You enter a new restaurant. It has simple decor, a basic structure, an indefinable sense of not being quite settled. But there’s a gun team on the floor and from the menu, you suspect it’s the same in the kitchen. There’s clearly a contradiction between the room’s set-up and the staff’s experience, but then you’re told, “lucky you found us, we’re only here for another week.” Ah. Welcome to the world of transient dining, where long-term leases are a thing of the past, chefs move in and out of kitchens in a single night and restaurants open their doors with an exit strategy already in place. Welcome to the pop-up.
Here today, gone not long after. The pop-up - a short-term appearance, often in a vacant building - has become a familiar event in the dining game. We mostly first saw them at food and music festivals, but now the framework of the pop-up has moved into bricks and mortar venues. The very definition of a pop-up is changing, too. They’re not just in for the night or weekend but for weeks and months, and the reasons they are pitching their temporary tents is also morphing.
The feel good factor
Recently, in a small cafe in Sydney, a sell-out event had diners enjoying the heady scents of cumin and ginger while being served brinjal and chicken curry. They were being fed authentic dishes from Sri Lanka and Pakistan but no international chefs had been flown out for the dinner. The two women who cooked the food and led the kitchen did it for Mazi Mas, an initiative that provides training and employment for migrant and refugee women as well as asylum seeker women who have work rights on their bridging visas.
Mazi Mas in Sydney is based on a London program of the same name. In Australia, Mazi Mas organises pop-up events in venues around the city. Each event, usually repeating over two or three nights, highlights the food of two refugee or asylum seeker women from the community who cook their home recipes for a paying audience.
The City of Sydney has been very supportive, says co-organiser of the group, Maggie Lloyd, who along with colleague Michelle Freer, helped to set-up Mazi Mas in Sydney. The pair add that Mazi Mas has forged relationships with the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) in Sydney’s Newtown and the state-funded Employment Assistance Program.
They attribute much of the project's success to the dinners. “I don’t think it would have taken off the way it has without the pop-ups,” says Freer. She adds that having an audience familiar with a temporary dining model made it easier to gain traction and sell-out the events.
As the Mazi Mas team borrow space from daytime cafes that close in the evening, bumping in and out each night of their tenancy can be exhausting. Still, Freer says, “we are so grateful for a cafe’s generosity”.
The inaugural dinner was held in Darlinghurst in October 2014 and this year their events in Darlinghurst, Potts Point and Ultimo have included Fijian feasts as well as Sri Lankan and Pakistani dinners.
Dining in the Faraway Tree
“It will be the place that always changes - like going into a different land in Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree,” laughs Anita Basile, co-owner of the just-opened Enquire Within in Melbourne’s South Yarra. Basile and her business partners, chef Jason Jones and Hugo Tremayne, owned the Moroccan diner B’Stilla on the same site but felt it “wasn’t flying like it used to,” says Basile, so they decided to completely remodel the business.
In what could be considered the ultimate pop-up, Enquire Within will change its identity every 12 months. Right now, its decor is a bold statement with surreal wallpaper, chaotic with famous faces, and the menu maintains the energy, jumping about from tacos with cured kingfish and fermented chilli to braised oxtail party pies.
“From day one we have had a sign in the restaurant saying ‘closing soon,’” Basile says, adding that much of the decision to create this fluid business framework was a response to customers’ evolving awareness and expectations. “Customers have more knowledge of food these days, television cooking shows have helped there, so why not keep their interest in the same venue with a flexible offering?”
Creating desire is another part of the pop-up’s popularity and Enquire Within’s ethos. “We can sell dishes and say, ‘there’s only 30 weeks until this is no more’,” Basile says. “People are looking for the constantly new and we plan to maintain that.”
Has our idea got legs?
The short-term restaurant or bar set-up could be considered a logical step in the restaurant biz. A toe-dip into the realm of restaurant ownership without forking out the big bucks too soon, it’s an opportunity to sound out the market.
