Stephanie Rudig
Stephanie Rudig

Ninety-nine. That’s how many times the word “pop-up” has appeared in City Paper’s food section since Jan 1. A pop-up is a temporary restaurant, and they dominated D.C. in 2017. Some were one night stands—such as a small dinner in a novel locale—while others stretched on for months in the form of a food stall or restaurant residency. They ranged in scope from sneak peaks of coming attractions to collaborative dinners that united cooks from different kitchens. Pop-ups seemed like a fad when they first took place, but evidence from the past year proves they’re here to stay. 

The frequency with which pop-ups now occur isn’t the only tell. New venues are being built for the specific purpose of hosting pop-ups. Among the early adopters was Union Market in 2012. While some of the food hall’s stalls have permanent tenants, other stands cycle through occupants to give budding food entrepreneurs a chance to test concepts like Japanese comfort food from UZU or Portuguese doughnuts from B. Doughnut.

Mess Hall, opened in 2014, does double duty as a commercial kitchen and pop-up space. EatsPlace DC opened the same year in Park View. Prequel followed in 2015, though it moved from F Street NW to 19th Street NW in September. The first iteration was set up so diners could invest in the restaurants popping up at Prequel through a company called EquityEats, helping them to become a permanent restaurant more quickly. Most recently, Shop Made in DC debuted near Dupont Circle on Oct. 19. The cafe and retail space dedicated to local products serves food from two rotating vendors during dinner. 

Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger commends these pop-up manufactories for funneling new restaurants into the city’s thriving dining scene. “We’re very supportive of organizations like Mess Hall, who bring in those who want to experiment with a concept,” she says. “Ultimately we want that concept in a brick and mortar space. We want to help them gain the proper tools to survive in a very competitive environment.”

But pop-ups, even the ones at locations built to host them, take a lot of elbow grease and—spoiler alert—they’re not cash cows. So what makes chefs want to invest their time, money, and energy in cooking on a limited basis? 

There’s little money to be made in pop-ups, at least not right away, because the chefs are responsible for all the upfront costs. They buy the food and drinks, and pay the staff they hire, for example. “You end up working your tail off and you’re not making any money,” says Matt Baker. He’s done 10 pop-ups over the year and a half he’s been waiting to open Gravitas, which has been stymied by construction delays. They’ve ranged from three nights of dinners at Mess Hall to one-off soirees at three area distilleries. 

“I did all those pop-ups leading up to the opening [of Gravitas] to never do a pop-up again in my life,” Baker says. “I hope that’s the truth.” As he further explains, “I’d lose at least a week of my life prepping for days, marketing, promotions, ticket sales, confirming allergies with guests, social media, working out logistics with the place you’re doing it at, making sure you have all the beverages you need, plus glassware, plates, linens, decorations, floral arrangements, tablescapes, and a playlist.” 

Putting on a pop-up is akin to the “Restaurant Wars” challenge on Top Chef, in which two teams throw together a restaurant in a day. In this case, however, you’re likely flying solo.

Bartender Alex Bookless and her chef husband Michael Turner use pop-ups to refine their ideas for a future restaurant named after their daughter, June. Bookless agrees that pop-ups yield little financial gain because of all of the line items, including the fee to rent space. 

For their first pop-up in D.C., the duo held multiple seatings at Mess Hall over the course of three nights. Mess Hall founder Al Goldberg typically charges chefs between $1,000 and $1,200 to host a pop-up series with seats for 25 to 50 guests. This is significantly less than what Mess Hall charges for corporate or social events, when the rate is $400 per hour and most contracts are for 6 to 7 hours.

“We want the chefs to make money, and also want the guests to have unique experience for a good value,” Goldberg says. Support from Mess Hall includes a dedicated production space, storage, access to commercial kitchen equipment, and social media promotion. 

While pop-ups aren’t money-makers, they can attract investors. Baker says his pop-ups brought in several who previously hadn’t tasted his cooking. And despite the physical and emotional toll, Baker would do them again. “I would recommend this for a first-time chef or restaurateur solely because nothing is handed to you in this industry,” he says. “It prepares you for being a restaurateur.”

