Pop-up restaurants: a brief history

Are pop-up restaurants here to stay, so to speak, or just another fad of the feckless Generation Y, asks Janice Leung Hayes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 10:48pm

POP-UP RESTAURANTS are the chef equivalent of a summer romance - a short-term thing where neither party judges or forms an emotional bond, but it's good fun while it lasts. As Erik Idos, chef of upcoming modern Filipino pop-up Pirate Kitchen, says: "You do it for a day and then you're done." Back to reality.

The chefs and organisers behind Hong Kong's latest pop-ups are young - often Generation Y or Generation Me - a tech-savvy, creative crowd born in the 1980s, who seek work that rewards the soul, as well as their bank accounts. As a result, they can be criticised for seeming non-committal and lazy.

So are pop-ups - temporary restaurants set up within existing restaurants, cafes or other spaces for a limited period - a mere trend that Gen Y will grow out of, or a genuine testing ground for restaurateurs?

To Lindsay Jang, co-founder of Yardbird, and a relatively seasoned organiser of pop-ups in Hong Kong, these temporary eateries make business sense.

"To run a good business, you're always looking at the market and seeing where the gaps are." These one-off events provide the perfect place to prove a concept. In March last year, Yardbird put on Hecho, a pop-up serving Mexican street food - tacos, ceviche, quesadillas and so on. "We had a business plan for a Mexican restaurant," Jang says. "It's really good market research, I mean, do I want to put all this money into a restaurant? [Pop-ups let you] see what the feedback is and what the costs are like." Although it was popular - people queued for up to three hours - the restaurant never came to fruition ("trends come and go," Jang explains), but it allowed them to learn and help them plan for future pop-ups. On June 16, Jang, along with business partner Cindy Ko and Idos, will be staging Pirate Kitchen at friend Joyce Wang's art gallery, WANG Space.

One of the things pop-up organisers have to learn is to resist the temptation of pleasing everybody. "When we started we always over-prepped [the amount of food]," says May Chow, who was also behind Hecho, but has since started her own business, Little Bao, which specialises in Asian "burgers", or bao. She's done numerous pop-ups and is opening her own brick-and-mortar restaurant this August.

Staging these meals is by no means an easy feat. Jang says: "The environment is never ideal - you're either renting equipment or using someone else's." With these crucial components missing, Chow says: "People shouldn't think that pop-ups are about making money." Private chef Leo Kam agrees: "I don't even think about money, it's just to treat friends."

Sometimes, it's a convenient way to make the best out of a bad situation. Jang did a fried chicken pop-up earlier this year for the streetwear brand Stussy, as they had created T-shirts for Yardbird's one-year anniversary, but the shipment was late. "[The T-shirts] were just sitting in my office. I needed to make something out of it." She sold the T-shirts at the event, and it was one of her most successful, with the 150 portions of fried chicken selling out in about an hour. Kam did his first pop-up in April this year in a bar, after a dinner he was cooking for was cancelled and he didn't want to waste his ingredients. It went so well that he put on another Korean-Mexican street food event a month later.

Kam's pop-up fare is a far cry from what he was trained to do at Gordon Ramsay's Maze, then Nobu in London. The temporary nature of pop-ups often means that chefs will take a chance to be more creative. For Kam, the inspiration comes from peers. "Friends will say they miss a certain type of food, and ask: 'Can you do this?'"

Jang says the beauty of pop-ups is that "nobody can gauge if you were a success or a failure. There's no long-term pressure."

It's also a way of escaping the daily grind. "From a creative standpoint, chefs always have this itch [to cook something different]. With pop-ups, you can do something fun and crazy," says Chow.

Chefs aren't the only people with that desire. Pop-ups also give amateurs, or cooks with less experience, a chance to realise their concepts. Goz Lee started his Singaporean supper club, plusixfive, in his London home two years ago. Homesickness propelled him to start "calling mum to ask her how to make certain dishes". He cooked only for friends initially, but word spread through Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Soon, he was cooking weekly for 18 strangers. A lawyer by day, he moved to Hong Kong last year and has continued to channel his passion for cooking through pop-ups. His next one in Hong Kong is planned for July.

After deciding that he was not destined to be a veterinarian, Ken Yau, the chef behind k., began to cook in some of Ontario's top kitchens. He arrived in Hong Kong last year, and has since done pop-ups about once a week, mostly in cafes. Having just started his journey as a chef, he treats his meals as trial and error. "It's still a learning process," he says.

Unlike Chow, Jang and Kam, Yau has been doing more manageable, small sit-down dinners for about six. "I don't want it to go over my head," he says. For Lee, smaller groups means that "by the end of the night, I'll have gotten to know new people".

These blink-and-you'll-miss-it events require clear communication on essentials such as time and location, as well as a menu. While Kam had all the details a month in advance, he didn't publicise the event until 7pm - an hour before it was due to begin - and he did this via a simple text message. By 8pm, 50 people were waiting to get in.

Jang is less ad hoc, often planning months in advance, although the mobile phone has also been her tool of choice. "[For Pirate Kitchen] all the planning has been done on WhatsApp," says Jang. "I think social media has a lot to do with it," says Lee. "Twitter has been important for letting people know what's happening." Even Yau, who's keeping his operations small, has a Facebook page and advertises through an email list.

From street food, to family meals to intimate fine dining, pop-ups are allowing young restaurateurs to experiment, be it for business or pleasure. There are few common denominators of these events, except to have fun. As Jang says: "At the end of the day, if you're truly passionate about food and beverages and hospitality, you want to put on a party."

Enabled by technology and a taste for adventure, they sure do know how.

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Pirate Kitchen June 16 at WANG Space, 18 Sau Wa Fong, Wan Chai
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Little Bao August 2013 at 66 Staunton Street, Central