Pop-up restaurants may not be new to the culinary scene at large, but the geographic concentration of their popularity is an ever-changing trend that continues to shift each year.
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Pop-ups have spent the last few summers keeping hungry foodies busy and buzzing in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and this year, Chicago is the latest destination ripe with the temporary eateries.
Diners in the Windy City will find themselves with options ranging from upscale cocktails and lobster rolls from PT at The Talbott Hotel to a cool summer treat from the Ice Cream Shop at David Burke’s Primehouse. Even the city’s annual food festival, Taste of Chicago, is tapping into the summer trend’s popularity. For the first time, the city said that 15 restaurants will make their debut at the festival in a pop-up format, giving each one a day to showcase their best dishes during the festivities.
However, regardless of the fare or the setting, the idea behind pop-ups remains universal — non-permanent restaurants that are either a new concept or an off-site location of an already well-established brand. And while their execution can range from the simple to the complex, all variations provide unique opportunities and challenges to those trying to pull them off.
“The financial aspect is much different,” said Alfredo Sandoval, managing partner at Mercadito Hospitality Group, who, along with mixologists the Tippling Bros., is behind PT at The Talbott. “You limit your resources knowing it is only for a few months. It doesn’t take away from the product; you just aren’t buying antique chairs or new glassware.”
Sandoval and his partners opened PT at The Talbott Hotel while the hotel’s permanent restaurant was under construction. The menu offers upscale-casual dishes like grilled pizzas and ceviche, as well as cocktails like the Basil & Grapes, made of dry gin, white grapes, fresh basil, lemon and tonic water. All seating is on the 120-seat patio of the hotel’s previous restaurant.
Sandoval said he didn't know what to expect going into the endeavor, but with cooperative summer weather in Chicago, he says the restaurant is doing volume that he is comfortable with — comfortable enough that he's interested in further exploring the format. He's currently discussing opening up a Mercadito pop-up location for July 4 in the Hamptons in New York.
A beneficial business model
For Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, chef and owners of Chicago’s Sunday Dinner Inc., pop-ups have become the basis for their company’s business model. For the past seven years, the partners have hosted an invite-only, underground supper club — Sunday Dinner Club — more often than not out of Cikowski’s own home. In addition, every summer the duo operates a temporary burger stand, Sunday Dinner Burgers, on Saturdays at Chicago’s Green City Market, which serves only one item — a freshly ground burger with horseradish Cheddar cheese, a seasonal aioli and arugula.
“We essentially build from scratch a mini-restaurant in a park every Saturday morning,” Kulp told Nation’s Restaurant News.
He added that while the stand is more-or-less a break-even affair, it becomes a worthwhile marketing tool to their business, which also includes catering and an upcoming full-time restaurant, Honey Butter Fried Chicken. “It’s great chance to bring our food to our customers and as a way to extend the reach of our dinner club,” he said.
And despite the at-times difficult circumstances of operating a temporary outfit — weather and logistics, for example — Kulp cherishes the freedom it affords.
“From ordering to packaging to wait times, the minimal nature of a pop-up permits us to spend time on honing the entire experience,” he said. “A full-time restaurant involves hoods and leases and grease traps and garbage pick-up and staffing and POS systems. Our pop-up really is a restaurant without all the distractions.”
In the case of the Ice Cream Shop at David Burke’s Primehouse, the summer pop-up embodies the spirit of the season — fun and a break from the usual day-to-day operations. Going on their second year, Primehouse’s pastry chef Jove Hubbard and executive chef Rick Gersh operate a window every Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., serving up a few flavors of homemade ice cream that change from week to week and are advertised via Twitter.
“It is a break from what I usually do and a nice change of pace every week,” Hubbard said. “I have direct contact with most of the customers, so it is fun for me.”
He also echoed Kulp’s sentiment, saying that the Ice Cream Shop serves as an excellent generator of buzz for the main restaurant and that it pays off. “Financially, our pop-up shop is worth it. We would definitely do it again,” he said.
These standouts are among the growing number of pop-ups presenting themselves to Chicago diners this summer, which suggests that pop-up restaurants, much to the dismay of critics who label them gimmicks, have yet to fall by the wayside. And those that operate them insist pop-ups are about the food, not the hype.
“Certainly building buzz for a pop-up is easier, but ultimately, the product has to deliver the goods,” Kulp said.
Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected].