Pop goes the Restaurant
Galleries, shops, salons and now restaurants; pop-up restaurants that is. A relatively new entrant in India, pop-up restaurants is definitely the next big thing in the world of gastronomy. Don’t confuse them with food promotions that restaurants often conduct; pop-up restaurants can be anything from secret clubs to an art gallery converted into a restaurant.
In a time when restaurants, international and local, open up and shut down at the same speed catching up with them is a tough task. It is a competitive business and sustaining a restaurant is not simple, pop-up restaurants in such a scenario is the perfect bargain. Pop-ups allow chefs to be more adventurous, creative and do out-of-the-box experiments with food. We traced the beginning of this trend when New York-based Chef Jehangir Mehta set up his pop-up at The Table last year. More recently, Olive at Mahalaxmi is hosting Goa’s Greek restaurant Thalassa for 6 months; this pop-up is on till mid-September. Both these pop-ups have had rave reviews. In January, Mumbai saw famed Chef Ritu Dalmia of Diva, Delhi set up shop for 3 days, Cellar Door Kitchen at House of Tales art gallery. We had the opportunity to catch up with her who told us that she was here with 3 of her chefs to cater to 40-seater art gallery converted into a restaurant. She added, “Real challenge is the infrastructure, but it has been a great experience and a great ego massage. I had the opportunity to showcase Diva classics and the response has been great!”
Not just chefs but talented home cooks too, and since it’s not everyone’s cuppa to set up a restaurant, pop-ups offer a good exposure. Take the Secret Supper Project in Mumbai for example. It’s only by reservation allowing food enthusiasts of all kinds to get a gastronomic experience in an unusual setting, there is no prior knowledge about the food being served or who is behind the food before the meal.
For a venue, pop-up restaurants are a great partnership venture. Flora Hilleary, Chef Consultant and Director of Greenhill Kitchen, who is behind The Breakfast Club which takes place in Corniche in Bandra says that it is a way to get people into the restaurant during its quiet stretches offering something that the restaurant doesn’t. It gives you access to an already existing audience in a cut-throat market allowing one to test waters. And because it exists only for a limited time, it is a novelty that intrigues people.
If a vacant restaurant is not handy, then any other style of space also works. Internationally, chefs rent out food trucks as their base and set up their pop-up in empty parking spaces, beaches, warehouses amongst others. That is beauty of the format; it takes you out of run-of-the-mill restaurant set ups and takes you to unusual and unlikely spaces for a unique meal experience. There have been reports that The Supper Club held a dinner at the Asiatic Library; now that is unusual!
Our fascination with celebrity chefs is perhaps at its peak right now. It is easy to get drawn to a familiar face like Chef Dalmia’s, with her books and television shows. The food at the end of the day is the highlight in a pop-up. The dishes served at Chef Dalmia’s Mumbai pop-up had some of her signature dishes like Carbonara Risotto as well as dishes using local produce; she was delighted to be able to serve Crabs on her Mumbai menu. The Breakfast Club serves up the perfect English breakfast which includes Poached Eggs on Brioche, Bacon wrapped Asparagus, Potato Dauphinoise amongst others. Consumers are willing to shell out for such experiences as well. Hilleary explains, “It’s not so much a value for money thing. The hard-core gastronomes and pop-up attendees will pay anything for a good dinner!” Having said that, the experience has to be worth it.
The men behind Chef Dalmia’s pop-up restaurant, Nachiket Shetye and Mangal Dalal Co-founders of Cellar Door Hospitality and Restaurant Week India, are onto their second pop-up with Chef Alessio Mecozzi of CastaDiva Spa and Resort, Lake Como, Italy for 6 days (February 8-13, 2014) at The Ambassador hotel in Mumbai. Shetye find bringing down international faces tougher, he says, “If it is an international chef, then he has to be really big for people to recognize, otherwise we need to be able to provide all possible details, who the chef is, the kind of food they specialize in, the menu that is being served.” He adds that this because food evolution in India is still under progress. While there is definitely more awareness about food in general there is a lot more that needs to be understood. Consumers tend to compare food here to those they have sampled during their travels or have seen on TV; they are yet to fully understand the concept of interpretations.
The aspects which make pop-ups so lucrative are also massive sore points. Right space, the set-up, licenses, chefs, pricing, marketing, contingency plans, every last detail has to be in place. For the Diva pop-up, Shetye and his team had to start 3 months ahead to work all of these things. Insia Lacewalla, founder of Small Fry Co, sets up pop-ups which brings together home cooks and bakers. They curate food related pop-ups that cover not just F&B but also related products. She explains, “You need to understand the demand of the market where you are setting up. There can’t be any overlaps and elements should complementary each other.” It is all about attention to details.
While it is still a novelty for us, there will soon be a time where pop-up restaurants will be sprouting all over the place. People might even consider it is as a money-making format – the one thing pop-up restaurants are not about. It may not seem so but there is a definite risk involved. Hilleary says, “There are often more over-head costs as it’s a one off event, so it is very important that there is a good turn out.” And all of these need to be taken care of without affecting quality or the price points. Social networking and word-of-mouth are the best marketing tools for pop-ups.
The great thing about pop-ups is that they introduce different cuisines, ideas and interpretations of dishes and drinks. This is something that diners will always be interested in anywhere in the world. The less corporate the pop-up the longer it will survive. Its short, sharp nature creates a fun vibe. Be sure that now that there are a few success stories in place, others will soon follow suit. It is a positive sign but the success will depend on what Shetye puts it as, “Interesting places, interesting food and interesting chefs.”
Pop-ups to check out in Mumbai
- The Breakfast Club at Corniche, Bandra; every Sunday
- Thalassa at Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mahalaxmi; on upto mid-September, 2014
- Chef Alessio Mecozzi at The Ambassador; February 8-13, 2014
- Secret Supper Project; write to firstname.lastname@example.org for details
- Around the World on a Plate at Jean Claude Biguine Rooftop, Bandra; March 2, 2014
Featured Image: Cellar Door Kitchen by Ritu Dalmia at House of Tales