Matt Duckor of Bon Appétit vehemently declared this past summer that pop-up restaurants are over. But unless the eyes deceive, “pop-up” restaurants are alive and well. This year's Dîner en Blanc, a giant outdoor “dinner party”with a mandatory all-white dress code, garnered as much attention as ever, and diners are still willing to pay upward of $150 to snag a seat at the annual event and at other pop-up venues.
Duckor published something of a treatise, comparing pop-ups to “actual” restaurants and touting the superiority of the latter. But given the enduring presence of pop-ups, Duckor looks either extremely bitter or simply blind to the facts.
Maybe what he meant to say is that he would like pop-up restaurants to be over. In his words, a pop-up restaurant occurs when “a visiting chef takes over another chef's kitchen for a night.” His clear-cut definition speaks volumes about his opinion of pop-ups: Despite all the hype, the idea is “cute” at best, boring and overrated at worst. Duckor's main gripe with these establishments is that, as he puts it, “I leave feeling like a guinea pig, or even worse, like I've just paid a lot of money for a half-baked, phoned-in excuse for a chef to visit town and hang out with his buddies.” In the unusually methodical piece, Duckor goes on to enumerate five bullet-pointed reasons pop-ups are past their expiration date.
For example, pop-ups must often occur in a space that hasn't originally been designed for preparing food. There's nothing quite like a Brooklyn loft with exposed brick and edgy artwork to attract a crowd of “adventurous” Manhattan foodies. But despite the potential intrigue of an alternative space, the lack of proper kitchen ventilation is enough to kill the vibe. Fumes of hot oil and black smoke can quickly destroy the ambience. Even chef Ludo Lefebvre, who specializes in pop-ups, appreciates the value of an actual brick-and-mortar setting and the kitchen that comes with it. In a “real” kitchen, “everything is in the same place, the same stuff. It's my house,” he says.
Yet, despite Duckor's fighting words, some pop-ups do have real kitchens. Such is the case for Bunna Café, an Ethiopian pop-up “located” in Brooklyn at 1084 Flushing Ave. The location does not actually belong to Bunna—it is a local bar out of which Bunna has received permission to serve lunch Monday through Friday. For three months, it has sustained this lunch program, and has set up shop at seven or eight bars in total. Sam Saverance, one of Bunna's co-founders, thinks the inconsistency of space is just a chance to “build up a following in different spaces, and [learn] how we work in different spaces.”
Bunna may be exempt from the space aspect of Duckor's grievance, but perhaps falls victim to his next criticism, regarding the “hype machine.” The excitement surrounding pop-ups, he says, simply cannot match that which surrounds typical restaurants. Great restaurants are the products of time and effort. They are ideas that have to be sculpted for months, if not years, before they can actually open their doors. Pop-ups, on the other hand, can open and close so quickly that they take away from the special, one-time-only nature of an opening.
Saverance has explained, however, that Bunna wasn't a thrown-together, last-minute, just-for-fun idea. There is, in fact, a meaningful story behind the restaurant. Saverance, a graphic designer, had gone to Ethiopia to try to help jump-start a community of freelance designers in the region. It turned out that the timing was simply not right for such an endeavor, but Saverance fell in love with Ethiopian culture during his stay.
He realized that opening a restaurant would be “an honest and creative way” to represent Ethiopian culture in the U.S. He started his project as a pop-up in order to bring out the best of an unknown scene. First came a secret dinner party where seats were filled via email. There, Saverance and his team brought out more than just food: They performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, called “Bunna,” and played regional music. The vibe of excitement combined with comfort confirmed for them that their idea could truly flourish.
Even so, Duckor argues that the pop-up restaurant's integrity is threatened by the “stakes” involved. That is, pop-ups lack the stakes that a normal restaurant must face. The risk of failure does not represent the same fatal blow to a pop-up. Its temporary nature makes failure punishment-free, and its chefs do not submit to long-term contracts. Pop-ups “let chefs be creative”—which is all well and good, Duckor says, but this also means that “they don't need to hone their creativity—or truly learn from their mistakes.” The beauty of an ongoing restaurant is the learning process. Chefs become better and better, ultimately dishing out the cream of the crop. The commitment of a 15-year lease is such that it fosters an approach focused on longevity and continuing success. Duckor asserts that even “long-term pop-ups” like Bunna are “often not on the same playing field” as real restaurants, which are more competitive but bring out the best and the brightest.
