelling story to potential backers, rather than showing them what we thought was a very good idea on a piece of paper.
“It’s also relatively low risk - coming into this, we didn’t have huge amounts of cash to spend but we could do the pop-up on a tiny budget.”
So the opportunities that a pop-up can offer are clear and, with an increasing number of restaurants failing across the UK, a strong passion for the product at the beginning will no longer cut the mustard for most potential backers, investors and landlords.
As Tracey Mills, director of development leasing at Davis Coffer Lyons, points out, ‘pop-up to permanent’ is a trend that only looks set to continue.
“We are working with a wide range of landlords now to help them engage with pop-up operators as part of their general strategy for developing their estates,” said Mills. Patty and Bun,for example, shows how pop-ups are proving a fantastic way for operators to trial new concepts and see the reaction from consumers before considering a permanent site.
“They deliver great benefits to landlords by generating interest in their holdings and a huge number of hits generated from social media which are very tangible and would have a huge price tag if paralleled with advertising. For the customers, it ensures that they have something new to see and experience each time they visit.
“The impact of pop-ups has been so positive - many landlords are now deliberately keeping units back to facilitate them.”
This leaves a question mark. As a number of established restaurants launch their own street food-style operations (the likes of Wahaca’s Mexican Street Kitchen, Roti Chai’s Chaat Shack and Byron’s burger van to name a few) - could we eventually see a reversal of the trend, with bigger brands spinning off their own ‘pop-ups’? And would such proliferation kill the potential for more ‘pop-up to permanent’ success stories like the ones mentioned above? Watch this space.