Retail

Food Pop-Ups Move Up To Retail’s Adult Table

About 1,200 miles, one time zone and significant differences in climate and culture separate New Orleans and Philadelphia, but on Monday and Tuesday nights, that distance can seem much smaller. That’s when Yinzer’s Amazing Cheesesteaks, a 3-year-old food pop-up, serves its goods to bar patrons in this city of 24-hour bars, Mardi Gras and the raging football Saints.

The bread isn’t the same as one would get at the classic cheesesteak providers up north — customers who are transplants from Philly tend to point that out in a polite but firm way, as though defending the honor of their home city. But Yinzer’s cheesesteaks are not meant to be an exact replica of the famous product featured on countless travel and food TV shows, said Co-Owner Michael Woodhull, who also works as a bartender (and happens to be from Pittsburgh), and who helped to launch the popular, three-person business — which also offers delivery — “because my bar needed pop-ups.”

New Orleans often does things its own way, and that’s the story with pop-ups.

Pop-Up Growth

Sure, retail pop-ups are a hot thing in much of the country — Payless, the discount shoe seller, recently opened up its own pop-up stores, joining what amounts to an ongoing pop-up party — but here in New Orleans (location of the PYMNTS gumbo-appreciation bureau), you are more likely to come across a food pop-up than another form of that temporary retail offering. In fact, a recent local music show over the past week featured a sushi pop-up in the back, about 10 feet away from where the lead guitarist stood, the smell of garlic luring in fans, drinkers and college students on a pub crawl.

Granted, some food pop-ups, such as Yinzer’s Amazing Cheesesteaks, are more accurately described as semi-permanent, as they serve the same drinking establishments (in this case, usually five or so) on the same nights (Mondays and Tuesdays). Still, the food pop-up scene, both here in New Orleans and in other U.S. locations, offers a glimpse into a growing part of retail, and lessons for other such endeavors.

Pop-Up Planning

As in any other successful revenue effort, more planning is better than scant planning — even though the strength of a pop-up, food or otherwise, often comes from the feeling of spontaneity and surprise. “Over-planning is key,” said Iso Rabins, a California chef, in a recent interview. “A pop-up is like opening a new restaurant every night; something is going to go wrong that you didn’t predict — an oven won’t work, or a piece of equipment won’t be there. You just need to be creative (and calm), to find a solution. The more scenarios you’ve planned for, the more easily you’ll be able to deal with the unexpected.”

And as is the case in all entrepreneurial pursuits, realism is better than out-of-control idealism. “Predicting accurate financial projections and netting a worthwhile profit are the greatest challenges of a pop-up shop. In the beginning, strive to break even,” said Samuel Monsour, another chef.

Plans change, of course.

With Yinzer’s, it originally operated only on Mondays, starting in the evening and then running until the inventory was exhausted, and offering delivery to a small group of bars, via which the operation developed a loyal group of regulars who more or less made those cheesesteaks their main Monday night meal. Recently, though, Yinzer’s began selling on Tuesdays, too, though without delivery. One of the main reasons? According to Woodhull, selling the product on that extra night means he and his co-workers don’t have to worry so much about being left with too many extra cheesesteaks or cheesesteak supplies left over from Mondays. “We don’t have to worry about selling out on Monday,” he said.

Switching Concepts

That was hardly the biggest change, either. Echoing comments from other pop-up veterans from across the country, Woodhull advised others who want to take this path to “not be afraid of scrapping your entire concept.” He should know. The business started with stuffed cheesy bread before switching to tacos and then, of all items, Hungarian food, which he said “was so much work, and which needed to sell out 100 percent before making a profit.”

Scrapped concepts or not, some food pop-ups transform into permanent restaurants.

Among them is Saison in San Francisco, which earned “three Michelin star status” in 2017, according to Food & Wine — and where the cost of dinner per person can run $400 or so. Some pop-ups-turned-permanent-restaurants have celebrity chefs involved with them, and others had to rely on Kickstarter to get the capital to scale. But the common thread, of course, is wowing consumers with food and then building out from there — a rule that also applies to any retail operation that has plans for pop-ups that go beyond temporary affairs or one-time holiday marketing events (as was the case with casual dining operator Chili’s and its recent online pop-up store selling clothing and other swag).

Cash Concerns

Back in New Orleans, Yinzer’s is still dealing with its expansion to Tuesdays. As well, Woodhull is learning something about how consumers like — and don’t like — to pay. When Yinzer’s started, it was cash only but the business eventually got around to accepting payment cards, thanks to consumer demand (“We’d buy something, but we don’t have any cash,” is how Woodhull described it) and the availability of small, relatively low-cost point-of-sale systems for small (tiny?) merchants.

When accepting credit cards, Yinzer’s charges a $1 fee to offset its transaction costs. Customers tend to accept paying that fee, which struck Woodhull as odd. After all, when the business was cash-only, customers tended to resist the effort of walking a few feet to the nearest ATM and (very often, depending on one’s financial institution) paying the fee to get cash out of there to fund their cheesesteak impulses. Now they will gladly pay that credit card fee.

“No one wants to pay the ATM but they have no issue with the similar credit card fee. It doesn’t make much sense, but nothing does,” he chuckled.

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