No corner of the economy has weathered These Uncertain Times™ unscathed, but perhaps none have been as publicly volatile as restaurants. Open. Closed. Open but at 50% capacity. Open at 25%. Closed for now, but open again when Jupiter and Saturn align. The result of local leaders following a moving target against a federal response equivalent to “lol I dunno,” the operational gymnastics doled out onto restaurants was untenable and maddening for an industry already juggling razor thin margins, even outside the occasional, every-100-years plague.
Suffice to say, restaurants will not look the same on the other side. Curbside and takeout could become a permanent fixture where they weren’t before. Chefs might realign their thinking toward more travel-stable dishes versus elaborate plating. And some of the most exciting dining in town may have no fixed address. Enter the world of pop-up restaurants, which, in 2020, were everywhere.
Different than food trucks, pop-ups attach themselves to a bar, restaurant or other public space, and either bring all their own gear or make use of whatever facilities exist to execute service. Newer bars and breweries like TEN20, ShopBar and High Horse have all welcomed pop-ups, and so have established locales, many with their own restaurant, like Zanzabar. The famed 610 Magnolia invited guest chefs such as Charim’s Yeon Hee Chung to serve food from their wine studio, while the mecca of vegan comfort food, Morels Cafe, recalibrated their concept into a revolving, themed menu every weekend. Without a truck to maintain or the weight of a traditional storefront’s stack of bills, the pop-up path offers a much lower financial barrier, creating a viable route into the industry — and allowing for increased creativity — with significantly less risk during economically turbulent times.
Grub In The Time of COVID
Though the pop-up formula existed in various forms beforehand, COVID-19 forced some of the most robust experimentation from restaurateurs in almost every pocket of the city, creating an almost unified response from trendier locales interested in giving such an idea a whirl. In many ways, Schnitzelburg’s theMerryWeather became the de facto epicenter of, and incubator for, all the new, transient, nomadic restaurants in Louisville. It was, after all, the storefront that most frequently embraced the pop-up idea before the pandemic, and most enthusiastically during it. While co-owner Emily Ruff modestly rebuffs such labels, it turns out she possibly could be some sort of clairvoyant. “I am psychic, but not in any way that helps with business outcomes,” Ruff said with a laugh. Pivoting in early 2019 from her lauded neighborhood restaurant Lydia House to a late night dive with a touch of tiki, Ruff and her partner and theMerryWeather co-owner JC Denison kept the former kitchen intact after the transition. “We planned the space around having pop-ups specifically,” Denison said. “There is a half door with a counter at the kitchen that doubles as a spot where chefs can take orders and pass food. We envisioned that from the beginning and it’s served us well.”
“I pretty much swore to myself I’d never go back to working in a kitchen. I don’t think either one of us ever wanted to run a restaurant again,” Denison said about the transition between Lydia House and theMerryWeather. “Yet we wanted others who were either operating food trucks or looking to establish a customer base, before they tried opening their own spot, to have a space from which to operate,” he said. “It’s such a win-win,” Ruff said. “We get to have food at the bar without managing a kitchen, and the chefs can do business in a low-investment, low-risk arrangement with a built-in clientele.”
A nascent instance of the pop-up approach can be traced back six years with LocalsOnly, a collaborative experiment between Lawrence Weeks, now executive chef at Ouita Michel property Honeywood, and Jeff Harman of, at the time, Jack Fry’s. Striving to serve elevated cuisine in unconventional spaces, LocalsOnly slung plates at cocktail bars like Meta and, prophetically, Lydia House. In 2015, there was nothing quite like it. LocalsOnly stood alone in an environment where food trucks were still the taste du jour, and the lines between restaurant, bar and event spaces were much more rigged than the more modular and malleable nightlife scene today.
