Gastronomics: How Pop-ups Went Boom, and Why They Should Go Bust

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No, it's fine ... we totally have a permit. Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

Restaurant cooking is evanescent by design. Food is created so that it may be eaten up. There are recipes, of course, but the experience of eating a specific dish created by a specific kitchen cannot be replicated at home. This understanding is at the core of the pop-up restaurant phenomenon. Because of the specificity of the experience, people will clamor to get in; but because that experience is designed to last only a short period of time, it doesn't have to be good enough to bring customers back.

While most restaurants work hard to replicate the same experience night after night — one of Mario Batali's essential principles for the Babbo kitchen is that "if someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don’t serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you’re a dick" — pop-ups are defiantly transitory enterprises that are designed to exist for only a few days, or, at most, months. There are no million-dollar investments here, no plans to create an institution. Instead, there's something light and rough around the edges, with a freedom to experiment that's unavailable to the restaurateur paying rent on a twenty-year lease.

The attractiveness of this idea to restaurateurs and chefs — even established, name chefs like Bill Telepan — is clear: Without the burden of a long lease, rents are cheap. As Frank Bruni reported in the Times, John Fraser's What Happens When paid a rent that was "well below market rate," since the landlord was looking to get some cash flow until something more permanent came along, or until the building itself was demolished. In the case of promotional pop-ups, such as the Roberta's stand at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, or the James Beard–sponsored LTD pop-ups in Chelsea Market, a corporate sponsor is footing the bill.

Because upfront investment is low, a pop-up can quickly turn profitable over the course of its limited existence, often by charging high prices that are usually associated with established restaurants. What Happens When is a good example: It charged $58 for a three-course meal, even though it seated patrons on $10 chairs (now for sale, by the way), offered a limited selection of just five wines, and even asked customers to assemble their own place settings from drawers of cutlery. (By comparison, Danny Meyer's Untitled, housed in the Whitney, charges $46 for a similar three-course dinner.)

Other examples of high pop-up prices: Most small plates at Zak Pelaccio’s Fatty Johnson's were in the $14 to $17 range; Bill Telepan's Tribeca pop-up charged $45 for four courses; some dinners held at the LTO pop-up series broke the $100 per person mark; and dinners at the James Beard–associated LTD series in Chelsea Market were $100 per person on weekends and $75 per during the week.

Clearly what's going on here is a far cry from the classic restaurant transaction, where customers simply pay for food and service. Projects like What Happens When feel more like a membership, with overtones of philanthropy. Customers are asked to pay for food and service, but they're also asked to cover many of the business's start-up costs — sometimes literally. Before What Happens When even actually happened, Fraser raised $24,207 via Kickstarter.

Another advantage for chefs is that the pop-up model is an easy way to generate a certain amount of hype. If someone opens something for just a day or two and long lines form in the process, it can act as a great way to gin up the interest of potential backers for a more permanent project. (Or at the very least provide a chef with some welcome buzz.) It can also give a jolt of good press to chefs whose restaurants have been around for a while and are thus off the media's collective radar.

For diners, the benefits aren't as clear-cut. When looked at with coldly rational eyes, it's clear that pop-up restaurants are best avoided. Prices at pop-ups tend to start in the $45 to $50 range (booze, tax, and tip excluded, of course), and rise from there. As a result, diners often pay triple-digit sums — comparable to those at "real" restaurants — to sit in spaces that have often been hastily constructed, eating food by kitchen staffs that, by definition, haven't had the time to polish and perfect their recipes.

How, then, to explain pop-ups' popularity? First, the semiotics of pop-up restaurants all scream, This is a great deal. Haphazard service, cheap chairs, liquor-license issues: Diners see these things and think they must be getting a bargain price. Second, there is the fleeting nature. Pop-ups are manufactured scarcity, a perfect draw for New Yorkers' constant desire to find the new new thing.

There are even stealth pop-ups, which adhere to the pop-up model while seeming to have the outward trappings of a “real” restaurant. The soon-to-close M. Wells is the perfect case in point: Whether by design or not, the restaurant will have barely lasted a year when it closes this month, owing to a short lease agreement. Even if the landlord had agreed to a renewed lease, its low prices and high staffing levels make it hard to believe it was ever profitable — Michael Idov, who wrote a profile about the restaurant in New York Magazine, says it "felt more like a showcase than a business." And a very successful showcase it was: M. Wells's owners have generated massive amounts of hype and goodwill with customers, so they should find it relatively easy to partner with a big backer and open something more permanent, whether that's at P.S. 1 or elsewhere..

(On the flip side, there is a restaurant like Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc in Napa; it was designed to be a temporary placeholder while another restaurant was developed for the same space. But it proved so popular that it became permanent, spawning its own cookbook and fried-chicken mix in the process.)

Perhaps the demand for pop-ups is a sign that people really do value evanescence in restaurants and are willing to pay for it. Maybe Molto Mario was wrong, and predictability in restaurants (even predictable greatness) is no longer a virtue but a disadvantage. It's possible, I suppose, but I doubt it. For all their hype, pop-up restaurants account for a tiny minority of restaurant visits in New York. If the jammed reservation line and packed dining room at the thirteen-year-old Babbo are any indication, it stands to reason that pop-ups are a bit like stock-market volatility: They're generating a lot of heat and noise at the moment, but are best ignored over the long term.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters.

Earlier: Gastronomics: Why Blowout Feast Reservations Are In