Whether you own a restaurant empire or you’re new to the industry, you should consider running your own restaurant pop-up. Pop-up restaurants are a great way to test new menu items, put a little more cash in your pocket, and promote your new or existing business.
The idea of “here today, gone tomorrow” appeals to foodies across the country, and people love exclusive, short-term access to great experiences. Pop-up restaurants fulfill a desire for unique culinary experiences that people can’t get at any other point in time.
So if you’ve been thinking about creating your own restaurant pop-up but you’re not sure where to begin, here’s your ultimate inspiration list to get your creative juices flowing and help you plan.
What is a Pop-Up Restaurant Business?
A pop-up restaurant is a temporary restaurant that occurs in an unexpected space for a limited period of time. Pop-ups are usually launched by restaurateurs as a way to create buzz for a new concept and to collect feedback before making the investment in a full-fledged restaurant business.
Successful Pop-Up Restaurant Concept Examples
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we’ll cover some successful pop-up restaurant examples.
Best DIY Dining Experience
Fans of the AMC hit show Breaking Bad are familiar with chemistry teacher turned meth dealer Walter White. This Breaking Bad-inspired pop-up bar in New York is reminiscent of Walter White’s RV lab, where customers can concoct their own cocktails using molecular mixology techniques. To enhance the “Walter White” concept, staff are dressed up in the iconic yellow jumpsuits and White’s alias in the show, “Heisenberg,” spray painted on the wall.
The takeaway: Strong themes resonate. Jump on a pop culture phenomenon to help carry your pop-up to success.
Best Undercover Opening
What do tacos and an ad agency have in common? La Carnita.
Toronto’s OneMethod agency wanted to test its ability to set trends but legally wasn’t allowed to sell food without a proper permit. So to get around the rules, the agency launched an art store concept and included three “free” tacos with every purchase.
Word started to get out that the operation could be shut down at any moment, and this only served to attract larger crowds. La Carnita has since gained a cult-like following and now has four locations in Toronto.
The takeaway: Don’t be afraid of some controversy. We wouldn’t recommend breaking all the rules, but know that a little risk can create some excitement around your pop-up restaurant business.
Best Use of Social Media
A team of three talented women make up the San Francisco pop-up known as B.L.U.D – which stands for “Bitches Liven Up Dinner”. The concept is described as “bomb food, beer and wine, 90’s hip-hop and R&B.”
Once a month the women of B.L.U.D host a six-course tasting menu that is focused on a theme and/or type of cuisine. To make reservations for either two or four people, diners need to follow their Instagram page and private message the account, which reveals upcoming menus and future event dates.
The takeaway: Use Instagram for reservations. It’s the “secret password” of social media.
Most Picturesque Pop-Up Restaurant
Do you live in a place known for its picturesque beauty? You may want to use it for the backdrop to your restaurant pop-up location like Araxi did in Whistler, BC.
The Araxi Longtable series happens at Mount Currie’s North Arm Farm gardens, where diners are treated to an al fresco fine dining restaurant experience in a stunning location. The annual event includes a four-course family style dinner meal featuring award-winning Executive Chef James Walt’s farm-to-table dishes.
The takeaway: Ambiance and location matter. You may not have access to the Rocky Mountains, but don’t be afraid to host your concept outside if there’s somewhere breathtaking in your own backyard (just make sure you have kitchen access).
Perfect Pop-Up Restaurant Menu Pairing
A three-course Cuban family-style meal paired with signature Bacardi drinks sounds like a match made in heaven. Bacardi Canada teamed up with Toronto-based chef Matty Matheson and Miami-based chef Eileen Andrade to promote two product launches.
Bacardi aimed to create an experience for their audience, which they identified as people who love the culinary world, are intrigued by other cultures, and support local chefs. The Bacardi Paladar menu was accompanied by signature Bacardi cocktails and some twists on the classics.
The takeaway: Pop-up restaurant costs can be high so partner with a brand or business to offset expenses. Food and alcohol brands are always looking to promote themselves, and can offer some financial help if the fit is right.
