How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant

Half the battle of starting a restaurant is finding a niche that’s not oversaturated. Part of the allure of pop-up restaurants, though, is they’re not meant to be permanent. You have an opportunity to create a unique dining experience for a finite amount of time and then move on to a new idea. Understanding how to start a pop-up restaurant can be a major advantage for both established and aspiring chefs and restaurateurs.

Beyond their potential virality,[1] there are so many reasons to create a pop-up restaurant. If you’re considering this business model as your next restaurant idea, here’s how to start a pop-up restaurant in five steps.

How to Start a Pop-Up Restaurant in 5 Steps

Starting a pop-up restaurant can be a lower lift than other restaurant business models, but it still requires tons of planning, preparation, and organization.   

1. Write a Business Plan and Menu

Just like starting a business in any other industry, the process of opening a pop-up restaurant will almost certainly involve pitfalls and surprises. Your business plan protects yourself, as much as possible, against those challenges: It’s an actionable blueprint detailing your purpose and goals, as well as taking stock of your resources and vendors. 

Your initial business plan can be as broad or as granular as you want, but of course, it’s best to err on the “overly detailed” side as much as possible. Either way, there are a few essential topics even the most general pop-up restaurant business plan should address, like:

  • How much capital do you have, how much do you need to launch, and what are the sources of your startup funding?
  • Who is your target demographic?
  • Who are your vendors and suppliers?
  • What tools and equipment do you need?
  • Where will your pop-up be located, and how long will it be open?
  • What’s your hiring plan?

Use this opportunity to clearly define the purpose and intention of creating your pop-up restaurant—whether that’s testing the waters before opening your first brick-and-mortar location, developing a secondary revenue stream for your primary location, fundraising for a cause you believe in, experimenting with new ingredients and dishes, collaborating with another business or chef, or something else entirely.

At this point, you should also nail down your pop-up’s niche, angle, concept, and overall “vibe,” like a challah spotlight, a bar themed after your favorite movie, or whatever else you’re into from both a culinary and experiential perspective. Another important step of your business plan is defining your menu.

2. Choose a Location

Pop-ups are flexible operations. That’s inherent to their nature and part of their appeal—both for their customers, spurred on by the urgency and novelty of a one-time-only experience, and for the people behind the operation (meaning you). Thus, you can get creative with your pop-up location.

Of course, the easiest route is opening a pop-up in an existing restaurant through a partnership. However, other venues to consider include retail stores, warehouses, private residences, and outdoor spaces. Or you can take a cue from The Crust Conductor and set up shop in a double-decker bus. It’s really up to you.

Base your location decision around your budget; the tools, equipment, and space you need; the kind of experience you want to provide your diners; and how much logistical work you’re willing and able to put into opening your pop-up. 

3. Obtain Licenses, Permits, and Insurance

Starting a pop-up—even if that pop-up is only around for a few days—still requires that you obtain the proper licenses, permits, and insurance to operate legally.

A few licenses and permits you may need to obtain include a food service permit, liquor license, business license, and health department permits. It’s likely that your city, town, county, and/or state have local laws about permitting and licensing for restaurants as well, either permanent or temporary (New York City actually has a Temporary Food Service Establishment permit, for instance). Additionally, you may need a certificate of occupancy from your locality, which verifies that your location is safe and legal for use.

It’s crucial that you get in touch with your local authorities to complete this step, but we’d also recommend consulting with a business attorney or advisor, if that’s available to you. You can also speak with your advisor about obtaining business insurance for your restaurant, like property insurance, fire insurance, liquor liability, general liability, or other common types of coverage for restaurants. Even though your pop-up isn’t a traditional establishment, it’s certainly not immune to the potential accidents and liabilities to which restaurants are vulnerable.   

4. Gather Your Equipment

The extent of this step really depends on where you’re opening your pop-up restaurant. Obviously, if you’re claiming space in an existing restaurant, then you’ll very likely have all the equipment you need to operate. That said, you may want to personalize the existing decor, and unless you’re taking the chalkboard route, you’ll also need to print your own menus.

If you’re setting up in a spot without an existing kitchen, you’ll have a lot more costs to consider. Start by purchasing mobile kitchen supplies, like induction ovens, portable grills or flat tops, coolers and freezers, and cleaning supplies. Consider looking into retailers that sell food truck equipment for easily transportable tools and equipment.

Then start gathering everything you need for your dining room. Since this is a temporary enterprise, it makes sense to rent your tables, chairs, etc., but if you plan to open a pop-up restaurant again sometime in the future, then you may choose to buy your furniture outright and use it next time. You can also visit restaurant supply stores for inexpensive furniture and decor.

Remember that pop-up restaurants tend to be more casual than traditional restaurants, so you can likely get away with fewer or less expensive design elements (again, your theme will dictate this). Just focus on creating a warm and inviting environment for your diners, or enhancing whatever kind of experience you want your patrons to have when they step into your space.

You’ll also need to invest in a mobile POS system so you can process payments wherever you’ve chosen to set up shop. 

5. Market Your Business

Successful businesses rely on brand loyalty, repeat customers, and word-of-mouth recommendations over the long term as major marketing tactics to keep their ventures afloat. Obviously, pop-up restaurants don’t have the luxury of time required for those effective passive strategies to work. Instead, pop-up restaurant owners should leverage more immediate marketing tactics, primarily social media marketing.

Start by creating Instagram and Twitter accounts for your pop-up. Post and tweet regularly in advance of your pop-up opening to create buzz, then throughout your operations to keep people interested. Engagement is crucial on social media, so respond to your followers’ comments, DMs, and retweets—both the positive and the critical—as much as possible. Also create a website for your pop-up to share your location, contact information, and give the option to schedule reservations.

You may also want to reach out to local influencers, food bloggers, and other press and ask if they’d be interested in covering your pop-up. Partnering with complementary businesses to promote your pop-up can also help spread the word.   

The Bottom Line

If you’re unsure whether a pop-up restaurant is the right business venture for you, consider these pros and cons.

Pros: Pop-ups are less expensive and generally less risky than opening traditional restaurants. They’re excellent opportunities for chefs to test-drive new culinary techniques, as well as attract customers and investors for current and/or future restaurants. They’re also fun, flexible, and low-key.

Cons: If you’re opening your pop-up in an unusual location (i.e. not an actual restaurant), you’ll basically need to build your entire operation—including your kitchen—from the ground up; but if you partner with a host venue, you’ll probably need to hand over a percentage of your sales. And since pop-ups are so temporary, you’ll really need to double down on your marketing tactics to bring in customers.

If you’re still unsure, reach out to chefs and restaurateurs to learn about their experiences and gain insight into the process. From there, you can determine whether a pop-up restaurant business model is a truly viable option for you.

Article Sources:

  1. Gq.com. “How Pop-Ups Took Over America’s Restaurants

Sally Lauckner

Sally Lauckner is the editor-in-chief of JustBusiness and the editorial director at Fundera.

Sally joined Fundera in 2018 and has almost 15 years of experience in print and online journalism. Previously she was the senior editor at SmartAsset—a Y Combinator-backed fintech startup that provides personal finance advice. There, she edited articles and data reports on topics including taxes, mortgages, banking, credit cards, investing, insurance, and retirement planning. She has also held various editorial roles at AOL.com, Huffington Post, and Glamour magazine. Her work has also appeared in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and ColoradoBiz magazines, as well as Yelp, SmallBizClub, and BizCrat.

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