Cited by other pop-up restauranteurs as the first splash in today’s larger and more defined pop-up movement, River City Supper Club first popped-up at theMerryWeather just a couple months after its opening in spring of 2019. According to Denison, the bar hosted two to five pop-up events a week leading up to the first statewide shutdown last year. Though their doors closed between March and October, Ruff and Denison took advantage of the warmer weather with sidewalk window service, creating their own afternoon pop-up known as The Cantina and welcoming peers like Renshoku Ramen back into the fold. “[We have] always found a lot of success with late night crowds, inside events, and bands, none of which we can really make work right now. So being able to have pop-ups has been a wonderful asset,” Dension said. “[During shutdown,] a few of our regular pop-up chefs came in and did curbside and raised some money for bartenders at those events, which was really sweet,” Ruff said. “Since we have been back open, I think pop-ups have brought people into the bar at earlier hours than they would normally come in pre-pandemic. That has been helpful since we have to close at midnight.”
Chefs rethink the idea of a restaurant. These are their stories *dun dun*.
Airline catering. That’s how Michael Hargrove, co-owner and executive chef of River City Supper Club, made his living before launching the pop-up with his partner Danielle Beebe. “It was creatively stifling,” he said of his former career. “It paid the bills and provided insurance, but it was also a lot of chicken Caesar salads.” Looking for an outlet to assuage the boredom, RCSC began as a weekend passion project and a laboratory to experiment and, as he puts it, “to sharpen my skills.” “I’m relearning a lot of techniques. I’m making sausage again, for example. I’m doing creative things,” Hargrove said. Living close to theMerryWeather, Hargrove saw an opportunity to make prodigious use of the former Lydia House kitchen and tap into his 20-year deep knowledge of the restaurant industry. The Supper Club now enjoys an extended weekend residence there.
Pop-ups, unlike restaurants, don’t necessarily need to be tethered to a concept. Leaving no cuisine behind, River City Supper Club’s widely varying menu has featured pho, scotch eggs, empanadas, fried chicken, jackfruit tacos and poutine — all in the last three months.
This dynamic approach also appealed to the founders of POCO, a three-person roving restaurant, who reflected on their yearlong journey during their pop-up at ShopBar on the mild sunny evening when the 46th president was inaugurated. More than one item featured Cheetos dust, and could be paired with a Maker’s 46 shot and beer special. The patio was (distantly and safely) packed and the mood jubilant. On a Wednesday. In January.
Launching right before the COVID-19 shutdown, POCO has become one of the more prominent pop-ups, moving sprightly about town and consistently selling out their food. POCO was born out of friendship — the desire for Bri Hlava, Matt Pope and Connie Hartsock to stay together after The Butchertown Social, where they worked both front and back of house, shuttered at the end of 2019. “The business model was us wanting to hang out, and not necessarily think about business,” Pope said.
So far, business is good… and exceeding their expectations. Their experience in a more traditional pub restaurant environment helped organically shape the direction of POCO. “At Butchertown [Social], our most successful nights were the one-offs where we changed the full menu and we had special drink menus just for that night,” Hartsock said. “So we were already doing pop-ups within our own bar. People like the excitement of one-night only, not wanting to get FOMO.”
Like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, POCO recalibrated throughout the shifting winds of shutdown and the phased reopening. Acting in parallel to the swiftly varying responses to the pandemic, pop-ups were nimble, resembling the 2020 hospitality industry in general — always changing, fluid, unpredictable. “I think the pandemic has given pop-ups a name of their own,” Pope said. “Quarantine has catapulted us,” said Hartsock in agreement. As the inauguration party wore on, more items were crossed off the menu as they sold out one dish at a time.
One of the more utopian tenets of rethinking labor — universal basic income, for example — is that people wouldn’t stop working altogether. Rather, folks would shift their efforts toward passion projects, helping the community, and contributing to humanities, rather than toiling in jobs that may or may not have any quantifiable benefit. To change is natural. That’s a whole other discourse, of course, but the shutdown and subsequent relief packages presented opportunities to those with a little ingenuity and a whole lot more time. This was the genesis of a few pop-ups. A layoff pushed Hargrove into making the preexisting RCSC his full-time gig. For others, it became the springboard for something new.
