Pastry Chef, Baker, and meez Account Executive, Ursula Siker, explains the importance of learning on the go, compromise, and off-site prep when planning a pop-up restaurant.
My first real introduction to restaurant pop-ups started in Chicago in 2018 when I was helping my friends out with their events around town.
After being hands for other people for about a year, I decided it was time to venture out on my own. In 2019, I put on several pop-ups around Chicago for my Jewish deli concept, Jeff & Judes, and even participated in the popular Sportsman’s Bar BBQ series.
I quickly found out that you can be as organized as you want, but when you're in an unfamiliar space, things will just happen. The electricity can go out. You can lose access to a storage fridge during service. You can run out of food in an hour. Or, worse, no one shows up.
Needless to say, I’ve seen all sides of what makes or breaks a good restaurant pop-up experience. Hopefully, the tips below will prevent you from making some of the same mistakes I did early on.
How to Run a Successful Restaurant Pop-Up
Tip #1: Visit the Event Space
Before you develop your pop-up menu, look at space constraints, how much surface area you have, and ask what refrigerators you’ll have access to during service. It’s also important to walk the space or kitchen ahead of time and take photos of all the equipment they have.
In meez, it’s really easy to stay organized and notify your team of what you learned on the kitchen walk. You can add a document that includes photos of available equipment so your whole team is on the same page before the event day.
Tip #2: Prep Off-Site
Do as much as you can off-site. You will have less time than you think when you’re actually at the host restaurant. You don’t want to delay service or not have enough time for the front-of-the-house staff during pre-shift before service starts.
Additionally, make sure to show up on-site with things labeled. This will allow you to spend more time setting mise-en-place before the event.
Tip #3: Keep Things Small
When you're planning a pop-up menu, keep menus and touches small whenever possible. It will always take longer than you think to plate when you’re in an unfamiliar space.
For example, I did a pop-up where I had a really extensive avocado toast that had six touches on it. It was beautiful, but only a few went out actually looking that way. We couldn’t delicately tweezer everything and ended up saying we were sold out because ordering was so backed up.
My advice is either to offer cold dishes, heat a dish in bulk, or create a dish with four touches at most. It might not be worth it to put that dish on the menu otherwise.
Tip #4: Pick the Right Team (For You)
At restaurant pop-ups, typically you build your team two different ways: the restaurant will offer their staff or you’ll choose who you work with. While it’s nice to have someone on your team who is familiar with the pop-up space and knows the equipment, my personal preference is to work with someone you know. There is less of a learning curve and, more than likely, they’ve made one of your dishes before.
Make sure you have enough help so all stations are covered, giving you the sole job of expo. That way you can hop on if someone needs hands, but focus on overseeing plating and calling orders.
Regardless of which kind of team you have, make sure you are as clear as possible with your pickup. Record a video or take a final photo so they can reference it on the line. This is extremely easy to do in meez. You can add photo or video prep steps to your recipe that way everyone on your team is aligned on execution.
Tip #5: Sell Event Tickets
Doing ticketed events is really helpful because you know exactly how many guests are going to show up. While a walk-up counter can give you the opportunity to get more sales, you can also end up running out of food to serve or worse, tossing food waste at the end of the night.
Be careful about your timelines. Unless you are doing a series, I suggest spreading your pop-up events out. Otherwise, someone might just say “I’ll go next time” and your ticket sales might dwindle, not to mention the burnout you can encounter doing back-to-back events.
The last thing you want is to put a dent in your reputation as an unprepared chef.
Tip #6: Stop Costing Manually
Before I started using meez for recipe costing, I would rely on a cost index created in excel. Because it was a manual process, sometimes I’d just ballpark the recipe cost number altogether.
Now, I no longer have to do the kitchen math. Whenever I make alterations to a recipe’s ingredients, costs are automatically updated. I can use meez’s food cost calculator to figure out exactly how much I should charge for a dish to make a profit.
Plus, meez lets me export an ingredient list as an order guide for my recipe based on batch size and total yield. Not only does this reduce food waste, but it ultimately saves me money.
Tip #7: Be Straightforward About Financials
Every host restaurant has different rules and restrictions on what they want. Because of this, you need to have a straightforward financial conversation before event day.
While some folks are happy to give you their space at no charge, I've had places that will cover your food costs, but take 50% of sales, and others take ⅓ of the sales for use of the kitchen.
If somebody is willing to cover your food cost, keep that in mind for what you’re ordering. You don’t want to push costs too high, but it might give you more flexibility for your dishes.
Are Restaurant Pop-Ups Worth It?
Every single restaurant pop-up is going to be a completely different experience. And you need to be okay with that. You’re never really going to “get the hang of it.”
Unless you are doing a series, there will be new people and new equipment that you’ve never used before. Once you lose the expectation that not everything will go the way you think, planning your pop-up gets a lot better.
Your number one takeaway should always be that you've learned a lesson. At the end of the day, you should appreciate that you’ve accomplished something a lot of people haven’t done before.
About Ursula Siker
Ursula is an established baker, pastry chef, and restaurant owner with 11 years of kitchen experience. She's enjoyed such accolades as being named Top 10 Artisanal Bread Bakers North America in 2015, features in Plate Magazine, Bake Magazine, and Eater, and even became a Chopped Champion in 2022. Ursula has always been driven by efficiency as a means to elevate creativity in Back of House. As Account Executive, her primary goal is to share meez with fellow chefs and restaurateurs so she can someday make meez the universal recipe tool for all kitchens.
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