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A woman, standing, talks with people seated at a dinner table.
Leigh-Ann Martin chats with guests at one of her pop-up dinners.
Dahli Durley

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The Uncertain Future of Pop-Up Restaurants

As the restaurant industry faces an ongoing crisis, pop-up chefs confront unique challenges during the pandemic

Three months ago, Omar Tate was serving an $150 eight-course tasting menu out of a penthouse event space in New York’s Financial District. The dinner, featuring such dishes called Notes From a Black Pantry and Cart of Yams, was one of Tate’s Honeysuckle pop-ups, which explore and pay homage to the black experience through food and art. Now, Tate is staying in a spare room at his mom’s house in Philadelphia. With multicourse dinners out of the question during the coronavirus pandemic, he’s cooking in her kitchen, posting a menu on his Instagram, and selling dishes to the public for $10 to $12 each. The setting is dissimilar to that of a New York penthouse, but he plans each menu as thoughtfully as ever, still tracing and celebrating black American foodways. Last week, Tate cooked lamb in a pit, serving the meat — marinated in palm oil and smoky from the oak he’d used as fuel — along with pickled vegetables and tart, lemony potatoes.

“All the things that go into what I make still have that same intentionality,” he says. “It was never about the theater of it all, which is the dining room. It’s not about that.”

The pop-up model has long been an alternative for cooks who lack access to the capital needed to launch and operate a restaurant, or who are disenfranchised by the culture and structure of traditional kitchens. For women and people of color in the restaurant industry, who are all too often refused the opportunities and resources that their white male counterparts enjoy, the pop-up model serves to democratize the cooking and sharing of food.

In some cities, pop-ups — particularly those in home kitchens — face legal challenges, but in most, they can operate as long as food is prepared in a commissary or restaurant kitchen. This shape-shifting model isn’t just a second choice for would-be restaurant owners. The fluidity and flexibility of the pop-up allows for a certain kind of creativity — blending art, history, performance, and food into a single dinner, for instance — that the constraints of most restaurants don’t allow.

Without brick-and-mortar locations, deep pockets, or much government assistance, pop-up chefs face unique challenges during the pandemic. But as it becomes increasingly unclear what restaurants will look like in a post-pandemic world, these businesses are also uniquely positioned to meet the needs of local communities, and maybe even offer a vision for dining in the future — if they can last that long.

“The beauty of a pop-up — and I’ve only learned this since I’ve been forced out of [restaurant] spaces because of the current situation that we’re in — is that they are malleable,” Tate says. “They’re kind of like an amoeba.”

Two legs of lamb cook in a concrete pit over oak.
For a recent pop-up dinner, Tate slow-smoked lamb legs in a pit.
Haamza Edwards

A change of plans

Three years after launching the Vegan Hood Chefs in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway were ready to turn their pop-up into a permanent space this year.

“As a minority-owned [business], we were looking to use this year as a way to show that we are profitable, in order to be able to apply for capital to reach our ultimate goal, which is to get a brick-and-mortar [location],” Johnson says. The pair, neither of whom had any restaurant experience before launching, started the Hood Vegan Chefs out of necessity. In their predominantly black San Francisco neighborhood, there were no grocery stores in sight, and Johnson and Calloway were confronted by an unpleasant truth: No one was going to come into their community and create more options for healthy living. Opening a restaurant seemed the most effective way to take matters into their own hands and provide fresh food to their neighbors.

Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway pose with sunflowers in field.
Ronnishia Johnson (left) and Rheema Calloway

The dream of restaurant ownership is off the table, for now at least. Like so many other pop-up restaurant owners across the country, Johnson and Calloway are glad just to be breaking even. But in the face of a crisis that has put restaurants on the brink of permanent closure, many pop-up chefs are questioning whether restaurant ownership is the end goal after all.

“We’re putting the brick and mortar on hold. It may not necessarily be what the community needs right now,” Johnson says. “What they need may be [for us] to keep this pop-up sustainable. And that looks like using the money we would have put down on a brick and mortar to possibly build our team so that we have more individuals who are able to pop up at already existing restaurants, to be able to provide food for the community.” Though the Vegan Hood Chefs doesn’t have the capital to expand in the way Johnson and Calloway had hoped to this year, their fresh vegan offerings are delivered throughout the Bay Area once a week, providing customers with trays of prepared grains, greens, and meat substitutes.

Before the pandemic, a majority of the Vegan Hood Chefs’ revenue was generated through large events, all of which have been canceled. The same is true for many pop-up chefs, who relied on large food events and ticketed dinners to provide the bulk of their income. But with no massive overhead costs, and a business model already designed to be adaptable, pop-ups around the country are adjusting quickly.

Until recently, Salimatu Amabebe traveled state to state hosting their dinner series, Black Feast. Each dinner was informed by and centered around the work of a black artist, the art inspiring the menu. The meal was never just a dinner, nor was it a gallery exhibition. Often, the hardest part of planning the events was finding a space where art and food could coexist.

It has been hard for Amabebe to imagine what such an experiential dinner could look like as a takeout-only operation. On a recent Sunday night in Berkeley, California, they decided to give it a try. After planning what would be the first Black Feast event with no communal dining element, Amabebe became weighed down by videos circulating online of the violence black people are facing during the pandemic. Ordinarily, a Black Feast dinner would serve as a way to bring people together over a meal, a chance to process current events or just relax in the comfort of community. With in-person gatherings out of the question, Amambebe had to find other ways to deliver that same feeling through a takeout window.

“What do people need right now, what does my community need right now?” Amabebe asked themself as they planned the meal. The menu that they came up with was inspired by the work of Oakland-based artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, and captured the urgency and frustration of the moment.

