Popping up

The covid pandemic forced much of the UK online for its shopping for the best part of a year and in the process has arguably accelerated the death of The High Street. Cheaper and more convenient, the former high street giants – those that have survived beyond a branded website owned by sports direct – have been forced into a future that is mostly online.

A recent YouGov report found that ‘A plurality of consumers – ranging from 44% to 83% – across all markets in our study agree that their shopping habits have changed as a result of the pandemic.’ This huge shift, already underway before the pandemic, has now become more of a reality than ever before. It is significant in several ways and goes beyond price and convenience. When every high street looks the same, with the same brands, it doesn’t really matter what town you are in, just another homogenised retail space like any other – you might as well go online.

In 2018, Ikea’s head of sustainability Steve Howard, suggested candidly that the world had hit ‘peak stuff’. The mountains of amazon boxes outside people’s homes each week may suggest there is some way to go on that, but it does suggest a change in our culture is happening. We heard the buzz phrase ‘Experience Economy’ a few years back now and ever more increasingly people are spending their money collecting these experiences rather than stuff.

The growth of music festivals – and their evolution into experiential art spaces as much as rock gigs on big stages. Instagram and TikTok, FOMO are all signifiers of a shift in how we view the world. In world tourism they talk of the Bourdain effect. Where the popularity of the cuisine available at the destination becomes a major factor in where people go on holiday. Whatever this shift is labelled, people are increasingly looking for something different, new experiences to collect like they did teaspoons or vinyl records.

But what does this mean? In one sense its potentially worrying, high streets have been a constant in UK life, as have city centre retail and even retail parks. But Amazon and Covid have blown them away leaving formerly prime real estate empty and over-priced and this is where the opportunity lies for us, the independent and mobile food & drink sector.

The urban centres of the UK now have lots of empty space asking to be filled and if you get it right, they are affordable. Cities do not exist for shops, although many of our towns and cities first grew around markets and the answer is not more of the same, it is about creating unique experiences within these spaces – which also means great service. All of which presents an opportunity – the UK high streets are full of empty kitchen spaces and restaurants that could be activated by interesting pop ups.

Mission Chinese

The first pop up I’m aware of was Mission Chinese in San Francisco. Where chef Danny Bowien opened a Chinese – fusion experimental restaurant inside an existing Chinese takeaway that continued to cook the more standard Chinese menu you’d expect. While mission served up dishes such as kung pao pastrami delighting visitors. The chefs were having fun and being creative with the food and it caught people’s attention, the fact that they operated essentially out of view of most allowed them to have fun and take risks but also, those risks and that sense of fun are what pulled in the punters. It was something totally different, but if it had been created in its own dedicated sight it may have been seen as pretentious or intentionally provocative. The restaurant fit out would cost the earth and in the middle of the last recession – would never have been viable. Instead, they honed their product in relative anonymity and built Mission on word of mouth, great vibes, and food.


My first experience of a proper pop up was the meateasy in south London. A burger restaurant with cocktails (they’re the guys that put cocktails in jam jars – they couldn’t afford glassware, what’s your excuse!) They also kicked off the no boking craze that many restaurants tried over the past decade. The meat easy was all about atmosphere. You could only get there by walking through the site of a derelict pub, with instructions daubed in red paint on the walls like blood. But as soon as you walked In your senses were smashed by noise colour, the smell of beef on a grill and the hum of people shouting excitedly. A one month hustle to try to raise some cash evolved into a 4 month ’residency’ and became the Meat Liquor group of restaurants.

Market Row: Brixton

Market row was a near derelict although very pretty shopping arcade / indoor market in Brixton South London that was largely empty and earmarked for the classic London ‘luxury high rise with a supermarket express store.’ The locals were none too pleased with the idea and got the site grade 2 listed status. The property owners brought in a company called space makers who offered up the shops in the arcade for free for three months and held a competition to see who had the best concepts. The rents would then be increased incrementally over the year and those that did not want to continue or where it didn’t work out, left, and were replaced by more competition entrants. Market Row in Brixton is arguably the foodie location in London, with over 20 indie restaurants, bars, galleries, and artisanal shops. Some argue that it has become a victim of its own success and symbolises the gentrification that has disrupted communities in the city. However, I would suggest that confuses cause and consequence and gets policy makers and property speculators off the hook. The original plan was to knockdown the town centre to build flats the locals couldn’t afford.

What Makes a successful pop up?

