How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant (+Tips, Cost, Examples)
November 20, 2019
Before pop-up restaurants, the food truck craze was all the rage.
When aspiring chefs and restaurant owners saw that people were willing to track down a truck just for that special taco they were craving, it instilled a new idea: why wouldn’t they track down a limited edition, specialty restaurant.
Pop-up restaurants have become wildly successful for many reasons – a main reason being that pop-up restaurants instill a sense of urgency. This sense of urgency encourages consumers to put pop-ups at the top of their “to-try” lists because they know they won’t be there in a few weeks time, in turn, fully booking pop-up restaurants.
Once a chef or the pop-up’s owner hosts a successful pop-up with raving reviews online, more pop-ups or a permanent restaurant can be opened, making for a wildly profitable business plan.
A pop-up restaurant is a temporary dining establishment that is often used to experiment with a restaurant idea or new food creations, as it is not a long-term commitment or as hefty of a financial burden as opening a year-round restaurant.
Pop-up restaurants have also been used to capture a fleeting trend, such as a restaurant themed around an upcoming holiday or season, or even a popular movie or television show that is soon-to-be released.
The main idea of a pop-up restaurant is that its time is limited. However, there is no set amount of time that makes a restaurant a pop-up. A pop-up restaurant can be around for one night only, a week, a month, three months, etc. The only requirement that makes it a pop-up is that an end date is in near-sight.
If you’re looking to start testing out your own gourmet concoctions or feel that your city needs a “Stranger Things” themed restaurant, then starting your own pop-up restaurant may be right up your ally.
Above: A “Parks and Recreation” themed pop-up experience at Replay Lincoln Park in Chicago.
Before opening a pop-up restaurant, it’s important to first know the steps that must be taken in preparation of opening, while open, and after the pop-up is closed.
Step 1: Choosing the Restaurant’s Purpose
Why are you opening a pop-up restaurant?
Are you looking to share your love for DC Comics with others in your town just in time for the release of Wonder Woman 1984? Maybe a DC Comic-themed pop-up restaurant is calling your name.
If you’re an up-and-coming chef looking to get your name recognized in the competitive restaurant industry, starting your own pop-up can put your name on the map.
Maybe you already have a restaurant and are looking to test out a new dinner menu, but need real-life foodie’s opinions before adding it to your official menu. A pop-up restaurant is one of the best ways to get feedback without risking your permanent restaurants brand image.
Alternatively, your business may be doing wonderfully, but you’re looking to raise money for an important cause to you or the local community, and want the urgency that a pop-up restaurant offers to raise funds quicker.
You could even partner with another local business to help provide them food for a grand opening or promotional event.
Whatever your reason, make sure you have a specific purpose and outcome you’re hoping to achieve by opening a pop-up restaurant. If you jump in blindly, it’s likely you will not get the outcome you were looking for, as like most business ventures.
Step 2: Choosing a Location
One of the best things about opening a pop-up restaurant is that the location options are endless. As long as the space is available to rent out, can accommodate the equipment needed, and will pass all inspections necessary – such as health and safety – you can choose anywhere.
This can include, but is most definitely not limited to, vacant restaurant space, existing restaurant space during off-hours, rooftops, basements, warehouses, or more unconventional spaces.
To decide what type of space you’re seeking and where you want it to be located, consider the purpose of your pop-up restaurant and the business plan that follows.
Some questions to ask yourself include:
– How many people are you aiming to seat at once?
– How much equipment do you need?
– What hours will you be open?
- How long will you need to rent the space for?
Step 3: Insurance, Permits, and Licensing
Like all businesses, it’s expected of a pop-up restaurant to be up to code on all legal matters. By getting ahead of any permits, licenses, or insurance you may need, refer to your business plan and research any paperwork you may need to run your business smart and legally.
Some common paperwork you will likely need includes:
- Business License: Required everywhere in the United States to open and operate any type of business organization.
- Employer Identification Number (EIN): Similar to a business license, every organization must acquire an EIN to operate any kind of business in the United States for tax purposes.
- Certificate of Occupancy: On a local level, you will need your local building department to certify that your space has passed all inspections and is safe to conduct business in.
- Food Service License: Your local health department will also need to issue a license certifying that your business is up to code on food and health regulations. This license is regularly monitored to ensure all codes are being upkept.
- Building Health Permit: Similar to the food service license, the building your pop-up is in has to pass health inspections to ensure it’s safe for use.
- Employee Health Permit: Just like the food being served and the place of service need to pass safety regulations, the staff needs to undertake training certified by the FDA to prevent poor sanitation.
- Resale Permit: If you’re planning to purchase nontaxable items, such as wholesale food, and using those items in the meals you’re serving, a resale permit prevents double sales tax (when both you and your customer pay sales tax on the same item).
