The well-worn phrase, “it’s the journey, not the destination” would have us believe it’s strictly true. But in fact the adverse could be said for food’s latest iteration — the increasingly tasty, often bizarre and the sometimes exclusive movement — the pop-up.
Though we’ve spent the past four years in an economical dry zone, (now a little damper following 1% economic growth last month), we’ve spared ourselves from penance and used our pennies to enjoy one of life’s greatest and simplest pleasures. Yes, food has fared well in the recession, with recent research showing we’re still happy to part with our cash in return for tasty (and necessary) sustenance. But foodies are being increasingly exposed to a platter of unearthly delights that are a departure from the repertoire of restaurant dining we’re used to. This time, it’s in the form of food pop-ups.
Pop-ups were first ‘pioneered’ in the U.S. during the 1990s as a marketing stint to increase retail footfall. But necessity is, as they say, the mother of all invention, and pop-ups have been brought back to the fore by those with a hunger for entrepreneurialism, and for those keen to inject a new lease of life into an existing business.
“For small businesses, pop-ups offer the capability for ‘lean-retail’, a stripped-down version of the retail experience,” says Nicholas Russell, founder of software platform and offline community, We Are Pop Up. “As food has such a deep meaning to people, it is very easy for food to become a destination for humans. We savour fine foods, we talk about them, we share the experience. Food experiences have a very strong value as social currency.
“Between the availability of cooking knowledge, and the power of food to become destinations, food is a perfect candidate for pop-ups. Quite simply, people will go out of their way for food; to taste, to eat, to dine.”
Given the reputation that precedes it, pop-ups have become the food industry’s one-way ticket to success. Pizza Pilgrims went from market stall to a rooftop in Shoreditch; meat wagon MeatEasy propelled owner Yianni Papoutsis to open MeatLiquor and MeatMarket restaurants in the capital, and just last month, steak joint Flat Iron went permanent off the back of its street food success.
The beauty of the model is down to its flexibility. “In 2009, the confluence of the global financial crisis, the rise of social media and the maker economy gave rise to a new subculture of advanced amateurs launching business concepts in temporary locations, using social media to reach massive audiences at minimal costs,” explains Nicholas. The initiative that was perpetuated by pop culture led to a ‘new normal’, he says. “They began chipping away at the dominant logic of retail — long-term leases and permanent places.”
And it’s working. Here, start-ups and high-profile chefs co-exist; long-term producers with those fresh to the market. A vacant retail space in Richmond, London has been turned into a pilot store by StartUp Britain ‘s arm, PopUp Britain, a privately funded, but Government-backed national campaign for entrepreneurs. For the past 12 weeks the store has seen 36 businesses through its doors, and at the end of October, a group of six food companies were in — Little Turban, Cookie Crumbles and Snappy Snacks among them — operations spanning between 7 days and 18 years.
This is all good news, not to mention bringing a vacant space back into use, but what are the risks? “At present, the major pitfall is that the commercial property market lacks the ability to serve the pop-up retail market, a market we conservatively value at £26bn,” says Nicholas. “The lack of flexibility in the property market to serve pop-ups, both entrepreneurial and branded, was a primary inspiration for We Are Pop Up.”
And there is also the issue of protection, says Nicholas: “Pop-ups operate in the informal economy, and often exist outside formal regulatory channels. There are fewer protections for landlords, proprietors, and consumers than in the formal economy. Those risks have not gone unnoticed, and a variety of stakeholders, from local authorities to the central Government, have active initiatives to bring pop-ups into the formal economy as active participants.”
Only time will tell the complete story of what our pop-ups will become and how they will evolve. Many will maintain their demeanour as a semi-permanent pop-up informing the zeitgeist, while others will find permanent success in the temporary. Either way, it’s exciting times for food for both the eaters and the doers. Pop-ups bring an almost access-all-areas feel to a coveted new food movement; an underground supperclub or a promise of the next best thing. Celebrity chefs may gravitate to the idea for a one-off speciality dinner, opening the doors for those who may otherwise never have tasted the fruits of their labour, while those starting out will impress with their vigour, passion and ideas.
“Today’s risks do not detract from tomorrow’s vibrant future for pop-ups,” says Nicholas. “We are moving from a society of formal regulation to a society of regulation by reputation.” Let’s hope so, for our stomach’s sakes.