Chef Salimatu Amabebe and artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo stand in front of a takeout window.
Salimatu Amabebe (right) poses in front of the takeout window with artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo.
Jessa Carter

Each to-go order was wrapped in a print designed by Lukaza, featuring painted phrases such as “Say her name,” the other side printed with a transcribed interview between Amabebe and Lukaza. Inside the paper wrapping were containers of rich and mellow black-eyed pea and tomato stew, and big slices of ever-so-slightly earthy spinach-vanilla cake with yam buttercream.

With donations from friends and past Black Feast guests around the country, Amabebe was able to give free meals to black customers who came to pick them up. “It was really cool to see that it’s possible to change this model and share food with people, and nourish people in the community. And not all have to come together at the table,” they say.

When Amabebe isn’t planning for the next Black Feast dinner, they sell loaves of bread and jars of Nigerian chai from the takeout window of the building where they’re currently finishing an artist’s residency. As restaurants reopen across the country, and chefs try to work out what cooking for the public again will look like, Amabebe doesn’t really have a plan for the future. “It’s difficult because when you base the model of what you do on community care for others and not on profit, it puts you in a position that is, in some ways, freeing,” Amabebe says. “But also, there isn’t always a specific plan for how things are going to go, and there aren’t a lot of funds to move around. In some ways, it’s easy to shut down: ‘Okay, well, we’re not doing these events.’ But also, what the fuck do we do?”

What comes next

There are fewer barriers to entry for chefs launching pop-ups than for those opening restaurants. There are usually no investors to answer to, fewer overhead costs, and few or no employees to pay. Some of the pop-up chefs I spoke to had not registered their operations with the government, and had — at one point or another — done business under the table, not paying taxes. During a pandemic, the lack of structure that once felt liberating can bring on a sense of uncertainty and anxiousness.

“All of my money was coming from pop-ups, all of it,” Tate says. While peers with investors or savings accounts cushioned by parents or spouses have put money aside, Tate couldn’t plan for a rainy day, let alone an all-out storm. “That was literally my entire financial life and safety net. I was living contract to contract.” Tate applied for a $10,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, and was granted $1,000. He hasn’t been able to get through to the overwhelmed unemployment application portal.

With no money left in her bank account, Illyanna Maisonet decided to halt her pop-up dinners during the pandemic. The chef and writer (she’s written for Eater on several occasions) ran social media for a popular San Francisco blogger, and in her spare time, she’s hosted Puerto Rican dinners in her small casita — a separate dining space in her Sacramento, California backyard. Maisonet never thought of herself as a brand or a business before the pandemic. Now, it feels like there’s nowhere to turn for help. “I have no hustle because all my side hustles require being outside,” she says. “So [there’s] no money coming in, no income.” The final blow came when Maisonet had to cancel a dinner she had already sold tickets for, and some of her guests refused her offer to deliver meals to their front door. “That was, like, a really good chunk of money... So now I have negative money in my bank account. I haven’t been negative in my bank account since I was in my 20s.”

Solomon Johnson garnishes shrimp and grits in a kitchen.
Solomon Johnson prepares for dinner service.
Ryan Soule

Refunding customers right now could force small pop-ups to shut down for good. When Solomon Johnson, the chef behind the Oakland, California-based pop-up and catering company Omni World Kitchen, had to return $13,000 for canceled events, it felt inevitable that he would have to close his business. “I’m on a shoestring budget,” he says. “So after giving back all those refunds, I was almost convinced that I was going to have to completely shut down.” Solomon managed to secure a loan through the micro-loan organization Kiva, which kept his business just barely afloat, as he watched major restaurant chains receive the same PPP loan he’d been denied.

Johnson isn’t in a rush to start delivering plates of food during quarantine, citing concerns about his own health. While in-person events are on hold, he’s taken his business online, looking for new ways to create income. He’s just finished designing a line of merchandise, and completed edits on his first cookbook. “I really decided to think on my feet,” he says.

Meeting diners where they are

While many pop-up chefs express uncertainty about what the future might bring, others are hopeful they’ll be among the first to get back on their feet. When the time comes for restaurants to reopen in New Jersey, Leigh-Ann Martin has one of the most intimate dining spaces in town: Her kitchen table. Martin’s pop-up, A Table for Four — named for the snug table in her dining room where she serves guests — revolves around Trinidadian dishes cooked in her Union City kitchen.

As diners begin to reenter society, Martin suspects they’ll want a level of intimacy that restaurants in the early phases of reopening won’t be able to provide. “If people are going to feel safe enough to leave their home to come out, I feel like they’re going to want to do more than eat,” Martin says. She hopes to offer them an experience that falls somewhere between restaurant dining and eating at home. She’ll send them packing with recipes from the menu she serves, so they can recreate favorite Trinidadian dishes in their own kitchens, until the next time they brave the outside world.

Though his Oakland pop-up remains closed for now, Solomon Johnson also sees a future for his business when Northern Californians reemerge from the shutdown. “I know people will be excited to go out and eat again,” he says. “But the last thing you want to do is go to a restaurant that feeds 150 people... So I think that having a business model structured around smaller, intimate gatherings will probably be very lucrative after all of this. And that’s what I’ve been doing for almost five years now.”

In some ways, pop-ups have become more and more like traditional restaurants over the years, serving food out of restaurant dining rooms or large event spaces in place of home kitchens and front porches. With restaurants still closed in many states, and event spaces and bars unlikely to welcome pop-ups back any time soon, the model has been stripped down to its simplest form. “The future of pop-ups, now that people are paying attention,” Tate says, “is what they’ve always been: Something that pops up somewhere to feed people. And all that’s required is trust.”

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