- Seller’s Permit: In addition to a resale permit, if you’re hoping to be recognized as a collector of sales tax by your local government, a seller’s permit is necessary.
- Sign Permit: Another local government requirement if you’re hoping to put a sign in front of your establishment is a sign permit, allowing you to do so according to local regulations.
- Music License: Most restaurants have music of some sort playing in the background. If you want to join this majority, you’ll need a music licence to prevent breaking any copyright laws – as fines for breaking these laws can get very pricey.
- Live Entertainment License: If music isn’t enough to entertain your expected audience, you will need to acquire a live entertainment license for any live events you plan to host – whether that be stand-up comedy, live music, a dance show, and more.
- Liquor License: If you’re hoping to sell liquor at your pop-up restaurant, a liquor license is vital. It’s important to note that isn’t uncommon to need two of these if you’re hoping to sell both liquor and beer and wine.
- Dumpster Placement Permit: If you’re opening a restaurant, it’s almost guaranteed you will have waste. Believe it or not, you will need a permit allowing you to place a dumpster near your establishment to dispose of that waste.
While these cover many of the paperwork requirements you will need to complete or consider when opening a restaurant, there are still many others for specifications you may want for your business, such as valet parking.
Researching permits needed when operating in your local government can help show any added permits you may want or need.
Step 4: Gather Equipment for a Mobile Kitchen
If you’re opening a pop-up restaurant, it’s likely you’ll open more in the future. So, choosing equipment that is fairly portable and adaptable in multiple spaces is a wise idea.
Some things to consider when gathering equipment are whether electric and water are available and if the location you’re setting up in already offers equipment you may need – for instance, if you’re renting out a brunch restaurant location in the evenings, they’ll already have a fairly stocked kitchen (equipment-wise).
Some portable equipment to consider for your pop-up equipment includes:
- Portable oven, stove top, or grill large enough to meet demands.
- Easy-to-access cooler or freezer to store ingredients.
- Portable steam table to keep ingredients warm.
- Cleaning stations to maintain health regulations.
- Cutting tables to prepare plates and ensure they’re presented to your standards.
Step 5: Set Up Dining Room
Of course, you want your customers to enjoy the food you’re serving. However, another important aspect to eating out at restaurants is the ambience the restaurant offers.
Set up your dining room to match the experience you want your customers to have.
Is your restaurant themed? Go all out!
Is it simply a tester to see if people enjoy your food, what kind of ambience will nicely complement the food you’re serving? Self-service? Fine dining? Figure out what works best for you and run with it.
Additionally, because a pop-up is only temporary, you may want to look into renting options for tables, chairs, linens, and any other furniture or decor you require. That way, you won’t be stuck with leftover equipment you no longer have use for after the three weeks they’re used.
Step 6: Finalize the Menu and Prices
What kind of food will your pop-up restaurant be serving?
If you’re strapped for storage space, consider a set menu, rather than item-by-item. That way, you will decrease leftover produce.
A prix fixe menu is also an option that will decrease leftover produce and encourage customers to try a variety of plates, allowing you to gain more feedback on more dishes.
Whatever you choose, make sure it fits the ambiance and purpose of your restaurant. For instance, if you’re looking to open a more casual pop-up restaurant, a prixe fixe menu may not please the crowd you’ll attract.
Step 7: Promote, Promote, Promote
Yes, you read that correctly. There are three vital points of promotion for the success of any pop-up restaurant: Before, during, and after.
It’s always good to promote a business opening, whether permanent or temporary. However, it’s even more important for a temporary business like a pop-up restaurant because there is a limited amount of time to benefit – feedback-wise and financially – and every day open counts that much more.
Promote your business to build anticipation for its opening and, if available, book your tables in advance. Utilize the “sense of urgency” marketing tactic and remind customers that you’re there for “One week only,” or however long you plan to operate.
Using social media is a great way to spread the word about your pop-up. Consider the platforms your target audience will use most often. Make mock-trials of food you plan to serve and post some delicious-looking photos on Instagram. Offer links to “Book in Advance” and start filling tables before opening day.
Just as important as before, promotional activity during the time your pop-up is open is imperative to maintain a positive image and online presence.
Ask customers to leave feedback online, and actually respond to that feedback and make adjustments to test new tactics that will offer happier results.
Are a lot of people mentioning the lighting is too dark? Turn up the lights a bit and see if those lighting comments diminish among the more recent customers!
Plus, if you haven’t fully booked up tables in advance or aren’t receiving the demand you expected, continued online promotion will bring more people in over time.
Are you planning to open a permanent restaurant version of your pop-up if all goes well?
Maybe you’re a chef looking to up your credibility or hoping to continue opening more pop-ups.
