Pop-ups are popping up everywhere these days—and it’s easy to see their appeal. They allow operators to cross-promote with other restaurants, draw in a new customer base, spread brand awareness, build bridges with fellow food lovers, and even test new menu items or ignite buzz about a new concept. Here, three experts give PMQ the scoop on pop-ups so you can determine if they’re a good fit for your business.
Jenny Dorsey, chef, culinary consultant and co-founder of Wednesdays pop-up series, New York, NY
Jay Jerrier, owner, Cane Rosso, Dallas, TX
Terri-Lynn Woodhouse, restaurant consultant and cofounder of One Earth, Niagara-On-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Pop-up events can draw a healthy crowd to your pizzeria, including first-time customers who may not have otherwise discovered your food.
PMQ: What is a pop-up?
Jerrier: A pop-up is when you invite an outsider—usually a chef buddy, a food truck operator or a fun personality—into your restaurant to cook for a one-night-only type of event. Generally, the people we invite in are not traditional pizza guys. They usually cook something really different, like Asian, Mexican or barbecue, and it’s fun to see a mash-up of different cuisines. We even went way off course recently by inviting Matt and Emily Hyland from Emily/Emmy Squared in Brooklyn, New York, for a Texas Road Trip. We did three pop-ups in a week in Dallas, Austin and Houston, without doing any pizza at all! They served their famous Emmy Burger and a spicy chicken sandwich I fell in love with on a recent trip to Brooklyn. We sold out of 100 sandwiches in 15 to 20 minutes at each pop-up.
Dorsey: Pop-ups are short events, from a few hours to a few days or a month, that let concepts gauge public reaction and fine-tune details. They’re sometimes in conjunction with a soft launch or for those who want to open up a new space, or it may be an existing brand testing out a new concept. It’s a good marketing tool, a way to experiment and get real-time feedback.
Woodhouse: A pop-up is a temporary selling opportunity that often involves offering some of your best items to gain traction in your market and find new customers while improving cash flow.
PMQ: What are the advantages of staging a pop-up?
Jerrier: I think it really builds a sense of community in the restaurant crowd. Everyone works hard, especially other independents, and it’s all about getting more people out to eat. Pop-ups are also a good way to bring two different crowds together; you get the opportunity to introduce your restaurant to the fans of the visiting chef, and your regular customers get to try something unique at their favorite restaurant. Depending on who you have come in—we’ve had a lot of contestants from Top Chef or Food & Wine Best New Chef nominees—pop-ups are usually a pretty big media spectacle, too, so you get a lot of coverage. We also have no rules for visiting chefs, so we let them do whatever they want: chicken, ranch, pineapple—whatever they like! Our customers and the media get a kick out of that. Finally, you get great ideas. One of our early guest chefs made an amazing vegetarian pizza, and I loved the way he prepped the mushrooms, which we could then incorporate into our own prep process.
Dorsey: Existing brands create pop-ups for experience marketing, which is huge right now. It’s a great way to utilize a different space and to challenge what consumers think of your concept. You kind of have a blank slate, because you’re not confined to how your restaurant looks or is seen. It’s a good way to extend your brand. But there are a lot of unexpected costs and preplanning needs that people should be aware of!
Woodhouse: Having a cross-promotion with an established business gives you the opportunity to instantly create a level of trust, because you’re promoting to another company’s customer base. You don’t have to invest a large amount of cash for a new, hopefully viable sales stream, and you get great content to share with your followers on social media, complete with photos. It shows that your business is creative, flexible and cool. And you’re able to gain cash flow in both typically slower sales seasons and busier times.
Set the stage for an impressive pop-up to enhance your brand; as chef Jenny Dorsey notes, it’s an ideal vehicle for experience marketing.
PMQ: What type of pop-up partners work best with pizzerias?
Jerrier: Work with anyone who has a good following in your town: food truck guys, big-name chefs, media personalities (especially if they’re not cooks), even food writers. We had Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, in for a night; he made a couple of amazing pizzas, and he’s just a home cook! With pop-ups, we’re trying to generate buzz and a crowd, so your best bet is to reach out to people who have a large group of really loyal customers and a big fan base.
We don’t usually pop up in other businesses, by the way, because not everyone has a wood-fired oven for us to use; for one we did at a bar, we had to premake all of our pizzas and reheat by the slice in a normal oven. But we also get invites from pizza buddies outside Texas, so we’re working on scheduling some pop-ups in Toronto and New York and inviting them to come to our place as well. With our Instagram and Facebook, we have a following from all over the country, so it’s an opportunity for people out there to try some of our stuff and just have fun. We also use these as research trips, getting new ideas for menu items.
Brooklyn pizzaiola Emily Hyland served her famous Spicy Chicken Sandwich in a pop-up fundraiser for Cane Rosso Rescue.
Dorsey: I think it’s less the kind of food you have and more about where you are in the market, like if you’re a high-end pizzeria. You don’t just pop up and see what happens; you need to have a specific goal in mind. Offer a value-added benefit. If you’re trying to raise your perception with consumers, maybe partner with a luxury-type brand. If you want people to buy more wine at your pizzeria, partner with a champagne company whose wine you offer so when people come back it’s top of mind for them, boosting your beverage sales.
Woodhouse: Do you know of a local fair or festival? They’re great opportunities to increase your market share and gain new clients. Do you have nearby microbreweries or smaller wineries? Do you know of a business that hosts workshops or classes? A kids party place or play gym? The list is endless. Pizzerias have the unique and wonderful ability to be flexible and portable, so maximize that!
Editor’s note: Next month, we’ll look at how to develop a menu for pop-ups and explore ways to tie in your event with local nonprofits and other brands.