7 Steps for Opening a Pop-Up Restaurant

Unoccupied table in restaurant.
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Opening a pop-up restaurant includes choosing the right location, setting up a mobile kitchen, and promoting your concept on social media. They offer many of the same benefits as a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, without the high cost of opening. Many chefs use pop-ups as a way to expand their culinary careers, while others use pop-ups as a way to level the dining field, offering gourmet food at affordable prices. Whatever the reason for opening, most pop-ups go through the same opening procedure.

Decide on a Purpose for Your Pop-Up Restaurant

There are several different reasons for opening a pop-up restaurant. Some professional chefs open their pop-ups to build their culinary reputation since the short-term nature of a pop-up allows chefs total freedom and creativity in the kitchen. Others open a pop-up restaurant to test out a restaurant concept, using it as an avenue to entice both the public and investors. On a more philosophical note, some chefs use pop-ups as a way to offer gourmet dining at reduced prices so that everyone can enjoy it. Lastly, pop-ups are sometimes used as a vehicle for fundraising by civic and community groups.

Choose a Location

A pop-up restaurant location can be anywhere, as long as it’s safe for cooking and serving food. When looking for locations, consider the size and logistics of setting up a mobile kitchen and temporary dining room. Will it have access to electricity, sewer, and running water? Lack of these items doesn't make the concept impossible, but you need to figure out how to work around such issues.

Another option for a pop-up restaurant is an already existing restaurant space—for example, renting a diner that serves only breakfast and lunch. The owners of the diner receive a percentage of the profits to cover water, sewer, electricity, gas, and any other associated expenses. The benefit of hosting a pop-up restaurant in an existing space is the access to infrastructure and the free marketing that the existing owner will use to bring customers to the location.

Apply for Insurance, Permits, and Licenses

Truly underground pop-up restaurants don’t usually bother with licenses or insurance, but that's not a good practice. You need to be legal and avoid any potential legal trouble if problems should arise. Check with your local town or state authorities about what types of temporary permits you’ll need before you open.

Write and Price a Pop-Up Menu

Most people who go to a pop-up restaurant are looking for a food adventure—something unique and creative. Add to this a limited amount of space for storage and cooking, and most pop-up restaurants feature a set menu instead of an a la carte menu. Providing a prix fixe menu allows you to charge a set amount per person, as well as for synchronicity of plating and service. Chefs love to introduce courses, and it works best when all the diners are served in unison.

Set Up a Mobile Kitchen

At the heart of your pop-up restaurant is the kitchen. Your mobile restaurant kitchen design will depend on the space and whether electricity and water are available. Of course, if you are renting an existing restaurant, you won’t have to worry about such logistics. Unfortunately, not all owners will have the budget for a full restaurant rental, and will need to get creative with induction burners, using pots as deep fryers, and preparing items off-site whenever possible.

Set Up a Temporary Dining Room

Depending on how long your pop-up restaurant is going to run, you can rent tables, chairs, and linens. If your pop-up is small enough, you may be able to purchase used seating relatively inexpensively. The design of a pop-up restaurant should be a balance between a welcoming ambiance and comfortable seating capacity. Unlike in a typical restaurant, where you try to pack in enough customers to keep busy and turn a profit, you can be a little more relaxed. There is also room to play with different dining concepts, such as customer self-service. Pop-ups are largely experimental, and the clientele tends to be more open-minded.

Advertise Your Pop-Up

​Decide if your pop-up will be open or closed to the public. Closed means your restaurant is open to only those people you invite. Like food trucks, many pop-up restaurants use social media as their primary means of advertising. Nightly specials are posted on sites like Facebook and Twitter. If you have the time, you can create a free website for your pop-up at sites like Yola or Wix. Usually, these websites are a single page with an address, menu, and price. In the world of pop-up restaurants, less is more.