From the blog How to Open a Successful Pop-Up Restaurant

If you’re looking for a way to test new dishes, create buzz and attract new diners, pop-up restaurants could be your answer. These temporary eateries have become the restaurateur’s solution to a crowded culinary scene—and they’re growing in popularity. 

Chefs ranked pop-ups as the #2 restaurant concept in the National Restaurant Association’s 2019 “What’s Hot” survey. That’s because pop-ups are an affordable way to generate demand for your main location. They also let you gauge demand for ideas you have on the back burner.

Like the dishes you serve, there are a few key ingredients you need to make a pop-up successful. We’re here to help! We’ll explain how to open your own pop-up restaurant and where to find inspiration.

What is a pop-up restaurant?

A pop-up restaurant is a temporary restaurant that’s hosted in a unique location. Think of places like food halls, bars, gardens, bookstores, movie theaters and more. They’re usually small-scale operations with limited seating and an emphasis on creativity. 

Some eateries “pop up” for one night only with just a few hours’ notice. Others are 90-minute dining experiences that recur every night for a month.

The short-lived nature of pop-ups is used to create hype before the event and, ultimately, to generate interest in your traditional restaurant location.

Often, pop-up restaurants have a theme. Restaurateurs draw inspiration from favorite TV shows, seasons, fashion eras and even their own menu. And pop-ups aren’t restricted to culinary destinations like New York and Los Angeles or even the food industry. For instance, a “Breaking Bad” pop-up bar was launched in West Hollywood to promote the upcoming Netflix film.

There’s a reason pop-ups have risen to the top. They’re a great opportunity to let your chefs flex their creative muscles and attract foodies. You can experiment with new menu structures and ways of providing service.

Customers win, too, because they get a memorable (and Instagram-ready) experience.

How do you launch your own pop-up? We’ll go over that next. 

How to open a pop-up restaurant

Pop-up restaurants deliver a lot for a little.

You’ll get valuable feedback on your new concept and learn what diners crave from your new location. Whether you own a cafe, bar or a donut shop, you can benefit from a pop-up.

Follow the steps below to get started. 

1. Determine your goal and choose your concept.

What do you hope to gain from opening a pop-up restaurant? Your answer will provide some direction for your pop-up concept.

Here are some examples of what you could accomplish:

  • Introduce and promote your brand
  • Distinguish yourself from nearby restaurants with similar cuisines
  • Revamp your menu
  • Attract a new group of diners 
  • Create an ongoing community event

Now, get creative.

You need to think through the event structure, how long it will run, and your theme—the biggest element. Let’s say your main goal is to get your brand name out there. It’d be better to schedule a few pop-up dates and promote them over time—not host a surprise one-night-only event.

Different themes will attract different crowds.

You’ll likely see a lot of millennial customers if you host a 90s night. You could also showcase an ingredient, like Sriracha sauce, avocados or matcha green tea, to attract trend-seekers.

Read up on the latest restaurant trends for more inspiration.

2. Set a budget. 

How much does a pop-up cost? It depends on the concept, size, location and more. You’ve got to account for food, equipment, labor costs, decorations and advertising.

The cost of opening a pop-up doesn’t rival restaurant startup costs.

If you want your pop-up to have a completely different style than your main location, you could simply rent furniture. When you create your budget, keep in mind that some of what you’ll buy could be used in the future.

You can also save by using equipment from your current location if you have one.

3. Pick a location.

One of the defining qualities of a pop-up restaurant is its location. You could host your pop-up in another food business, like a popular brewery. Restaurateurs sometimes opt for an outdoors experience or stick to the traditional dining room. 

This is an excellent opportunity to leverage your business connections.

Hosting at another business could cut costs and allow you to reach new diners. It also saves you time hunting for the perfect location.

Here are some ideas:

  • Local farm
  • Arcade
  • Rooftop
  • Pub
  • Private home

Of course, ambiance is important. But keep in mind whether you, your staff or guests will need ready access to running water, electricity, air conditioning, indoor bathrooms, etc. 

4. Plan out your menu.

Most pop-ups keep things simple, offering a few key menu items the chefs or business owners want to test out.

Small plates are also popular and allow your guests to sample a variety of dishes. You could also curate a multi-course tasting menu in line with your theme. Consider providing vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options to attract the most diners.

Your goal is to get customers excited to come to the full restaurant. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s more likely with small bites or robust entrees.

5. Gather your equipment and review permit requirements.

Your menu will dictate the food preparation tools you’ll need to bring or purchase. If you want to prepare food on-site, it’s easier to find a location with a standard restaurant kitchen, but it’s not required. You can rent portable grills, fryers, refrigeration, induction burners and so on. It’s also important to have dishwashing and sanitation areas. 

As with any food business, there are a number of permits and licenses you need to serve food.

Even at a temporary restaurant, you’re likely required to have at least one employee with a food handlers license. If you plan to serve alcohol, for example, you’ll still need a liquor license. Each location will have different requirements, so be sure to check with the city, county or state government. 

Do you have a plan for accepting payments? With one of the 7 best restaurant POS systems, you can simply take payment with an iPad or tablet. It’ll be a breeze for your customers to pay with credit cards and other payment methods.

6. Spread the word.

You may not need much more than social media to promote your pop-up restaurant. It’s an effective tool to share images and quickfire descriptions.

It’s a good idea to make a flyer with the event details and use paper and digital versions to get the word out. Post it to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

If you’ve decided to take reservations or sell tickets online, share the sign-up link via social media. In addition, you can hand out flyers in your restaurant and around town.

You should also post the digital version on your website. And don’t forget to email your current customers.

7. Open the doors.

You’ve laid the groundwork for a successful pop-up. Now invite your guests in.

Consider providing an email signup sheet at the front where guests can add their information and be notified of future events. 

After they’ve enjoyed their meal, remember to ask your guests for feedback. One way to do this is to provide comment cards on the table. Or let guests know upfront that you’ll ask them to complete a short survey at the end of their meal.

Another convenient option is to email guests the next day with an online survey.  

Remember your main goal. If it’s to attract guests to your existing restaurant, give them one last incentive. Offer coupons or hand them a branded thank-you note on their way out as a reminder.

Are you ready to grow together?