Pop-up restaurants in Hong Kong, US take off during Covid-19, and they don’t show any sign of slowing down
- As the pandemic continues, pop-ups remain a popular choice for diners and restaurateurs – especially in Hong Kong, where gourmands are still stuck in the city
- In the US, many chefs plan to keep having pop-ups even after the pandemic because they are flexible, less expensive to run and allow for new styles of cooking
Vidur Yadav stands behind the counter at the Bengal Brothers pop-up diner in the Hatch venue in Hong Kong’s Soho on a recent Sunday afternoon, where the aroma of traditional cooking meets funky Western tunes from the ’80s and ’90s.
It’s a temporary two-day arrangement for Bengal Brothers, which has a permanent space in Wan Chai, also on Hong Kong Island.
“For us, it was a great opportunity to do this pop-up for two reasons,” Yadav says. “We’re a young brand and it’s a great way to get more exposure and spread the word about the cuisine we’re offering. And we wanted to test the market without having to have a huge investment.”
Above and beyond the pandemic, pop-ups have remained popular for many reasons. They are flexible and less expensive venues for new ideas and new styles of cooking; for new young chefs who want to test their mettle; and for cooperative ventures to test-run new partnerships.
The Hatch venue on Staunton Street (between the districts of Sheung Wan and Central), with its colourful patchwork exterior, has hosted nine pop-ups since the operation was launched three months ago. Most typically run for two or three days.
“We work with different chefs, different kinds of cuisine,” says manager Paul Magar. When Hatch isn’t hosting pop-ups, resident chef Jaime Young returns to whip up New York-style specialities at the diner, and he also works with and advises the pop-up chefs and managers.
Hong Kong has embraced the pop-up theme, with a number of sites hosting chefs and brands on a short-term basis – some shorter than others.
“So one of our hero products in Nikushou is the crispy eel, treated like a suckling pig, and then we use Japanese seasoning,” Ng says. “It became quite an Instagram thing.” So, for the pop-up, he wanted to try more of a traditional izakaya, a Japanese tapas type of offering, with unagi and global beverages.
“That’s why we used the space: to test the waters of public opinion and do a little promotion,” Ng says. “Our restaurant Nikushou has been open for six years and a new one is expected to launch by the end of this year.”
Hong Kong gourmands have been stuck in the city with the huge difficulty of travelling internationally, so pop-ups have proved “quite eye-catching for the local foodies”, Ng adds, especially since Hong Kong has so far repelled a serious invasion of the Covid-19 Delta variant.
“Because communication has been a lot easier with the use of Instagram and also we’re all stuck here, so there’s nothing much to do besides meeting friends and eating.”
In the US, pop-up restaurants have taken a variety of forms, from a ramen maker appearing for one night only at an established bar or restaurant, to a taco maker using an unused space to temporarily host diners, to a chef offering meatballs for delivery only.
US pop-ups allowed chefs and owners to keep working and making a living during the early part of the pandemic when dining rooms were closed and the economy was teetering. They’ve helped bring buzz to existing restaurants that host them. Some have even morphed into permanent new businesses. Now, as re-openings across the country are threatened by a rise in Covid-19 cases, pop-up creators and hosts are asking, “What next?”
The US restaurant industry has been one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic. It is still down 1 million jobs from the pre-pandemic employment level of 12.3 million. Restaurant sales in 2020 totalled US$659 million, down US$240 million from expected levels, according to the National Restaurant Federation.
Sales rebounded this year as the economy recovered and restrictions were lifted, but now some economists are paring back expectations, partly because they expect fewer people to dine out. It has been a challenging few years for restaurateurs across the nation.
The flexibility of the takeaway and delivery model helped Alex Thaboua meet those challenges. Thaboua is co-owner of Electric Burrito, which began as a pop-up at Mister Paradise bar in New York in 2020. A permanent location opened in May and is focused on takeaway and delivery, so even if there is another lockdown, the restaurant will be able to operate, he says.
“This flexibility was something we found very important during our pop-up stages, when the world was getting locked down and heavy restrictions were being placed on businesses,” he says.
“We’ve designed our operations in a way that we can continue to operate with a lean team, with every safety precaution taken, to be able to serve guests in both a to-go and delivery capacity.”
Hathorne, a restaurant in Nashville in the US state of Tennessee, has hosted about 10 pop-ups featuring local chefs since the pandemic began. For the pop-ups, it is a way to get exposure and have access to a full kitchen. For Hathorne, it’s a way to fill seats on nights that would ordinarily be empty.
“We knew, when we reopened, we were not going to be able to be open six or seven days a week because staffing and business wasn’t going to be there,” says John Stephenson, Hathorne’s owner. “I knew that I wanted to utilise the space.”
A Nashville chef for decades, Stephenson knew a number of chefs who were trying to stay afloat during the pandemic with projects like creating takeaway dinners or starting food trucks, he says.
The first pop-up at Hathorne started in October, with a Mexican theme from Julio Hernandez centred on his home-made tortilla. It was a success, and more pop-ups followed. Hathorne now hosts Michael Hanna’s focaccia-based pizza company, St Vito Focacciaria, every Sunday.
Hanna and his staff get work and “it keeps people coming in our doors”, Stephenson says. The arrangement with St Vito is long-term, so he has hired Hanna as a chef. Hanna gets a percentage of the Sunday sales; Hathorne pays for all products and labour. Stephenson says he plans to keep having pop-ups even after the pandemic wanes rather than reopening full time.
Pop-ups can be a way to attract attention for new projects. In California, William Eick bought a building to start his own restaurant earlier this year, but initially he had trouble finding investors.
“Most people worried about getting involved in restaurants during the pandemic,” he says. “So we had to get creative. I thought, if we can run a pop-up, we can put the proceeds and profits into building the restaurant.”
In May he started Naegi, a pop-up serving fried chicken sandwiches from a window in the building he bought in Oceanside, on California’s south coast. The pop-up helped bring awareness to the permanent restaurant, Matsu, a more traditional Japanese restaurant with a tasting menu, which opens this year.
For Marisa Iocco, who co-owns Italian restaurant Spiga Ristorante in Needham, Massachusetts, a pop-up was a way to stay positive during the pandemic. She opened Polpettiamo in April 2021 in Providence, Rhode Island. It serves only takeaway meatballs.
“During the pandemic, it was very challenging to survive,” she says. The meatballs – which are also offered as starters at Spiga – are cooked in the kitchen at her main restaurant and finished in a kitchen in Providence, which has a staff of three.
She is considering a bricks-and-mortar location in Providence and another delivery-only location in Boston and she doesn’t expect rising cases or future lockdowns will change those plans. But more than anything, creating something new during the pandemic gave her a “vitamin B12 shot” of energy. “It really helps keep your mood positive.”