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'Pop-up' concept on a roll with diners

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Chef Phillip Foss and wife Kenni offered doughnuts at their one-day-only pop-up restaurant this summer.


The idea of a "pop-up" store isn't a new one, though many marketing pundits would like to take credit for what has become a significant branding tool.

For as long as anyone can remember, pumpkin patches have dotted neighborhoods until Halloween, then morphed into Christmas tree lots from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas. Food companies and restaurants have long sponsored events like the Taste of Chicago, where they sample and sell their foods in venues ranging from a simple table to custom-built showpieces like the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

The Gap and Toys R Us introduced us to the concept of short-term, high-visibility mini-retail locations, and with the amount of "For Rent" signs in most shopping areas throughout the country, there is little doubt this trend will continue, especially for food brands and restaurants.

Around the corner from my office in Santa Monica, Calif. is Chaya Venice, a Japanese-French fusion restaurant that this year celebrated its twentieth anniversary. A local hangout whose regulars included the late Johnny Carson and Dennis Hopper, the restaurant had to close for a month for a kitchen plumbing renovation.

In years gone by, restaurants might simply have posted a sign detailing the remodeling and when the restaurant would reopen.

But it's 2010, and that meant a flurry of e-mail and Twitter updates and the announcement of a "pop-up" Chaya a half a block away in a space that was recently vacated by furniture store.

The powder blue-walled makeshift restaurant had a portable kitchen. It was minimal, not very pretty (compared to the main restaurant, which has hand-painted ceiling murals) and jammed.

The temporary space became a celebration for the neighborhood, beginning weeks before the actual, invite-only anniversary party was to take place. New and former customers discovered and rediscovered the "new place," and the 20-year-old restaurant had an unplanned rebirth.

Creating buzz about food is nothing new. After all, that is what the Food Network is all about.

What is new is combining the pop-up location, whether stand-alone or rolling, with gourmet flavors and instant messaging in a very hip and classy way to attract new customers and establish credentials without going to the expense of opening a full-blown restaurant.

The average life-span of a restaurant is not good. Ninety percent close within the first year of operation.

With the high failure rate of new restaurants, this is a brilliant way to test a concept and put all the focus on the food while gathering more meaningful thoughts and customer input about the things that really matter for a restaurant.

The pop-up restaurant offers a new level of excitement and celebration of new food concepts and cuisines. Let's take advantage of the trend.

Phil Lempert is the editor of SupermarketGuru.com and reports on the latest trends on NBC's "Today" show, ABC's "The View" and local Chicago news programs. E-mail Phil@SupermarketGuru.com.

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