Pop-up restaurants could stay as COVID sees resurgence

NEW YORK – Pop-up restaurants, many of which started as interim measures by struggling chefs and owners, may gain power as consumers continue to embrace take-out and delivery and the delta variant threatens to make the meal less an option.

Pop-up restaurants can take a variety of forms, from a ramen maker appearing for just one night at an established bar or restaurant, to a taco maker using unused space to temporarily house diners, to a chef offering meatballs. to be delivered only.

Cheaper to operate than regular restaurants because they have less overhead and staff costs, pop-ups allow chefs and owners to continue working and making a living at the start of the pandemic when dining rooms were closed and that the economy was faltering. They have helped revive the existing restaurants that house them. And some have even turned into new permanent businesses.

Now, as reopenings across the country are threatened by an increase in COVID-19 cases, pop-up creators and hosts are asking, “So what? “

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. It is still down 1 million jobs from the pre-pandemic employment level of 12.3 million. Restaurant sales in 2020 totaled $ 659 million, down $ 240 million from expected levels, according to the National Restaurant Federation. Sales have rebounded this year as the economy recovered and restrictions were lifted, but some economists are now lowering expectations for economic growth in the United States, in part because they expect fewer people to dine at the restaurant.

“2021 is definitely a year of transition for the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Federation. “The industry is still significantly challenged by the COVID situation.”

The flexibility of the take-out and delivery model has helped Alex Thaboua meet these challenges. Thaboua is a co-owner of Electric Burrito, which started as a pop-up at the Mister Paradise bar in New York City in 2020. A permanent location opened in May and focuses on takeout and delivery, so even s ‘There is another lockdown, the restaurant will be able to operate, he said.

“This flexibility was something that we found very important during our pop-up stages, when the world was going on lockdown and heavy restrictions were placed on businesses,” he said. “We have designed our operations so that we can continue to operate with a small team, with all safety precautions taken, to be able to serve customers both take out and deliver.”

Hathorne, a Nashville restaurant, has hosted around 10 pop-ups featuring local chefs since the start of the pandemic. For pop-ups, it’s a way to market yourself and have access to a full kitchen. For Hathorne, it’s a way to fill seats on nights when they would normally be empty. Since reopening for in-person dining in October, the restaurant is only open Wednesday through Saturday.

“We knew when we reopened we couldn’t be open six or seven days a week because the staff and business were not going to be there,” said John Stephenson, owner of Hathorne. “I knew I wanted to use the space.

A chef from Nashville for decades, Stephenson knew a number of chefs who were trying to stay afloat during the pandemic with projects such as creating take-out dinners or starting food trucks, he said.

The first pop-up at Hathorne began in October, with a Mexican theme by Julio Hernandez centered around his homemade tortilla. It was a success and more pop-ups followed. Currently, Hathorne hosts Michael Hanna’s focaccia pizza company every Sunday, St. Vito Focacciaria.

Hanna and her team have jobs and “that makes people come to our doors,” says Stephenson. The arrangement with St. Vito is long term, so he hired Hanna as a chef. Hanna gets a percentage of Sunday sales; Hathorne pays for all products and labor.

Stephenson said he plans to continue having pop-ups even after the pandemic has declined rather than reopening full time.

Pop-ups can be a way to draw attention to new projects. William Eick bought a building to start his own restaurant earlier this year, but struggled to find investors at first.

“Most people were worried about getting involved in restaurants during the pandemic,” he said. “So we had to get creative. I thought if we could open a pop-up, we could invest the profits and the profits into building the restaurant.

In May, he launched Naegi, a pop-up serving fried chicken sandwiches from a window in the building he bought. The pop-up helped publicize the permanent restaurant, Matsu, a more traditional Japanese restaurant with a tasting menu, which will open in a few weeks.

“It helped raise awareness a lot, it helped start spreading word of mouth more than we thought it would,” he said. He doesn’t plan another lockdown in Oceanside, Calif., But if it does, he will simply continue to mine Naegi, he said.

For Marisa Iocco, co-owner of Italian restaurant Spiga Ristorante in Needham, Mass., A pop-up was a way to stay positive during the pandemic. She opened Polpettiamo in April 2021 in Providence, RI. It only serves meatballs and only take out.

“During the pandemic it was very difficult to survive,” she said. The meatballs – which are also offered as an aperitif at Spiga – are created in the kitchen of its main restaurant and finished in a Providence kitchen, which has three employees.

She is considering a brick and mortar location in Providence and another delivery location only in Boston and does not expect increased cases or future blockages to change those plans. But more than anything, creating something new during the pandemic gave her a “vitamin B12 shot” of energy.

“It really helps keep your mood positive,” she said.

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