Now Trending: The Foodie Pop-Up

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Jacob Boehm carefully plates the first course during a Snap Pea Underground & Catering dinner at The Cookery. Photo by Carolina Kammel.

In large cities, pop-ups have become a growing phenomenon, and we’re seeing that trend, well, pop up more in Durham lately, too. Our city’s strong entrepreneurial spirit and creative community lends itself well to testing out adventurous dining concepts, and a growing number of progressive diners are eager to partake.

It’s important to enter the pop-up world with an open mind. Remember, pop-ups are meant to be an alternative dining experience, and this varies from affordable street food to extravagant, top-secret dinners. Either way, it makes room for diners to enjoy an unexpected meal that is truly outside the box.

Snap Pea Underground, for example, is all about creating a dining event with theatrical flair. This monthly event, started by Jacob Boehm, has been running in the Triangle for four years.

It took Jacob awhile to secure his now thousands of eager Snap Pea fans. He announced his first pop-up in 2014 (a nine-course meal for $45) and was imploring people to give it a try. Slowly but surely word spread, and now a weekend of events sells out in a matter of minutes, which allows him and his team to really stretch the boundaries of what is possible. They’ve even hosted two overnight pop-ups for small groups of 10-14 people, chosen by a lottery because of all the demand. 

This fall, Snap Pea embarked on its most ambitious pop-up dinner event yet, “The Banquet”– an immersive theatrical dining experience whereby diners eat and drink their way through a conceived world (a highly edited play). This event ran for six nights, and 600 tickets sold in less than an hour! By selling tickets in advance, pop-ups know exactly how many people are coming, how much food to prep, and there is no flux in expenditures or surprises. Running a regular restaurant, there’s really no way of knowing how many people will come through the door each day.

Diners enjoy conversation with other guests at communal tables at Snap Pea Underground dinner. Photo by Carolina Kammel.

Pop-ups allow chefs, bakers, food truck owners, aspiring restaurateurs and entrepreneurs a platform to showcase their ideas without the risky investments associated with opening a permanent brick-and-mortar. We love seeing some familiar faces providing interesting new culinary experiences through the pop-up realm!

Over the past year, Tanya Matta, former owner of beloved Durham bakery DaisyCakes, has been introducing some of her new and experimental desserts through special ticketed pop-up tastings.

Tanya’s end goal is to find a space with a kitchen where she can hold pop-up dessert tastings, pastry classes and special events. Part of the vision for this concept, MATTA, is also to open the space to up-and-coming chefs from our area and beyond. “It would be so great to be able to provide an opportunity for these individuals to showcase their talents and provide a unique dining experience for guests,” Tanya says.

One of the most challenging parts of pop-ups is building an audience, and without a public-facing storefront, people don’t simply stumble upon it. Following local chefs, bakers, influencers and venues on social media is one of the best ways to get advance notice of these events.

It also helps when the pop-up is associated with an existing entity that assists with visibility and promotion. In the upcoming Durham Food Hall, for instance, one of their 10 vendor stalls will be a dedicated pop-up space running for six months at a time (for which the Hall is currently accepting applications).

American Tobacco Campus (ATC) is also showing their support of entrepreneurs through a pop-up concept that launched this summer. Located in a street-level, 1,483-square-foot space close to DPAC and Durham Bulls Athletic Park, PopUp @ American Tobacco Campus regularly features new entrepreneurs and their concepts. Visitors might experience a new coffee brand for a few weeks, then a fresh idea in yoga and then an apparel line. At least two more pop-up announcements are expected in 2018, including East Durham Bake Shop, which sets up a Thanksgiving holiday pop-up from November 5-21. The shop will be open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m., and will serve handmade pies from its Thanksgiving menu, freshly baked pastries, Carrboro Coffee Roasters coffee, organic tea and fresh bottled juice. Customers will be able to pre-order baked goods for Thanksgiving, too.

Caballo Rojo, serving small batch, artisan Venezuelan coffee, was the first (out of 40 original applicants) to utilize the ATC space in August. “This is a huge opportunity for our small business as we look to expand our operations into the Triangle’s fast-growing retail market,” says Gabriela Kavanaugh, owner of Caballo Rojo and whose family has long worked in the coffee industry. Boricua Soul food truck, which specializes in Puerto Rican and Southern cuisine, opened in the space during the month of September.

The pop-ups at ATC run for two to three weeks at a time, which could evolve over time based on vendor and customer feedback, but having a narrow period of availability certainly creates more urgency to visit the shop for the short time it’s open. 

Pop-ups are also a creative way to utilize a space during its “off time.” You may recall Maze Taco, an experimental pop-up taqueria that ran for five weeks last spring out of Ninth Street Bakery after regular business hours.

Maze Taco came about after a series of charity dinners Adam Sobsey held on the patio at Ninth Street Bakery in collaboration with owner Ari Berenbaum. As the charity dinners evolved, Ari approached Adam to do something more regularly on the patio space at night. Adam partnered up with Zeke Firestein, who had recently retired his food truck, Zeke’s Meats, to create a high-quality, but simple (and more importantly, affordable) dining experience downtown. Pop-ups allow for this because the upfront cost is low and a long-term expensive lease is also not an issue.

According to Adam and Zeke, the best thing about running a temporary pop-up restaurant was how fully they got to interact with the clientele on a daily basis and how congenial that made the entire experience for everyone. “A pop-up clears the way for a direct and pure relationship between restaurateur and customer, and it also streamlines the sometimes convoluted business of running a restaurant,” Adam says. “It was very refreshing to be a part of that kind of culinary experience.” 

Adam felt fortunate to have been invited by the owner to use his bakery after hours (as Little Rocket Man did for the past three months) and would love to see other established businesses employ this piggybacking model. And it makes sense: Why let all the equipment and space sit dormant during a good portion of the day or night when a new concept could use it as a starting point and generate new buzz and business during those “off times”?

Maze’s experimental pop-up proved that people would come out to the location after hours; so much so, that Ari soon after introduced Little Rocket Man, a pop-up on the patio that specialized in tasty and affordable Korean food, which came to a close in September when Chef Savannah Miller moved on to a new company. “There’s always the possibility of another pop-up happening in the future,” Savannah says. “Little Rocket Man wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last.”

The traditional model of opening a restaurant doesn’t really lend itself to taking risks and dabbling in the unknown because one’s entire livelihood depends on the success of the business – there’s too much at stake. With a pop-up, however, there is room for experimentation, because one bad night won’t sink the ship. And with that kind of freedom, creativity can flourish – yielding a truly special (albeit fleeting) experience for diners looking for something outside the norm. 

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Amber Watson

Amber Watson

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