Pop-up restaurants may stick around as COVID sees resurgence

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 20: People walk by a restaurant as they begin to require that customers will need to show proof that they are at least partly vaccinated for Covid-19 to be allowed in the business on August 20, 2021 in New York City. New York City has begun checking people’s vaccination status at museums, gym’s, restaurants and other public establishments as it becomes the nation’s largest city to exclude the unvaccinated from public places. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Pop-up restaurants, many started as stopgap measures by struggling chefs and owners, may have staying power as consumers continue to embrace takeout and delivery and the delta variant threatens to make dining in less of an option.

Pop-up restaurants can take various forms, from a ramen maker appearing for one night only at an established bar or restaurant to a taco maker using an unused space to temporarily host diners, to a chef offering meatballs for delivery only.

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Cheaper to operate than regular restaurants because they have less overhead and staffing costs. Pop-ups let chefs and owners keep working and making a living during the early part of the pandemic when dining rooms were closed and the economy was teetering. They’ve helped bring buzz to existing restaurants that host them. And some have even morphed into permanent new businesses.

Now, as a rise in COVID-19 cases threatens re-openings across the country, pop-up creators and hosts are asking, “What next?”

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. According to the National Restaurant Federation, restaurant sales in 2020 totaled $659 million, down $240 million from expected levels. Sales rebounded this year as the economy recovered and restrictions were lifted. Still, some economists are paring back expectations for U.S. economic growth, partly because they expect fewer people to dine out.

“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 being substantially challenged by the COVID situation.”

The flexibility of the take-out and delivery model helped Alex Thaboua meet those challenges. Thaboua is co-owner of Electric Burrito, which began as a pop-up at Mister Paradise bar in New York in 2020. A permanent location opened in May and is focused on take-out and delivery, so even if there is another lockdown, the restaurant will operate, he said.

“This flexibility was something we found very important during our pop-up stages when the world was getting locked down and heavy restrictions were being placed on businesses,” he said. “We’ve designed our operations in a way that we can continue to operate with a lean team, with every safety precaution taken, to be able to serve guests in both a to-go and delivery capacity.”

Hathorne, a restaurant in Nashville, has hosted about 10 pop-ups featuring local area chefs since the pandemic began. For the pop-ups, it is a way to get exposure and have access to a full kitchen. For Hathorne, it’s a way to fill seats on nights they’d ordinarily be empty. Since reopening for in-person dining in October, the restaurant is open just Wednesday through Saturday.

“We knew, when we reopened, we were not going to be able to be open six or seven days a week because staffing and business wasn’t going to be there,” said John Stephenson, Hathorne’s owner. “I knew that I wanted to utilize the space.”

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

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

Hanna and his staff get work and “it keeps people coming in our doors,” Stephenson says. The arrangement with St. Vito is long-term, so he hired Hanna as a chef. Hanna gets a percentage of the Sunday sales; Hathorne pays for all products and labor.

Stephenson said he plans to keep having pop-ups even after the pandemic wanes rather than reopening full time.

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Pop-ups can be a way to attract attention to new projects. For example, William Eick bought a building to start his own restaurant earlier this year but initially had trouble finding investors.

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

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

“It helped bring a lot of awareness; it helped start spreading word of mouth more than what we ever thought it would do,” he said. He doesn’t anticipate another lockdown coming to Oceanside, California, but if it does, he will just continue to operate Naegi, he said.

For Marisa Iocco, who co-owns the Italian restaurant Spiga Ristorante in Needham, Mass., a pop-up was a way to stay positive during the pandemic. So she opened Polpettiamo in April 2021 in Providence, R.I. It serves only meatballs and is just for takeout.

“During the pandemic, it was very challenging to survive,” she said. The meatballs — which are also offered as appetizers at Spiga — are created in the kitchen at her main restaurant and finished in a kitchen in Providence, which has a staff of three.

She is considering a brick-and-mortar location in Providence and another delivery-only location in Boston. She doesn’t expect rising cases or future lockdowns 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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