Pop Culture: How to Create a Pizza Pop-Up Event

Pop-up events help mobile pizzerias expand their brand reach and nab new customers. Follow these 7 steps to make them a success.

  • Before you plan a pop-up event, you need to know your end goal, whether it’s testing new menu items or evaluating a location for a future brick-and-mortar restaurant.
  • Does the location have a good deal of foot traffic and/or allow for easy customer access? And does your brand jibe with the customers in that area?

Related: How to stage a pop-up event and introduce your brand to a new audience

By Tracy Morin

For pizzerias with mobile operations, pop-up events offer a bevy of benefits. They can be a great way for businesses to get their name out there, generate buzz for the brand, partner with local noncompeting businesses, and establish or renew connections with customers.

But what are pop-ups, anyway? The term has become a bit muddled over the years, according to Linda Farha, founder and chief connector of Pop-Up Go in Toronto. “Originally, pop-ups were intended for brand activation, lasting between one weekend and three months,” she explains. “You simply ‘pop up’ in a location and then go away. There are a few reasons to do them, like to offer a little teaser of something to come, help the brand directly connect with the end consumer, or establish yourself in a community, building some momentum for the brand and becoming better known.”

But though these events are temporary, they are by no means easy to pull off. Owners of mobile operations—which already carry a unique set of challenges—must plan and execute events to a T to make the most of these opportunities. Here, experts break down the essentials to keep in mind every step of the way.

The owners of Mama’s Meatballs and Pizzeria use mobile events like pop-ups to direct customers to their brick-and-mortar location. Photo by Mama’s Meatballs and Pizzeria

Step 1: Find your purpose.

Farha recommends that before you plan a pop-up, ask yourself: What is your end goal? Do you want to test new menu items? Increase your database so you can expand your marketing efforts? Test a general location where you might open a brick-and-mortar space down the line? “You have to figure out why, then build your event based on the why,” Farha explains. “Even in a temporary setup, if you don’t project the brand in a positive way, you look like you’re not serious.”

Related: Learn the road rules for pizzeria mobile catering

Step 2: Determine location.

Once you have goals in mind, Farha says, ensure the location makes sense. Does it have a good deal of foot traffic and/or allow for easy customer access? And does your brand jibe with the customers in that area—for example, is your operation more high-end or down-home? “Think about your budget, too; people don’t realize how much these events cost,” Farha adds. “Look at location, demographics, budget, and how you can market the space.” Doing your research also ensures that the location and format make sense for what you want to achieve. Pop-Up Go has worked with everything from businesses taking over the window of a physical location to digital pop-up shops and pop-ups in a vacant lot. But in pandemic times, outdoor pop-up events are especially on-trend, and mobile operations can use them to test different regions and find out where they’re most successful.

“People think these events don’t have to be in-depth, but they should be. Make sure you’re organized. Have internet for payment processing. Think about insurance and security deposits.”

— Linda Farha, Pop-Up Go

Step 3: Think ahead.

For Joseph and Katherine Argento, owners of Mama’s Meatballs and Pizzeria, which also has a brick-and-mortar location in Pennsauken, New Jersey, preplanned events are now the only uses for their mobile unit (versus parking somewhere and hoping for sales). But they’ve learned that anything can happen along the way, so expecting the unexpected is a must. “It is a truck, so we’ve had incidents!” Katherine says. “You have to make sure the generator has gas and take extra gas with you—because if the generator goes out, everything does. Battery issues can land you on the side of the road before an event. You can pop a tire or hit bad traffic. Be prepared. I like to be at the event, set up and ready to go, one hour before the event starts.”

Step 4: Do a test run.

Depending on how long your pop-up will last, Farha recommends taking the first week or day(s) to do a soft launch and work out any kinks. You want to ensure everything runs smoothly, from payment processing and signage to following the area’s rules and regulations (which now may change from moment to moment, due to COVID-19-related restrictions). In fact, one of the biggest pitfalls around pop-up events that Farha sees is a lack of organization and/or professionalism. “People think these events don’t have to be in-depth, but they should be,” she says. “Make sure you’re organized. Have internet for payment processing. Think about insurance and security deposits. Just be ready and, again, remember why you’re doing this.” 

Step 5: Market smart.

Farha recommends tapping your database to market the event and drive customers to your pop-up’s location. “Create that urgency factor—don’t stay there too long,” she says. “You need to think 360º, according to what your angle is.” For example, she suggests reaching out to local media outlets and utilizing social media to build buzz (a boosted social media ad campaign helps you gain traction among your desired demographics). You can also mail an e-blast to your current database and use your website to host mini contests that give customers an incentive to attend the event. “The food truck world is very big on social media, and I always say, if you’re not on it, you’re being left out,” Joseph says. “We do promote events on social media, but we also use our storefront, like placing fliers on pizza boxes saying where and when it will be.” 

“On the truck, we keep marketing materials to hand out, like menus, business cards and merchandise. We have a customer information collection system, so we get their cell phone numbers and email them receipts. They can also receive rewards points.”

— Joseph Argento, Mama’s Meatballs and Pizzeria

Step 6: Connect with customers. 

During the event, have a mechanism in place to capture email addresses and allow customers to opt in to your mailings so you can establish an ongoing dialogue. “You can run another contest, for example—because you need to offer something they’ll benefit from to get them to sign up,” Farha says. “QR codes are very useful now, since customers can scan with their phones and input their name and email instantaneously.” And, just as the Argentos use their storefront to promote mobile events, they then use those mobile events to promote their brick-and-mortar location. “On the truck, we keep marketing materials to hand out, like menus, business cards and merchandise,” Joseph says. “We have a customer information collection system, so we get their cell phone numbers and email them receipts. They can also receive rewards points. That way, we can market to them later.” 

Pop-Up Go advocates setting the scene and marketing within your pop-up space—while working within the prescribed budget. Photo by Pop-Up Go

Step 7: Follow up.

In addition to following up with customers after the event ends, you’ll want to evaluate the pop-up before you plan your next event. Did you accomplish your goals? What did you learn along the way? Was the event profitable? “We look at the number of covers—we want to do 100 at any event,” Joseph notes. “Even with 60 to 70, that’s not as profitable as we’d like.” Because mobile units have to dish out for expenses like fees, permits and fuel (in addition to the normal expenditures around food and labor), Joseph wants to ensure the event makes money after those up-front costs. Then again, perhaps your main goal was raising brand awareness—and in those cases, profit may be less important to you. It all comes back to step one: outlining your purpose. That will allow you to establish the markers that determine your definition of success.  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.