Standing Out While Popping Up by Robin Dienel

Restaurateurs in Washington, D.C. are harnessing the power of social media to promote a new kind of eating scene — the pop-up restaurant.

In the last year, 1,328 restaurants are now licensed in D.C., adding an additional 350 new restaurants since 2013, according to the D.C. Restaurant Association. How does a restaurant stand out on that growing foodie battleground? They make a new restaurant.

Pop-upperies are described as temporary eating-places set up in restaurants or market kiosks. They can last anywhere from one to two hours, two days, or indefinitely. The pop-ups need little more than a location, a menu and a social media account to open for business, while the restaurant host provides the kitchen. The structure types are infinite, but the goal is consistently the same: to generate buzz.

Owners and chefs are using pop-ups as a way to test a market or concept before investing in a brick and mortar facility of their own, or adding new recipes to their menus. In the past year, the D.C. metro area has been home to more than 20 pop-ups of all different shapes and sizes, according to EaterDC.

Bad Saint, the soon-to-be only Filipino restaurant in D.C., is set to open this winter down the street from co-owner Nick Pimentel’s restaurant, Room 11, in Columbia Heights. Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of Bad Saint, with Pimentel and chef Tom Cunanan, said in an interview that their first pop-up on November 9 at the Dolcezza Factory was a chance for Bad Saint to “get on people’s radars and to gauge people’s interest.”

As crowds lined the street during its 3:30 to 6 p.m. pop-up slot that day, it was clear the pop-up was on a lot of radars already.

Although customers were enduring two-hour waits to get their food on that luckily warm November afternoon, followers would never know it by looking at the event’s social media feeds that day (#badsaintdc). Villamora was walking through the line of hungry patrons, offering samples of Dolcezza’s Ube (purple yam) gelato, which was made special for the pop-up, and chatting enthusiastically about her new Filipino venture in D.C. Other dishes on the merienda-style pop-up menu included pork blood stew, Filipino egg rolls, rice porridge with egg, and chicken and citrus stir-fried noodles.

“I think when you’re planning for an event like that that’s open for the public when you don’t really know how many people are going to come, especially when we did as much outreach as we did, we were hoping for a good turn out. But I don’t think we ever imagined that many people would come. That’s a good problem to have,” said Villamora in an interview.

There’s virtually no limit to how many people can be reached by social media. For Villamora, she said social media was an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people all at once. The event, which served upward of 600 people in just less than three hours according to Villamora, exceeded her expectations.

Renaissance woman and D.C. native Katy Chang, an artist, lawyer and chef in her own right, opened EatsPlace, D.C.’s first “pop-uppery”, in August 2014.

Chang describes the space as a food-incubator, where Chefs submit their business plans, resumés, and references for review, as well as undergo a tasting interview, which Chang describes as the “best part of the job” for her. If chosen, they hold one of two breakfast or dinner residencies in Chang’s newly renovated commissary kitchen located in the basement of the renovated 1919 row house in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood.

“When we hand over the keys to EatsPlace, we want to make sure that people are making delicious food that’s responsibly sourced that, you know, tells a real culinary point of view,” said Chang.

Chefs do all of their own press, hire their own kitchen and wait staffs and are given full reign of the main floor dining room. EatsPlace then provides the kitchen, the storefront, the proper licenses, and the curated libations.

EatsPlace also provides training, menu consultation and points-of-service training, acting as a “soft-landing” for chefs to fully realize their restaurant on the main stage. Chang said her restaurant is the first food-incubator of it’s kind in D.C. Chefs are able to build a “bank” of proof-of-concept to show potential investors, who visit EatsPlace to taste their food, that they are a turnkey restaurant ready for buisiness.

Jeremiah Cohen, owner and head bagel maker at Bullfrog Bagels, held a series of pop-ups before he opened his own brick and mortar spot on September 18, 2014.

Hailing from a background in pizza making, Cohen first found his knack for bagels testing new recipes for his family during his days off from the popular D.C. pizzeria, Two Amys. His first informal pop-up was held at a friend’s home a week before his official first pop-up at Cork Market on 14th street. He had hoped to produce an initial buzz about his new D.C. bagel, but ended up generating a stampede.

He spent that first morning on May 31st at Cork Market hand-rolling bagels from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. The result: more than 1,000 bagels were pre-ordered before the pop-up opened at 10 a.m., while the remaining 200 bagels sold out by 11 a.m. To say D.C. was hungry for it’s own classic bagel is an understatement. They were starving for it.

Due to high demand, Cork Market hosted another Bullfrog Bagel pop-up the following weekend, resulting in the same response. Cohen went on to host a longer term pop-up at CakeLove’s U street location from July 17-27. It was here he met his new co-storefront owners.

“It’s all about scaling up without losing quality. Those pop-ups, the one at Cork, and then the one at CakeLove, were really important in terms of how I visualized what it would take to have a bagel shop,” said Cohen in an interview.

Shortly before his pop-up started at CakeLove, Cohen said he was approached by Joe Englert, a notoriously successful bar owner in the D.C area with popular spots like The Big Hunt, Rock n’ Roll Hotel and H Street Country Club, who connected him with Mark Menard and Mike Schuster, the owners of Star & Shamrock on H Street. Halfway through his pop-up at CakeLove, Menard and Schuster they asked him if he’d be interested in building his bagel shop in their tavern.

“I think getting some social media attention really helped creating a hype and a buzz which was really useful. But it wasn’t sufficient, you know. I didn’t want just hype, I wanted it to be real,” said Cohen.

Well now it’s real. You can walk into the tavern and order a hand-rolled Bullfrog Bagel at Cohen’s newly renovated bagel counter, now open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Cohen said now, almost six months after his first official pop-up at Cork Market, Bullfrog Bagels is “running like a real business.”