Pop-up restaurants may stick around as COVID sees resurgence

NEW YORK — Popup restaurants, many started as stopgap measures by struggling chefs and owners, may have to stay power as consumers continue to embrace takeout and delivery, and the delta variant threatens to make dining less of an option. Popup 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.

They are cheaper to operate than regular restaurants because they have less overhead and staffing costs. Popups 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 reeling. They’ve helped bring buzz to existing restaurants that host them. And some have even morphed into permanent new businesses. As a rise in COVID-19 cases threatens re-openings nationwide, popup creators and hosts ask, “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 a year of transition for the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Federation research. “The industry is still being substantially challenged by the COVID situation.” The flexibility of the takeout and delivery model helped Alex Thaboua meet those challenges. Thabo is co-owner of Electric Burrito, which began as a popup at Mister Paradise bar in New York in 2020. A permanent location opened in May and is focused on takeout and delivery, so he said even if there is another lockdown, the restaurant will operate.

“This flexibility was something we found very important during our popup stages when the world was getting locked down, and heavy restrictions were being placed on businesses,” he said. “We’ve designed our operations so isothat 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 ten popups featuring local area chefs since the pandemic began. The popups are a way to get exposure and access 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 weren’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 takeout dinners or starting food trucks, he said. The first popup at Hathorne began in October, with a Mexican theme from Julio Hernandez centered around his homemade tortilla. It was a success, and more popups 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.

Pop-ups can be a way to attract attention to new projects. Stephenson said he plans to keep having popups even after the pandemic wanes rather than reopening full-time. Early this year, William Eick bought a building to start his restaurant 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 popup, we can put the proceeds and profits into building the restaurant.” In May, he started Naegi, a popup serving fried chicken sandwiches from a window in the building he bought.

The popup 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. He said it helped start spreading word of mouth more than we ever thought it would do,” he said. He doesn’t anticipate another lockdown coming to Oceanside, California, but he said if it does, he will continue to operate Naegi. For Marisa Iocco, who co-owns the Italian restaurant Spiga Ristorante in Needham, Mass., a popup was a way to stay positive during the pandemic. She opened Polpettiamo in April 2021 in Providence, R.I. It serves only meatballs and just takeout.

“During the pandemic, survival was very challenging,” she said. The meatballs 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 and doesn’t expect rising cases, or future lockdowns will change those plans. But more than anything, creating something new during the pandemic gave her a “vitamin B12 shot” of energy. “It helps keep your mood positive,” she said.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!