Most Literal Farm-to-Table Pop Up
Founder Jim Denevan had one goal in mind when he created Outstanding in the Field: to bring people to the farmers and land where their food comes from.
Outstanding in the Field hosts long table dinners across the world with events in the United States, Canada, France, and Tokyo. Showcasing locally sourced ingredients, guests are treated to meals that come from the fields that lie just inches from their table. Past and future event locations include farms, gardens, ranches, mountain tops, inside sea caves, and on islands.
The takeaway: People want to know more about food. If you have something you feel you need to share, use your pop-up as an opportunity to educate an eager audience.
Dinner with a Message
Seafood Stories aims to serve delicious seafood dishes while teaching diners how to support healthy oceans with their purchasing decisions. Dinners are themed around a different conversation topic each time, ranging from fish species to the lives of fishermen. Proceeds from the events go towards Fish Revolution, a non-profit that educates consumers on sustainable seafood business policies for chefs and seafood industry members.
The takeaway: Opening your pop-up can help change the world. Pair your pop-up with some feel-good charity work and people will remember a lot more than the food.
Best Travel Inspiration
Upon returning from a trip to Vietnam, chef-owners Sarah Bui and Anna Vocaturo decided to offer a series of monthly Doi Dua pop-up dinners to reflect their new knowledge of the cuisine. Ingredients are sourced locally while also taking advantage of authentic imported Asian goods. Bui’s take on her own traditional family dishes creates a new experience of Vietnamese food that takes from other forms of cuisine as well.
The takeaway: There is room to interpret your traditional family meals. Regardless of your pop-up restaurant location, be adventurous with the food you know and love.
Best Behind The Scenes Dinner
Those who have seen Saved by the Bell will remember Bayside High School students regularly visited The Max for dates and hangouts. Saved by the Max is a pop-up that has brought The Max to life in Los Angeles. NBCUniversal has given diners an opportunity to take a step back into their childhood.
The takeaway: Retro is in. When pop-up restaurants feature nostalgia, you’re touching them on a whole new level, so consider a spin on an old favorite to draw a crowd.
Waste Awareness Pop Up
Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, launched the WastEd pop-up to draw attention to the environmental impact of food waste. Barber went so far as to put a “Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad” on his menu.
The takeaway: Be bold with messaging. Pop-ups can be just as much about the experience as the food, so don’t be shy in sending a strong message if you feel passionate about an issue.
Best Fusion Dining
What do shmaltz toast with chopped liver, Chinese chicken salad, and pastrami fried rice have in common? If you guessed the epic brunch collab between LA’s Genghis Cohen and SF’s Wise Sons, then you’re correct!
The well-established Chinese-American restaurant and the famous Jewish deli business teamed up to provide a $40 prix fixe menu. Diners got to experience a tasty and unique marriage of flavors featuring traditional dishes from both cultures.
The takeaway: Collaborate with someone whose vision is much different than your own. Magic happens amidst diversity, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you never thought you’d work with.
Turned a Dream Into a Business Reality
Prior to his death, Tupac Shakur jotted down lyrics and career plans in a notebook – and as it turns out, one of his dreams was to open a cafe for people to come together.
In 2017, diners got to experience Tupac’s vision at Powamekka Cafe in New York. The pop-up was adorned with carefully curated photos, lyrics, and quotes from the late legend; the menu highlighted some of his favorite southern dishes along with family recipes.
The takeaway: Paying homage to an idol can resonate. Pay tribute to your idol the best way you know how: through great food.
Leaving Customers Wanting More
Now with three permanent brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Boston area, FoMu has seen the success that comes with hosting a pop-up. FoMu pop-ups leave customers wanting more by limiting their selection during events, but directing people to try their full selection at their permanent locations.
The takeaway: You can promote your static space with a pop-up. Make sure to curate your menu for the best of the best. Additionally, some pop-up restaurants offer specialty items customers can’t get anywhere else.
Opening Pop-Up Restaurants
Opening a pop-up restaurant is a great way to keep the food and drink industry interesting and competitive. With continuous success generated by pop-ups, it’s time to try one of your own – either to test your chops in the restaurant industry or promote your existing business concept.