Laid off from his job and awaiting unemployment to kick in, Rudy Bamba started rolling and selling lumpia, or Filipino-style eggrolls, to family and friends. It was here that he and his wife Emma created the Filipino street food pop-up Bamba Eggroll Co. “[His lumpia] sold quickly because Rudy already had a ton of fans who had come over for birthday parties and cookouts and various gatherings, so he started adding family-size entrees,” Bamba said. “After about a month, we were starting to get a lot of messages from people we didn’t know, and we decided that we needed to start a legitimate business.” Kicking off at farmers markets, Bamba Eggroll Co. swiftly moved into the same spaces as their pop-up cohort, such as ShopBar, NoraeBar and Apocalypse Brew Works.
Despite Louisville’s robust international food scene, Filipino cuisine was a niche unfulfilled since the closure of Sari Sari and Lola’s Kitchen in Clifton. “Pop-ups were the only way to start with relatively no money,” she said. According to Bamba, serving good, harder-to-find cuisine has established a loyal customer base with solid sales, though in a scaled-down reality that sees both lower volume but also lower overhead. “COVID actually gave us the opportunity to try [Bamba Eggroll Co.] out in a time that [Rudy] couldn’t earn a living the way he always had,” Emma said. POCO’s Hlava saw a similar silver lining. “When we lost our jobs [to COVID] and didn’t have anything else to do, we wanted to feed our friends, give them a distraction, make them feel like everything is OK when they are with us,” Hlava said.
Unlike POCO and RCSC, Bamba Eggroll Co. adopted a more traditional, defined concept while following an unconventional path, a trajectory similar to the newly minted Zini. Michael Stansbury, whose CV includes kitchens in Milkwood and bar Vetti, became intrigued by casual Roman street food during a trip to the Italian capital — cuisine antithetical to, as he calls it, a meal you “eat in candlelight during date night.” Zini serves more easily handheld and straightforward Italian dishes in the form of trapizzini and supplì. “Because of the impossible times we are in, the best restaurants in the world are serving really simple, really approachable food. Putting really simple, really delicious stuff into really good bread felt like it could work as a bar concept,” Stansbury said. Zini has made a home in theMerryWeather and will soon take up residency in the modern Butchertown saloon High Horse starting in February.
For Nick Bean, owner of Phantom Chef, the pop-up model offered both an escape route and a path forward. After 10 years working on the line in Louisville, Bean moved to New York to work for chefs like Tom Colicchio and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “I have a dream of one day attaining a Michelin star,” he said. Bean gradually became frustrated, uninterested in navigating the politics and problematic, well-documented club mentality of the kitchen scene. “I just kept constantly finding myself in this dark corner of my career; not belonging to any chef’s culinary team, not progressing in life like I wanted to. I was always overlooked either simply because I was the wrong color or just didn’t fit into the ‘box’ I was given,” he said. “Politics play a major role in today’s industry, especially when it comes to the minority cooks. It’s never based on who has the skill set for the job, it’s more of who likes or dislikes this person the most.”
The flexibility of the pop-up model presented Bean an avenue for moving up in his career by owning his own concept, even if it’s a moving one, a notion he’s toyed with since 2017. Now, his one-man operation has been serving up eclectic cuisine — from street food to three-course prix fixe — at The Limbo, Tim Faulkner Gallery and many of the usual aforementioned suspects. “[Pop-ups] allow me to create specialized menus for each venue, giving each pop-up its own theme and atmosphere.” While Bean said he would like to own a restaurant with an actual address one day, he says he’s “totally fine with not having any overhead looming or other worries that come along with owning a restaurant, especially in the age of COVID-19.”
“Pops-ups are joyous,” Bean said.
