Building a restaurant from the ground up is a huge undertaking that requires an enormous amount of money, time, and faith. If you want open a restaurant but feel daunted by the challenges, a pop-up model could be a good place to start.
What is a pop-up restaurant?
A pop-up is a restaurant without a permanent location. Often, it exists as an event series that is hosted in a variety of spaces, from a city rooftop to an event space that is available for short-term leases. Because you don’t have to invest in a permanent staff or commit to a lease that you’re not sure you’ll be able to afford, pop-up restaurants offer more freedom to experiment and figure out a restaurant management plan that fits your unique business. “A pop-up allowed us the flexibility and room to learn and grow,” said Sabrina Chen, the co-founder of an NYC-based, monthly supper club for lesbian and queer women called JaynesBeard.
How to start a pop-up restaurant
Although it is significantly easier to start a pop-up than a traditional brick-and-mortar establishment or even a food truck, there is quite a bit of foundation building that goes into a successful one. With Chen’s help, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide that will help you set your business up for success.
1. Figure out your finances
Removing a lease from the equation makes the cost of opening a restaurant significantly more manageable, but pop-up restaurants still require you to have enough money to pay for equipment, marketing, licenses, staff, and rent. These costs are comparatively modest, but they are substantial enough that you might need some outside funding. Micro-loans (a loan of $50,000 or less) are an option, but it's challenging to get one if you have a low credit score. Plus, you might not want to start with debt in your ledger. Crowdfunding through Kickstarter or GoFundMe might be a better fit, especially if you have a solid social media following.
2. Apply for licenses and permits
Getting all the proper documentation in order can be as cheap as a few hundred dollars or as expensive as a few thousand if you intend to serve alcohol. It can take a few weeks to complete all the applications and get them approved, so get everything in order before you set the date of your first event.
To start a business, you need to acquire a business license, which gives you legal permission to operate your business. Some jurisdictions may require you to have a city- or county-based license in addition to the state license, so ask your local city hall or courthouse what is needed. They should also be able to tell you what other permits are necessary, such as an employer identification number, a food service license, a food handler’s permit, a resale permit, a sales tax permit, or a liquor license.
3. Find your story
When Chen and her co-founder Alana McMillan conceived of JaynesBeard, they did so to create a queer space that wasn’t fueled by alcohol and partying. Instead, they hosted these events to connect with their community through a shared love of food.
To find your pop-up restaurant's story, ask yourself: What are your values? What do you want to do that others in the industry haven’t? Do you want to pay homage to your neighborhood’s cuisine or expand its culinary landscape? Are you looking to celebrate a cuisine’s history or define its future? Do you want to build a community or explore your own identity? Everything you do from this moment forward will define your restaurant’s narrative. What do you want it to say?
4. Make a staffing plan
If you’re not planning to run a one-person show, you’ll need to figure out what positions you need to fill and how many people you can afford to hire. In an ideal scenario, you would hire the same staff members for every event so that they can get to know your business and figure out how to work together. Unfortunately, experienced servers, bartenders, and dishwashers have busy schedules, so you might have to work with different people from time to time. For that reason, it will be helpful to develop a strong training program that will enable your staff to keep each event running smoothly and efficiently.
5. Communicate with your guests
Because you can’t rely on people just stumbling across your restaurant on their next shopping trip, creating an attention-grabbing and informative restaurant website is even more vital for pop-ups than it is for traditional restaurants. JaynesBeard has a tasteful website that provides a form to sign up for the invitations mailing list, links to all the supper club’s press coverage, a contact form, and a sampling of images from the charming Instagram account. If your pop-up isn't as exclusive as JaynesBeard, you should definitely put your menu online to pique the interest of potential customers.
The more information you provide, the more your customers will trust you to deliver a delightful experience. JaynesBeard does its best to be as communicative as possible, especially about essential factors such as the accessibility of a venue or dietary restrictions. In addition to sending detailed emails to her guests, Chen works to give her servers as much information as possible so that they can answer any question a guest may ask.
Making sure that communication flows from your guests to you is just as crucial. Besides promptly responding to emails, DMs, and chats, it is also a good idea to request feedback often so you know how to improve. With Wix, you can either use the form builder to add a feedback form to your website or use the restaurant CRM to automate email feedback requests to the guests who attended your last event. Either way, responses will flow directly to your Wix Inbox, which integrates all the messages you receive so that you can handle them all in one place.
6. Prep for the press
When the media comes knocking on the door, having a press kit ready will be beneficial. A press kit is a page on your website that provides influencers, bloggers, and journalists with all the information they need to quickly and accurately cover your pop-up. It should include your logo, high-quality images that they can use in their stories, a brief explanation of your service business, and the best way to reach you for additional questions. When you’re confident that you can put on a seamless event, you might even consider inviting a few members of the local press to attend your pop-up.