That more stakes means more legitimacy can hardly be denied. But the low stakes of pop-ups allow otherwise unlikely restaurateurs to test their concepts in the market at a lower risk and with greater financial feasibility. So the decision comes down to either having no restaurant at all, or being a “less legitimate” restaurant. The choice was clear for Saverance. He fundamentally disagrees with Duckor's claim that there is less integrity in popping-up. Saverance believes that a restaurant's credibility has nothing to do with its logistics, but rather “how you make” it: how it is conceptualized, and how well it delivers food to the table. The fact that Bunna is a pop-up doesn't make it any less legitimate than an “actual” restaurant. The same passion and care is invested into each dish.
And deliver it does, despite Duckor's worries about the quality of pop-up food. He rants about an alleged lack of discipline, which kills the dining experience: “When young chefs are left with complete freedom and control ... the final product suffers.” He feels that pop-ups encourage chefs to “go wild” in the kitchen, and that their insanity is mistaken for creativity. Bunna's menu, though, is simple and satisfying, featuring dishes such as misir wot (split red lentils cooked with spicy berbere sauce, red onion, ginger, garlic, and herbs) and yeter kik alicha (yellow split peas cooked with red onion, ginger, garlic, tomato, and a touch of yellow curry), all eaten with injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread).
Plus, despite what Duckor had said about the front-of-house etiquette in pop-ups—or lack thereof—I received excellent service during my meal at Bunna. That basic amenities, such as new silverware with each course, constant water refilling, and timely food delivery, are disregarded in pop-ups is, in my experience, a misconception. I was seated quickly and was immediately offered a menu accompanied with a glass of water. I ordered the feast and, for a mere $11, got five of the six options. (In the spirit of adventure, I had the waitress choose for me.) In mere minutes, an arrangement of spicy deliciousness—the components of which I could not, in all honesty, identify—appeared before me. According to Ethiopian custom, one eats with one's hands, using the injera as a utensil of sorts. The meal satiated my hunger and left me feeling content. I struggled to find any legitimacy in Duckor's manifesto.
My fellow diner Will Kurtz, a local artist, shared similar feelings. He loved the food—it was all vegetarian with plenty of variety. Bunna has found a niche in the vegetarian community and attracted quite the following. He also considered the pop-up concept as the only “way for people to get going.” Furthermore, he believed the pop-up restaurants that Duckor criticized were fundamentally different from this place. Bunna and the single-night, guest-appearance pop-ups Duckor describes are “two different things,” says Kurtz, like upstart galleries in Brooklyn and the Chelsea Art Walk.
Popping-up helped Saverance realize his goal: He will soon have a real brick-and-mortar location for Bunna. But Bunna is not going to do away with popping-up. The system helps create a following and adds an air of excitement to the restaurant.
Other regions outside of New York City are catching on to the pop-up concept. Cara Mangini, who runs a local and organic pop-up called Little Eatery out of a Columbus, Ohio, grocer, stands behind the concept because “pop-ups give everyone a chance to follow their food dreams with lower risk,” encouraging entrepreneurship. “When we are ready for our retail space,” she adds, “we can hit the ground running.”
Duckor may be right that his type of super-temporary, laissez-faire pop-up is dwindling—and that's no surprise. But this different, Bunna-like breed of pop-up is flourishing. It exists somewhere between pop-up and restaurant, and is created out of a desire for more than just hype and experimentation. It has a clear goal: to turn into a real restaurant. Especially in the current economic market, we should fully embrace the legitimacy of ventures like Bunna.
Skeptics, take note: Before Bunna, I had never eaten Ethiopian food. Now I crave it. Here's to pop-ups and the delicious opportunities they provide.