Concessions of the concessions
But, as old Frankie Blue Eyes once crooned “that’s life,” and pop-ups present their own scenario of ups and downs, compromises and concessions. “[With pop-ups,] it’s a new set of problems,” RCSC’s Hargrove said, “but combined with a lot of liberating qualities.” Due to their reduced volume, according to Hargrove, pop-up restauranteurs may not have access to the purchasing power available to the brick-and-mortar set through distributors like Sysco and Gordon Food Service. And social media becomes a unique and challenging lifeline, where likes and shares are capital much more than a Google or Yelp search. “We completely rely on social media to promote what we’re doing,” POCO’s Pope said. “But that’s how it seems now for a lot of businesses these days. Finding out on social what anyone is doing that particular night.”
And, of course, moving all your shit around becomes a real slog. “Bringing all this, it’s a hustle,” Connie Hartsock said, gesturing toward the portable kitchen built on ShopBar’s patio. “You don’t have a home base where you have everything you need. I bring it all — spoons, ladles, things you wouldn’t think of.” Rather than a shared location, POCO operates out of three homes, so organization is paramount. “Every day is a checklist,” Pope said, adding that roughly two weeks of preparation goes into each pop-up event. For Bamba, living in a four-season climate cuts into the bottom line. “It takes an entire weekend of [wintertime] pop-ups to make less than what we would have made in just one of many of the summer and fall pop-ups we did,” she said.
On the positive, POCO’s Hartsock adds “you do a lot of work but you’re only open three to six hours. Then you can pack up and leave, where at a restaurant you have to fight through slow nights to get to a busy one.” For RCSC’s Hargrove, the pop-up model helps him balance quality with access. “I’ve found you can use a higher end product and charge less for it because you don’t have that crazy overhead of a restaurant,” he said. And for Zini’s Stanbury, it removes traditional obstacles, like signing a bunch of papers. “The pop-up model has allowed me to try something new, week after week, without putting everything I have at risk,” he said. “To me, it feels like a safer way to enter the food scene.” Ultimately, as Stansbury says “[Pop-ups are] easier in that I’m not paying monthly payments on a $50,000 truck or who knows for a dining room, and I can grow at my own speed. I don’t think most people would want to do pop-ups forever but it does allow you to build a following and work on your concept before moving forward.”
Feeding the hand that feeds you
For the properties hosting these pop-ups, it’s a value-added proposition, whether they’re giving their own staff some time off or offering food service outside normal hours. The host will keep a small percentage, but that amount is completely eclipsed by traditional operational costs. More importantly, pop-ups create a culture of collaboration where different bars and restaurants root for the success of their industry brethren. “We’ve really enjoyed seeing a lot of the pop-up chefs stretch their imaginations in regards to how to use our space and elevate the pop-up concept,” theMerryWeather’s Denison said. Ruff added,“I have for a long time been interested in finding solutions to the many issues that plague the restaurant industry. This non-traditional format allows experimentation that might translate into new business models that could benefit all.” As POCO’s Hlava summed up, “The restaurants who have been quick on their feet and creative are going to thrive.”
For the current pop-up movement, the pros can outweigh the cons for those interested in a little adventure. “[Pop-ups offer] a lot of options as far as level of involvement goes,” said Zini’s Stansbury. “Maybe you are trying to build something bigger. Maybe you are trying to cover the paycheck you lost because of another restaurant shutdown. Maybe you love your job but enjoy doing something every now and then.” For others, pop-ups provide some social normalcy. “It’s not just a pop-up. It’s a vibe,” said POCO’s Pope. “It’s a baby house party for three hours that we throw at a bar. It’s not just coming to the pop-up, it’s also seeing people you haven’t seen in a while, under one roof. And there aren’t 500 things going on, it’s just good food, drink and conversations. I like the feel of that.”
Though rooted before the pandemic, pop-up restaurants have transformed into a product and innovation of These Unprecedented Times, born out of making something work in impossible circumstances — you know, like velcro and the other amazing inventions spawned by the space race. Such a nontraditional approach to dining offers a serious opportunity, without the gatekeeping, for a chef to try something different or pivot their career. The transient restaurant is but one dimension of an intriguing, sometimes ominous post-COVID world — a case study in realigning our notion of work, business, spaces and socializing, where issues with a lot of gravitas meet you or me crushing burritos at our preferred watering holes. •