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For Pop-Up Owners, a Crossroads as Restaurants Return

As the restaurant industry inches toward normalcy, many of those who launched pandemic-era pop-ups are wondering what’s next

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Former Gramercy Tavern pastry cook Lauren Tran never expected her assortments of ube and coconut mousse chiffon cakes, longan macarons, and bánh bò nướng — a pandan-flavored tapioca and rice flour pastry — to appeal beyond her social circle. But when the recent pastry school graduate’s bánh boxes, a mix of Vietnamese desserts and French pastries, started selling out in minutes each week on Instagram, it turned her previous life plan on its head. “I was able to lean into who I am as a Vietnamese-American woman,” she says. Now, Tran is looking to translate that success into a business, Bánh by Lauren, that honors Vietnamese desserts with the respect and regard she sees given European and Japanese baked goods.

Amid the endless stream of destruction that the pandemic blasted at the restaurant industry, pop-ups started by laid-off workers quietly shone as a tiny bright light in the grim darkness. Stuck at home, with little hope for full employment, the people who once cooked or served everywhere from fast-casual chains to Michelin-starred dining rooms turned to the best resource they had to stay busy and make some money: their own knowledge, heritage, and creativity. The rise of pop-ups — representing a low barrier to entry for culinary businesses — has pushed forward laws regarding home-based food businesses, including one recently passed in Boston allowing for the selling of low-risk foods made at home, and one in Washington that will allow people to sell meals from their home.

But a year into the pandemic, with vaccines available or soon to be available to all adults and many states lifting restrictions on business, successful pop-up proprietors have reached a crucial moment in a situation that from day one was conceptualized as temporary. Some are considering whether they want to put down roots as a permanent full-time business, leave what they built and go back to working for others, or try to balance in the middle by finding a steady job while running the pop-up as a side hustle.

“I didn’t have an idea of a shop. I just knew that I wanted one,” Tran says of her pre-pandemic dreams of someday opening a French-style patisserie. “Now I know it has to be this.” The runaway success of Bánh by Lauren attracted the type of attention — in terms of opportunities and investment — she thought would take years, leaving her suddenly facing pivotal decisions about her plans as both a pastry cook and entrepreneur. But just as the pop-up model brought her overwhelmingly fast success, working for herself gave her the time and income to consider each decision carefully.

When Lupe Flores first messaged her friends to see if they were interested in buying a few of the crunchy tacos she always made for parties, the bartender and drummer just wanted to stay busy while bars and clubs were closed. More than a year later, from a permanent location inside Seattle’s Tractor Tavern, Flores’s Situ Tacos sells the kind of tacos stuffed with hushwe, Lebanese brown butter beef, that Flores grew up eating at the table of her Lebanese-by-way-of-Mexico grandmother; Situ tacos is named for her.

Flores’s pop-ups earned a following big enough that not quite a year after she first sold her tacos, the Tractor Tavern, looking to bring people to its bar and outdoor area while live music and concerts are prohibited, invited her to put down roots. “I’d been dragging my feet, because starting your own business is terrifying,” she admits. But the way her business operates symbiotically with the bar has been encouraging. The support she’s seen — from chefs, business owners, other pop-up operators — during the pandemic gave her faith in human beings, she says, and “the chutzpah it takes to open a bricks-and-mortar business in this unsure world.”

While Flores thrives as she returns to the face-to-face interaction she loved as a bartender, Dave Hadley, who was laid off from his job as a culinary director for a hospitality group, welcomed the opportunity to try something less consumer-facing. But when an old boss offered him a kitchen job making pizza for $13 an hour, Hadley asked himself, “What the hell am I doing?”

Instead, he was drawn to the entrepreneurship of a pop-up. Like any good Jersey boy, he turned to Taylor ham for help, folding it into a pork roll, egg, and cheese version of the Indian snacks he’d grown up eating. Samosa Shop features the flavors of his Caribbean heritage and works with other companies, like a pizza restaurant and kimchi brand, to create combinations that reflect other people’s backgrounds as well. The nontraditional samosas are now available at pop-ups all over the Denver area, with events announced on Instagram.

Having seen success so far, Hadley wants to bring the idea to a wider audience. He dreams of turning Samosa Shop into a frozen-food brand, something that would compete with Hot Pockets for space in grocery-store freezers around the country. But he remains unsure about immediate next steps. “I paid so much freaking money to go to CIA and get the best education, and then work with some of the best people in the country,” he says. “But they don’t teach you how to be successful by yourself.” He doesn’t plan to let that stop him, though. “I’m excited to be on that journey of not knowing. And I think we need to be okay with that.”

But not everyone has that luxury or is in the right place in their life to do so. Depending on location, details, and local cottage food laws, some pop-ups operated in a legal gray area that comes with its own risks. Some need a regular paycheck or more certain schedule, and the constant pivots turning the industry in circles, combined with individual situations — financial, personal, or professional — sent many pop-up entrepreneurs straight back to the stability of a regular job when the opportunity arose. Some didn’t find the same rousing success as Tran or Flores. For others, it simply wasn’t the right long-term fit.

“Running a pop-up taught me a lot about my own capacity for work and how I like to treat myself when I’m the person in charge,” says Hanna Gregor. The former line cook called her time running a fermented-foods pop-up a great use of eight months, but adds, “it just got to be physically exhausting.” She tried working with a partner and shifting to a subscription model to lighten the workload on the selling side, but shopping for the pop-up by bike got increasingly hard as orders grew. The impending Chicago winter made it less likely they would be able to draw customers to outdoor events or even just make extra trips on public transportation to pick up orders as COVID-19 cases surged. In late November, the bakery where Gregor had been volunteering to bake loaves for donation offered her a part-time job, and she works there now. The fermented-food concept took a back seat, at least temporarily.

“There are a lot of connections that you gain from being the face of something, as opposed to being the third line cook in back,” Gregor says. She hopes to take advantage of the flexibility of pop-ups — as the weather warms up, she’s had people contact her about selling at farmers markets and events. But at her own early stage in the industry, she didn’t feel ready to commit to starting a business. Though she likes how pop-ups sidestep some of the more savage parts of the traditional brigade system, she feels she gets more from mentorship and colleagues. “I’m still in that phase in my life where I’m like, ‘I want to learn more,’” she says. “I would love to observe folks who have done this for a decade longer than I have.” She hesitates, raising one of the issues that gives her pause about returning to cooking: “Ideally in a place where people are treated like people and make a living wage.”

Food and travel writer Naomi Tomky is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.