Pop-up restaurants are taking the UK by storm. Walking down a city street you’ll be faced with a wealth of exciting, temporary businesses, offering a range of culinary experiences. Pop-up restaurants have something for everyone: chefs love the creative freedom, owners and managers benefit from the opportunity to test and learn, and customers are captivated by the short-term appeal and fun food concepts.
But the idea of starting your own may be a little intimidating. There’s a lot of ground to cover before you can set up shop. Wondering where to start? Here’s what you need to know about creating a pop-up restaurant to elevate your business.
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What is a pop-up restaurant?
A pop-up restaurant is an eating establishment or event designed to showcase your culinary talents at a temporary location. This includes everything from a one-off, exclusive event to a rooftop food tent open for a few months.
The pros and cons of opening a pop-up restaurant
How does opening a pop-up restaurant compare to opening a permanent restaurant? Here’s the key positives and negatives to help you weigh up the prospect.
Lower cost: Start-up pop-up dining experiences are far cheaper to begin than a standard equivalent. Investment, overheads and labour are all less costly as you’re only there temporarily.
More freedom to experiment: If you’re considering a permanent venue, a pop-up could be a great way to test out menus, themes and pricing before taking the plunge.
Flexibility: you can test out different locations, even different towns and cities, to see where there’s a market for the street food you have planned. And this allows for some creativity in your location choices too.
Free publicity: open inside an established venue, like a shopping centre, or as a stall at a music festival, and you’ve an instant potential crowd looking for somewhere to eat dinner. You might just catch their eye.
Lack of long-term customer relationships: permanent restaurants often do well by nurturing the same customers to return for dinner again and again. If you’re only there short-term, how can you nurture and develop these relationships?
Loss-making: pop-ups are great for experimenting and showcasing your abilities, but they may not give you a profit, especially at first. Unless you get the chance to stay in one place for a decent length of time, paying for staff and publicity might burn a hole in your pocket.
Marketing strategy: you can’t just set up and expect people to come flocking. If you’re only going to be selling street food in the short term, you need a clearly defined strategy to harness the power of social media to get the word out. Post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and advertise via local press too.
Long hours: if you take on board the above factors, you’re going to need to work lots of early starts and late finishes in order to maximise your pop-up restaurant’s potential.
What are the benefits of a pop-up restaurant?
Pop-up restaurants have a lot of advantages over their permanent equivalent. They enable first-time restaurant owners or aspiring chefs to build a presence and reputation, and seasoned industry leaders to test new concepts and create a space for creativity that might be lacking in an established space. Here are all the ways you can benefit from opening a pop-up restaurant:
Test a location: whether you’re starting a restaurant from the ground up or expanding your presence, a pop-up restaurant allows you to determine foot traffic, identify a potential captive audience and gauge how a location works for your vision.
Experiment: restaurant owners love pop-ups for the chance to experiment. If you keep dreaming up concepts that don’t work with your existing format, test them in a temporary setup and get direct feedback from customers.
Generate hype: the ‘limited time only’ nature of a pop-up restaurant creates buzz, driving diners to test out your food as a matter of urgency and repeat visits while the experience is available.
Attract investment: nothing entices investors more than proof of concept. If your pop-up delivers significant ROI and receives rave reviews, they’ll be more inclined to finance your long-term vision.
Cut costs: restaurant startup costs can be overwhelming if you think too big too quickly. Instead, pop-up restaurants are a great way to realise your dream and showcase your culinary talents without the need for long-term capital investment.
Establish yourself: if your pop-up restaurant is a success, you could become a recognised figure in the food & drink community, complete with the finances and credibility needed to secure a permanent space. You could even become a serial pop-up entrepreneur.
6 elements that make for a successful pop-up restaurant
There are a lot of things to figure out when you’re putting together a pop-up restaurant. These are the six main areas you need to pay close attention to if you want it to be a big success.
Pop-up restaurants are a great way to test a new concept. This might be a specific food item (like grilled cheese sandwiches) or a specific cuisine (such as Filipino food).
When thinking about concepts, check out the competitive landscape and find gaps that potential competitors have left open. Is your local area missing out on a specific cuisine? Is there a rising restaurant trend that would be popular with your target audience?
Bring these opportunities to life with your expertise (and passion), and develop a pop-up concept that foodies will adore. If your concept and its execution find keen fans, you may have stumbled upon an opportunity to create a lasting business.
Think of pop-up restaurants and you’re most likely thinking of having a stall serving street food or a van, possibly outside an events venue. But why not think outside the box to make you stand out and get people talking?
There are few limitations when it comes to choosing a location for your pop-up restaurant. If you host in another restaurant’s kitchen during off-peak hours you’re more likely to draw a crowd then springing up somewhere brand new. Setting up shop on a city rooftop or a rustic old barn makes for great scenery and lots of Insta-worthy snaps on customer’s smartphones. Open in an apartment complex and hopefully the people living there are going to want to try it out as soon as possible.