Other chefs host pop-ups to collaborate with friends and flex their creative muscles outside of the kitchens where they cook every day. Bobby Pradachith co-owns Thip Khao and Padaek (formerly Bangkok Golden) with his mother, Seng Luangrath, but he seeks out pop-up opportunities because he finds himself spending more time in front of the computer crunching numbers and less time cooking. 

“Pop-ups are good for people who have all these ideas they can’t do at their restaurant because their employers won’t allow them,” he says. He’s also using them to fine tune the Lao restaurant he wants to open alongside his existing concepts. 

Pradachith teamed up with Paolo Dungca of Restaurant Eve and Kaliwa in July at the Dolcezza Factory. Dungca is Filipino and Pradachith is Lao; the menu combined elements of both cuisines. Because they’re experimental in nature, pop-ups have become a way to introduce D.C. to underrepresented ethnic cuisines. “This city is always hungry to find something new,” Pradachith says. “Modern cooking is paving a way for old school, regional ethnic cuisines.” 

Established chefs looking to stay relevant and generate some positive publicity also like the pop-up concept. “It’s a good way to get people excited about what’s going on sometimes,” says restaurateur Mike Isabella. “Let them know, hit the press, give sneak peeks. That’s why we started doing it in that fashion.” 

Isabella honed the concepts of restaurants like Yona and Arroz by hosting pop-ups at his sandwich shop, G by Mike Isabella, and invited food writers to write preview stories. As his company grows, Isabella has stopped doing pop-ups and doesn’t consider them a big part of the dining scene today. He does, however, tip his hat to Drink Company’s Derek Brown for what he’s done on 7th Street NW. 

Brown converted Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, and Eat The Rich into a permanent pop-up space, with themes ranging from an irreverent tribute to Christmas to the ghoulish PUB (short for Pop Up Bar) Dread. He’s been masterful at generating buzz—Washingtonian wrote eight stories about the Game of Thrones PUB, Drink Company’s pop-up that drew crowds rivaling Disney World during spring break.

Why chefs decide to experiment in a pop-up setting makes sense, but does pop-up pandemonium do anything for the city, or for diners? In the short term, pop-up attendees may pay as much as they would in a restaurant for experimental cuisine from nascent culinary pros. 

“Pop-ups can feel like going to a very talented friend’s house for an evening of food and beverage pairings,” Goldberg says. “They’re not a replacement for restaurants, but if you’re an avid diner, it’s fun to mix one in once a month.”

In the long run, aspiring chefs who take feedback from pop-up attendees in earnest are better prepared to succeed in a breakneck industry once they open a brick and mortar restaurant. Hitting the ground running can only be good for the city’s culinary reputation.

“We have an obligation in this industry to help make it better every day,” says Alex McCoy. He used his recently vacated space at 3301 Georgia Avenue NW to test several restaurants and train staff before deciding which concepts should become permanent. He then invited others to host pop-ups in the space to reap the same benefits. 

Baker gained a critical nugget of feedback through pop-ups that caused him to abandon an ill-fated idea at Gravitas. He was toying with serving a vegan tasting menu but struggled to sell tickets to a vegan pop-up and took the hint. “The vegan market wasn’t ready for high-end, high-dollar vegan food,” he says. “I took that feedback and decided to do vegetarian, not vegan.” 

Post food critic Tom Sietsema agrees that pop-ups are advantageous. He’s been known to visit a new restaurant on night one or two, so if a chef fine-tunes recipes and service during pop-ups perhaps they’re more prepared for an early review. “I love the idea of pop-ups,” Sietsema says. “They allow chefs to rehearse menus and generate buzz among potential customers.” 

Seasoned local chef Ris Lacoste of Ris agrees. “Pop-ups have their worth—it’s a beautiful thing to see young people have their own business, especially because it can cost millions of dollars to open a restaurant,” she says. “It’s not a bad idea if you have the patience and the will to do it and really test. Do you have a good product? Can you handle the hours? Can you handle the money? You have to wear so many hats.” 

As a diner you never know if the pop-up you attend is helmed by the next big thing. “I went to pop-ups for years living here,” Bookless says. “There was a Korean barbecue pop-up Aaron Silverman did at SUNdeVICH on Valentine’s Day six or seven years ago.” He’s not serving bulgogi but the James Beard award-winning chef now has three Michelin stars—one for Rose’s Luxury and two for Pineapple & Pearls

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