This really depends how you measure success and why you create the pop up. On one level its significantly lower risk, no long-term commitment, the chance to try or hone an idea, the opportunity to engage the public with your idea. At mission Chinese it was the freedom to be playful with food and cuisines, at Meateasy it was about raising funds to replace a stolen food truck but evolved into a restaurant concept. At Brixton, many people got the chance to try out their idea or dream without the massive risk of taking on leases and other commitments while walking away from a job, with a business hive mentality so start-ups could bounce ideas off each other and mentors. It also added value to the property owner’s investment as well as raising the profile of the area.

Arguably a successful pop up is one where you learnt whether your idea would work or were able to adapt it so that it did. Even if you decide that in reality your dream was more of a nightmare – but you got to walk away without crippling financial commitments, that’s kind of a success still. Imagine if you’d ploughed your life savings into a restaurant ad then realised you hated it?

Your pop up does not need to be polished perfection. If it is an honest and authentic idea people will be engaged by it. It’s a chance to listen to your customers and even change what you do and how. Its market research in real time. To learn what’s important to your customers, to take risks (but not with safety) that you might not be able to otherwise and to learn the nuts and bolts of running a food business. With so many department stores exiting the high street and some hospitality businesses doing the same, there are likely to be numerous opportunities for bricks and mortar pop ups. But before committing, run an authenticity risk assessment and ask yourself, is this an opportunity to take risks and try new concepts that will nurture your business, or is a landlord just looking to fill a space, or even worse, are they now seeing street food and pop ups as a like for like solution to their previous tenants – the new high street anchors.

Setting up a pop-up

A pop-up food business is still a food business and must adhere to all relevant legislation from food safety to health & safety and employment law.

You need to tell the local authority that you are going into the property to trade as it’s a material change to how you operate. If you are not currently a food business, you must register as such 28 days before you want to start trading. You will need liability insurance and to risk assess the various aspects of your business, food safety, fire, H&S, COSHH (Control of substances Hazardous to Health) & Covid. You and any staff will need to be trained in food safety to an appropriate level. You will also need to understand the allergen rules and how they relate to the food or drink you are producing. Apart from the registration, NCASS membership helps to cover the rest.

The law does not differentiate between mobile catering and fixed premises. It expects the food business to achieve the required safety levels or to not operate. If you can’t do it safely – you can’t do it. Whether in a tent or a kitchen. This means you must have appropriate handwashing facilities, appropriate refrigeration, or cool boxes (with temperatures monitored) and safe gas. This means armoured or hard-piped – not rubber hoses and jubilee clips.

Handwashing is essential to prevent cross contamination of the food. Neither gloves or anti-bacterial gel will be acceptable as alternatives.

Do not use domestic or camping appliances – use commercial grade catering equipment. Don’t buy a generator as you’ll rarely use it if at all.

You may need a licence from the council to operate even on private land.

Pop Up Markets

Arguably the cheapest way to get started in a food business, enhanced by the clustering with other similar businesses to become an event or destination. While shared marketing is a real bonus, it is not an excuse to let the event promoters do all the carrying. Your marketing should dovetail into theirs.

A pop-up stall allows you to get granular with your product. 1 dish to stand behind, with a couple of variable options. The punters literally voting with their feet. This is as raw as it gets. Face to face with your customers you can see their reaction before they speak.

They’re also safer right now mid-pandemic, and with the government backing small covid safe events as a means of enabling the unlocking safely, this could be the summer of pop-up markets and events, as winter draws in, we may see some of these successful events embedding themselves in former high street department stores and other unoccupied spaces.

Food Trucks

A considerable number of street food start-ups plan originally to run an American style food truck. As popularised by the movie ‘Chef’ However, they quickly find out they can’t. In the states (and depending on the state) food trucks travel to different sites (each day or even throughout the day, using social media to alert their potential customers where they will be and what they are selling. However, recent changes to street trading in East Cambridgeshire may herald the arrival of food trucks operating more freely so watch this space.

Sharing spaces

In the craft beer world, brewers will allow their facilities to be used by other brewers to make batches of their product. As the economic impact of covid unravels in the coming months there are likely to be opportunities for a similar type of practice in catering and food production.

Should I pop up?

Creating a pop up can be an extremely valuable way of testing the water before committing to a longer-term project. It can help with market research and product development, possibly introduce you to potential investors and build a customer base, for reasonably low risk or cost. But hospitality at the micro level is extremely competitive and to be successful you really need to bring a new idea, either a totally new or fresh concept in terms of food or taking an existing product and giving it a new lease of life through superior ingredients or cooking processes. Above all else, it’s the authenticity of your passion for what you do that should shine through, creating an experience that your customers will want to come back for again and again.

– Mark Laurie

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