Or how about somewhere even more unconventional? Sites like Appear Here are a perfect source of locations for any pop-up concept and lots of websites love a quirky story about an unusual location serving food.
London has seen some truly bizarre and brilliant pop-up eateries. Diners at The Crust Conductor found themselves eating wood-fired pizzas on a traditional double decker bus while a DJ spun tunes. Or, taking the idea of rooftop restaurants one step further, London in the Sky saw brave-hearted customers suspended from a crane 100ft in the air.
Be careful not to go too far though. Perhaps the most controversial and ill-judged idea was Death Row Dinners, which planned to open in East London in 2014. Guests would have eaten the final meals of convicts ‘behind bars’ at a place called The Penitentiary. Publicised with pictures of Death Row inmates with menus around their necks, a backlash ensued and the idea was abandoned.
The official stuff
Whichever location you decide on, there are health & safety requirements that mean you need to do the following:
- Acquire relevant licences and insurance
- Register with the necessary food safety and hygiene bodies, such as the Food Standards Agency
- Carry out a risk assessment to ensure your pop-up adheres to health & safety standards
- Examine the overall safety considerations of the location, dining space and kitchen
- Brief your employees on everything above
- Keep the whole business primed and ready for inspections
The kitchen equipment
The right equipment and technology can make or break your pop-up restaurant. First, decide on all the kitchen equipment needed to successfully create your dishes. Common kitchen equipment for pop-up restaurants includes:
- Some form of cooker, such as a grill, deep fryer, portable brick oven or stove top (this largely depends on the kind of dishes you’re making). Choose models designed to keep up with the high demand of a pop-up restaurant
- Reach-in fridge or freezer to store ingredients and maintain food quality
- Chafing dishes or something similar to hold food and keep ingredients hot
- Cleaning stations to keep the space sanitised
- Worktops where you can separately prepare ingredients and serve your dishes
The payment technology
Due to their short-term nature and exclusivity, pop-up restaurants usually experience heavy customer traffic. This means you’ll be taking a lot of payments. So you can move fast, make sure your payments system accepts every form of payment, whether it’s chip and PIN, contactless or mobile.
Square Reader is the most affordable portable card reader for taking payments. It connects wirelessly and accepts chip and PIN and contactless cards, and is also equipped to deal with smartphone payments via Apple Pay and Google Pay. Customers can tap and go in seconds, which will help keep those queues down. Real-time inventory and reporting makes for smarter, swifter business decisions and with a powerful battery behind it, Square Reader won’t run out on you in the middle of a sale.
Square Terminal is the all-in-one card machine that lets you take payments, print receipts and run your pop-up restaurant. Reliable and intuitive, Square Terminal also lets customers pay with any method available. And with next-business-day payments, you get the funds quickly. With no long-term contracts or monthly fees, it’s the perfect solution for a short-term street food vendor.
Square for Restaurants POS system is a fully integrated, all-in-one POS tailored for the food business. Take high-volume payments, display tipping options upon purchase, track sales data, manage real-time inventory, collect customer feedback and easily update floor layouts and menus with bulk additions and remotely across multiple terminals and locations. Thinking of setting up a soup and sandwich special? You can do so in seconds. With a short-term set-up in place, you’ll find the granular daily stats extremely useful. Add service charges to bills, either manually or automatically, and base on party size for large bookings. All this will help you gauge the success of your pop-up restaurant and make informed business decisions moving forward.
Square for Restaurants has another trick tucked away in its apron pocket. It seamlessly integrates with the restaurant booking system OpenTable. Customers can check availability at your pop-up, then book and even pre-pay through the OpenTable network, which then syncs the information to your intuitive Square Dashboard. It lets you collect customer feedback and can easily update layouts if you’ve had a last-minute change of heart on your floorplan. You can even add a waiting list so your pop-up doesn’t miss a walk-in.
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The promotional strategy
A successful pop-up restaurant requires a tactical promotion strategy. When laying out the framework, it’s important to first define your goals.
For a first-time event let’s say, you might be looking to build your brand and establish a presence. Chefs who’ve been in the business for a while may instead want to test a new concept with a captive audience. Whatever your goals, make them the anchor of your promotional strategy.
Once you’ve established a clear goal, define your target audience (the people you want to come to your pop-up) and messaging (how you want them to perceive your brand and what you want them to know). Then, pick out the ways you want to deliver those messages to that audience.
The best tactics include:
- Establishing a social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
- Printing and posting flyers around the neighbourhood
- Engaging in email marketing to alert customers online
- Contacting reporters and bloggers to get press coverage
Whether you’re new to the industry or a seasoned expert, pop-up restaurants provide a unique and exciting opportunity to grow your reputation and achieve your culinary dreams. Whatever your goals, designing a setup that works with you is crucial. Think outside the box, and play to the strengths of the pop-up experience with a flexible, mobile approach that makes customers come back for more.