Pop! Goes Convention (With "Pop-Up" Restaurants)

A trendy business model with less risk, overhead and limitation is taking root.
May 23, 2013

The intersection of 79th and Third is close to the bull’s-eye center of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, whose residents are as rich, glamorous and well-fed as those of any piece of terra firma.

Standing there on a frigid January night, one could wander in any direction, and before going a mile not help but fall into a world-class restaurant: Daniel, Ladurée, Sasabune, Luke’s Lobster, Café Boulud, Campagnola, Caravaggio, Uva—you can’t make a mistake.

But for our delicious meal tonight, instead of going north, south, east or west, we are going straight up, ascending 11 stories to the apartment of Ryan Umane. He’s a 28-year-old up-and-coming chef who has grabbed his spatula and cast-iron frying pan and joined the pop-up restaurant movement. Testaments to culinary and entrepreneurial innovation, pop-ups first blossomed as a fad some five years ago, then became a wave, and now show every sign of sticking around as a thriving alternative to the traditional restaurant experience.

Pop-up is a phenomenon of loose parameters. Purists reserve the term for the most evanescent of the species, the small place with a haphazard ambience but a molto delizioso cuisine that shows up in an empty storefront one day but is likely to be gone the next, unless it turns into a whopping success. Ad Hoc in Napa, for instance, started as a placeholder restaurant but was so popular it became a brand, spinning off a cookbook and a fried chicken mix.

The pop-up is a big tent, with flexible definitions. It encompasses young talents trying to build a following, midcareer chefs looking to stretch or experiment, and even established restaurateurs having a temporary fling. For example, a few years back Danny Meyer, arguably New York’s leading culinary impresario, set up a temporary restaurant called Sandwiched at the Whitney Museum to sell designer—what else?—sandwiches during the Biennial exhibit.

Often there is as much innovation with the venue as with the menu: There is the chef who took over an established restaurant on the night it wasn’t open, and the chef who floated his beer-based recipes to a different bar every week, and the clever conglomerateur whose space serves as a bakery until lunchtime and then as a nail salon until dark. Best served by the “here today, gone tomorrow” ephemerality are the customers, the ever-growing legion of foodies who use social media and word-of-mouth to discover the moment when a hot new spot emerges, or when an established chef slums it a bit downtown.

There’s a guerrilla treasure hunt excitement to the experience that anyone who has ever gone to a hole-in-the-wall club or gallery to hear a new band or see a new artist can surely appreciate.

Among those who benefit most from pop-ups are young chefs, talented newcomers who frankly lack the patience for a lengthy apprenticeship and who want to test their ability before what is ultimately the only audience that counts: the customers. Umane is just such a newcomer, although he does possess a unique advantage, having been one of the standouts of the FOX reality show Master-Chef last year. Umane brings more of a reputation than most of his peers.

One journalist wondered whether Umane was a “brilliant competitor or a ruthless jackass,” but those are not the words that immediately leap to mind after an evening in his company. “That was me who people saw on TV,” says the tall, soft-spoken Umane, “but an excited, ramped-up version. If anything, the producers wanted me to act crazier.”

The producers would be disappointed tonight; crazy just isn’t on the menu. Umane has been very careful about how best to put his celebrity in the service of his talent. Rejecting the idea of joining the staff of a restaurant—“I don’t have the patience for such a long and difficult path”—he also passed on some initial overtures from investors to put him in a restaurant of his own. “I’m not ready for that,” he says. “You need a lot of experience, and it would have been just too big a leap. Just ordering the ingredients to feed a large number of people is a skill that takes more experience.”

Instead, he’s focused on smaller-sized options that would showcase his ability while allowing him to retain control of the operation. Operating a food truck was one thought. Those wheeled kitchens have for decades served hot lunches to hardhats, lately showing up on urban avenues in force, bringing a whole new level of sophistication to carry-out fare (and with their mobility, enjoying a bit of the pop-up’s “here today, gone tomorrow, get it while it’s hot” appeal).

But Umane was more drawn to a dinner party model. The ruthless jackass, it turns out, is actually a convivial host. He liked the idea of bringing people together in the informality of his apartment, and presenting a menu as unknown to the guests as they were to one another.

He began the parties last fall, drawing a young crowd, people predominantly in their 20s and 30s looking for social experience along with the chow. “So far, every dinner has had a different vibe and group energy,” Umane says. “That’s been the best part.”

Umane hosts two or three parties a week, each with 10 to 12 guests, at $40 a plate. For that, a guest gets a four-course meal and nearly four hours of conversation. The ingredients aren’t pricey, but their preparation is delightful—on this night there is puréed cauliflower, mushroom ragout with polenta, braised short ribs and pound cake with poached pear. Umane also provides a sangria punch, with guests permitted to bring wine or other beverages.

He announces the parties via social media, and invites people to sign up; every one, so far, has had a waiting list. He does not announce a menu. “I want people to be surprised,” he says. “I don’t want people to be turned off by what they think they like or don’t like.”

The big challenge is to grow the business. “I could easily do four parties a week. After that, I need to start catering more; the parties are a good way to find clients for catering jobs.”

Another challenge is staying abreast of the social media sites. “It’s not only finding the new ones, but finding the right ones and avoiding the ones where you seem to have grown stale.”

Overall, Umane’s goal is to remain in control. “I think I know what that means. I have to keep meeting people, keep evolving, stay creative. But so far things have moved faster than I ever thought they would, and I’m loving every minute.” S

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Spy and Esquire. His most recent work is an e-book about the late musician and actor Levon Helm. This is his first article for SUCCESS.

 

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