Feedback and online presence post-pop-up is necessary if you’re hoping to utilize the initial purpose of your pop-up in the future, which you likely are.
You can use the same social media accounts to promote new pop-ups or restaurants and use feedback to make improvements the next time. And don’t forget to upload those photos to your restaurant website as well!
If you’re applying to be head chef at a big restaurant in town, having your name attached to a pop-up with a ton of positive reviews online will help put you at the top of the list.
So, time to get promoting!
It’s a given that opening a pop-up restaurant is cheaper to open than opening a permanent restaurant. However, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap.
The cost of opening your pop-up restaurant will vary depending on a number of factors. However, it’s safe to assume it will cost several thousand dollars to open your pop-up shop.
Guaranteed paperwork costs include:
- Business License: $50 registration free and $25-to-$7,000 for the actual license (depending on the type of business)
- Certificate of Occupancy: $100
- Sign Permit: $20-to-$50
- Resale Permit: Up to $50
- Building Health Permit: $50-to-$1,000
- Health Employee Permit: $100-to-$500
- Music License: $250-to-$500
- Food Service License: $100-to-$1,000
Varying costs to consider include:
- Location rent
- Utilities (electric, water, etc)
- Furniture rentals
- Decor rentals
- Hiring staff
- Staff training
- Marketing and advertising
- Cleaning supplies
- Menu printing fees
- Sound system
- Front sign
Pop-up restaurants offer many benefits because of their temporary nature.
Some of the biggest pros to opening a pop-up restaurant include:
- Lower costs and a smaller commitment.
- The opportunity to test new restaurant ideas and menus and gather feedback before making a larger investment.
- The opportunity to testing various pricing methods and find the right fit for your brand.
- A flexible location and opportunity to move around to different areas of town or cities to test your ideas.
- The limited time of a pop-up instills a sense of urgency and encourages customers to try it before it’s gone.
- You can use a pop-up to influence investments for a permanent restaurant.
- A pop-up can be a fairly affordable way to create a name for yourself in the food industry.
While there are many pros to opening a pop-up restaurant, there are also cons that should be acknowledged before jumping in.
Some major cons to be wary of include:
- You will be using limited resources and costs in a new territory.
- You will be testing new foods or concepts, which may not always gain positive feedback.
- The limited time of a pop-up discourages repeat customers.
- Pop-ups rely heavily on PR, word-of-mouth, and their online presence, so extremely close attention needs to be paid to feedback and reputation must be closely watched and maintained at all times.
You now have all the facts and steps to hit the ground running and open your own pop-up restaurant.
If you’re still stuck on where to start creatively, here are three successful examples to inspire you and get you on your way to be just as successful!
Saison started as a pop-up in the back of a cafe in San Francisco 10 years ago. Soon after the initial pop-up’s success, it became a permanent restaurant in San Francisco. Today, it has been listed on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017 and 2018, had three Michelin stars, and offers a fixed menu with each customer paying $398 for their course, not including a wine pairing.
It’s safe to say this pop-up restaurant was a complete success, and, if you’re looking to create an upscale dining experience, is definitely one to study.
2. Fondue Tram
Starting one season, and now continuing for seven years every October to March, Fondue Tram in Zurich, Switzerland, is a recurring, seasonal pop-up that has found continuous success. The pop-up restaurant has managed to maintain its pop-up status for years, without losing customer interest.
This business model shows how that sense of urgency can be created year after year and is a great example on how a pop-up style restaurant can bring in repeat customers. The price per head is 95 Swiss Franc, which is about the same as $95.
If you’d rather stick to a pop-up business model, following in Fondue Tram’s footsteps could help you find success year after year, just like them!
Claudia began in Chicago in 2016 by Chef Trevor Teich, who had been opening pop-ups for three years by then. With the Claudia pop-up, his resources and surroundings were not optimal. However, his food was so different and inventive that he received rave reviews, including a fairly important one in the Chicago Tribune.
The press Claudia received inspired Teich to open Claudia permanently, and after over three years of searching for investors, the highly anticipated Claudia opened in October 2019 with a prix fixe menu at $185 per person and a BYOB policy.
Ready to Start Your Pop-Up Restaurant?
Now you know what a pop-up restaurant is, how it can be used, steps to create a successful pop-up restaurant, costs, pros and cons, and inspiration from successful pop-ups.
You’re ready to start imagining the purpose of your pop-up restaurant and making your dream into a reality.
Who knows, maybe you’ll be the next pop-up restaurant, turned permanent restaurant, turned Michelin star awarded restaurant.
No matter the type of pop-up restaurant you plan to create and the purpose of your pop-up, following this guideline will help guide your business plan to achieving any goal you hope to achieve with your pop-up.