Front-of-house professionals Paul Guiney and Liz Carey - a couple with a cache of experience gained in great dining rooms like David Thompson's Nahm, Movida Sydney and the Town Mouse in Melbourne - had been looking for a site to set up their own business when they were offered a temporary lease in Smith Street in the Melbourne inner suburb of Collingwood. It had been home to modern-Chinese restaurant, Lee Ho Fook. When the owners of Lee Ho Fook, chef Victor Liong, David Mackintosh and Peter Bartholomew, moved the diner into Melbourne city, they had no plans for the site until 2016. Rather than have the site lie dormant, they invited Guiney and Carey to move in as tenants.
It’s a chance for Guiney and Carey to test the concept of their own business, currently carrying the engagingly honest name, Semi-Permanent. The pair have created a bare-boned, savvy wine bar supported by a high-end bar menu: pork and sweetbread sausage or fennel and olive tart, anyone? They are putting themselves and their business idea out to Melbourne’s inner-north with the hope of eventually setting up a permanent business in the same area.
“We can kick the tyres of our target area and see what it’s about without the long-term commitment,” Guiney says.
With an exit strategy in place, they can find out a lot in 14 weeks. “You’re literally in and out,” says Guiney. “You create a product and then hopefully create a buzz. We get to see and investigate what works and what doesn’t. If it all goes tits up it’s not going to ruin us.”
The accidental success
Former food writer and New York native Michael Shafran was beyond frustrated with the lack of decent bagels in Sydney. “I couldn’t find any that were any good. Nothing like we have at home,” he says. He knew how to make them and went from having brunch parties at his house, where he’d hand-make bagels for his guests, to setting up a series of pop-ups on Sundays in Sydney bar Darlie Laundromatic.
It was February 2013 and he didn’t anticipate the reaction. “I had advertised on my social media networks. We got the cooking times wrong and arrived an hour late to open and there was a queue covering two blocks. I was shocked!”
He sold the 200 bagels he and his friends had made in just 90 minutes. He opened for a month of Sundays and then closed to “work out how to do it better and what I wanted to do”. He opened Brooklyn Boy Bagels in Matraville in November 2014, a bakery with a small cafe attached. He wholesales his bagels to 25 shops and sells regularly at farmers’ markets. He says without the pop-up, this wouldn’t be happening.
“With a pop-up, you get to prove your concept, learn about it and work out if it’s something you want to do. There was so much I didn’t know and I was too afraid to make a full commitment,” although on the downside, Shafran says, “having an ‘out’ made me a lot slower to do anything or commit to anything permanent.”
Here one day …
Melbourne has just said goodbye to a fancy pop-up in Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, which operated for six months in Crown Melbourne while his restaurant in the UK was refurbished. In July, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne and Jock Zonfrillo of Orana in Adelaide took part in a global shuffle that saw 37 chefs take over each other’s kitchens for one night. Next year, René Redzepi brings his world-leading restaurant Noma to Sydney for a visit. At the other end of the pop-up scale is Melbourne's Coburg Drive-In Food Truck Festival. For two nights this week, an array of food trucks will park themselves while a couple of family-friendly films will be viewed from the back of station wagons.
Adam Del Mastro is a Melbourne-based food consultant who specialises in short-term projects and says the pop up is “opportunity-driven”. He has seen an increase in demand for pop-ups through his work over the last three years.
Del Mastro says the very nature of a chef’s work as transient: “It’s cooked, presented and eaten, then it’s gone,” and he believes that in many ways, the transient nature of the pop-up is a reflection of the nature of food. He sees the pop up as a pivotal marketing play. “If all you’re doing is cooking a great menu, that’s not enough,” he says. “Chefs need to experiment and keep themselves in the limelight, pop-ups are a way of doing this.”
If long-term leases are yesterday’s news and chefs who only cook food are perceived as a little dull, is there any hope for the industry? Relax, Paul Guiney says, as he acknowledges that even though their concept, Semi-Permanent, has a time limit, he and Liz Carey plan to measure the success not in dollars, but “whether or not people leave our place happy, and if they come back, that’s success. If we establish that comfort and happiness, the money will come.”
Permanent or transient, it seems hospitality still matters in the hospitality industry.
Pop-ups to look out for:
Photography by Valeria Donnellan, Christina Simons and Rick Mansfield.