A pop-up restaurant is one of the hottest new trends in the food service industry. These temporary dining experiences “pop up” in unconventional spaces for a short time, ranging from just an evening to a few weeks or months.
Chefs and entrepreneurs are increasingly turning to pop-ups as a way to take their culinary visions off the beaten path. Pop-ups provide more flexibility than permanent brick-and-mortar restaurants, allowing you to showcase specific cuisines, ingredients, collaborations, event themes, and atmospheric designs without long-term commitments. They can help build your reputation and test concepts before opening a permanent establishment.
Launching a successful pop-up takes extensive planning, dedication, stress management, and financial acumen. You essentially put together all elements of an entire restaurant for a short window of time.
This guide covers the process in detail, from crafting the concept to budgeting, location scouting, hiring staff, promoting, designing the space, prepping the food and service operations.
With careful coordination and forethought, you can create a pop-up dining experience that wows guests while accomplishing your business or creative goals.
Crafting a Compelling Pop-Up Restaurant Concept
The first step is developing a unique concept that will excite potential guests and align with your capabilities and resources. Take time to brainstorm creative ideas and assess practical elements before moving forward.
Theme and Cuisine
What specific cuisine, dish, ingredient or preparation technique do you want to highlight at the pop-up? Think outside the box of your usual repertoire. Pop-ups are great for exploring new culinary territory or collaborations.
- Spotlight lesser known regional cuisines from around the world
- Dedicate the menu to perfecting one dish, like Pho, Tacos al Pastor, Smörgåsbord or Feijoada
- Focus on cooking with one main seasonal ingredient at its peak
- Fuse cuisines from different cultures into modern hybrid dishes
- Reimagine childhood favorite foods in sophisticated ways
- Host guest chefs from other restaurants for collaboration dinners
- Recreate historical recipes from a specific era or event
The options are endless. Choose a focus that energizes you creatively.
Experience and Ambiance
Envision the overall atmosphere you want guests to experience. This should align logically with the cuisine and themes.
- Upscale multi-course tasting menu served in an intimate, luxurious setting
- Lively street food bonanza with outdoor communal seating
- Refined cocktail party or winery dinner with jazz quartet
- Carnival snacks in a whimsical, edgy environment
- Refined afternoon tea service with floral accents
- Interactive stations where guests view cooking demos
Consider entertaining elements like live music, guest speakers, roaming performers, art displays, or craft/food activities to make the pop-up truly special.
Think about the spaces that would suit the experience you want to create. Be creative about alternatives to traditional restaurant locations.
- Vacant storefronts, warehouses, or art galleries
- Rooftops, courtyards, gardens, or farms
- Tricked out food trucks, RVs, or shipping containers
- Breweries, distilleries, or wineries
- Unused hotel ballrooms, suites, or outdoor terraces
- Movie theaters, museums, or other cultural venues
- Existing restaurants during off hours or partially closed sections
The space will impact layout, design, equipment needs and guest capacity. Keep location possibilities in mind while fleshing out the concept.
Schedule and Duration
Will this be a one night only affair or an ongoing series of events? Determine the timeframe that fits your goals.
- A single popup dinner for a special occasion
- A multi-course tasting menu offered on weekends over several weeks
- A late night menu on Fridays during a month
- Brunch pop-ups every Sunday for a season
- A weekly guest chef collaboration series
Consider your stamina for prepping, promoting and executing repeated events.
Are you trying to reach neighborhood locals, the general public or a niche audience like:
- Foodies seeking new culinary adventures
- Young professionals with disposable income
- Families looking for interactive weekend activities
- Adventurous date night couples
- Tourists wanting a taste of local flavors
- Aficionados of the cuisine, ingredient or beverages you’re showcasing
- Industry peers and media
Cater the experience, marketing and price points accordingly. Promoting strategically within your area is key.
Goals and Key Metrics
Be clear on what the purpose of the pop-up is for you. Common goals include:
- Generating interest before opening a permanent establishment
- Proving popularity of a concept to attract investors
- Gaining media exposure and improving your reputation
- Testing recipes and new techniques in a real-world setting
- Making supplemental income and keeping staff employed
- Networking and recruiting staff for future ventures
- Building your portfolio and resume
- Pursuing a creative passion project with less financial risk
Define key metrics like minimum number of covers, average spend per person, total revenue targets, and maximum budget. This focuses planning for financial viability.
Finding the Perfect Pop-Up Location
The location must offer the physical and operational features to facilitate your concept. Explore all options within and outside traditional restaurant spaces.
- Kitchen equipment like ovens, stoves, fridges, freezers, grills
- Adequate electricity, gas, ventilation, lighting
- Running water source and restroom facilities
- Space for cold/dry storage, food prep, dishwashing
- Garbage, recycling, grease disposal, cleaning access
- Tables, chairs, dishware, glassware, serving utensils
- Licensing, permits, insurance requirements
- Audiovisual capabilities if relevant
- Overall aesthetic aligned with cuisine and ambiance
- Suitable decor like features, layout, wall finishes and flooring
- Adjustable lighting – dim, vivid, natural, lamps, string, etc.
- Windows, outdoor access or garden space if desired
- Acoustics for sound enhancement or damping
- Heating, cooling, ventilation for guest comfort
- Convenient location for your customer demographic
- Parking availability and access for load-in/load-out
- ADA accessibility for guests
- Permitted hours of operation and noise restrictions
- Staff amenities like lockers, break area, changing room
Potential Spaces to Explore
- Vacant restaurant spaces between tenants
- Shared commercial kitchens designed for popups
- Bars, breweries, distilleries, and tasting rooms
- Hotel restaurants, ballrooms or event spaces
- Galleries, museums, community centers
- Outdoor city parks, rooftop gardens, courtyards
- Farms, vineyards, nurseries and agricultural land
- Your own home if permitted and suitable
Get creative. Assess all potential spaces in your area even if they are not typical restaurants. Look for hidden gems perfect for transformation.
Developing a Menu that Wows
The menu must align with your cuisine, experience goals, equipment and budget realities.
Menu Planning Considerations
- Dishes that highlight your signature culinary skills and flair
- Balancing creativity with crowd-pleasers and dietary options
- Ingredients that source locally and seasonally when possible
- Mix of appetizers, entrees, side dishes, desserts
- Simplicity for ease of preparation in potentially limited space
- Options compatible with equipment available onsite
- Ingredient costs and final pricing for profitability goals
- Theme/atmosphere cohesion from dishes to décor
- Flow between courses and dish preparation timing
- Staffing levels needed for each menu item
Finalizing the Dishes
Once you’ve created potential options, analyze and refine the menu:
- Which dishes best express the theme creatively?
- Is there variety in cooking techniques, textures, colors, and flavors?
- Are costs of key ingredients from suppliers within budget?
- Can the menu be consistently executed given venue restrictions?
- Are prices appropriate for disposable income of target guests?
- Does the menu meet minimum profitability metrics when priced?
Recipe test the finalized options. Tweak ingredients, technique and plating until each dish meets your quality standards. Design graphic menus for display and sharing online/physically.
Obtaining Permits and Securing Insurance
Pop-ups must comply with local health codes and ordinances to operate legally and safely. Research well in advance since licensing can take months.
Typical Permit Requirements
- Food service permit, license or zoning variance
- Food handler and alcohol compliance certificates
- Fire department inspection and occupancy certificates
- Health department certification for off-site or home kitchens
- Liquor license if providing alcohol
- Noise/sound amplification and curfew exemptions
- Local business license or temporary sales tax ID
- Sales tax collection and remittance procedures
- General liability to cover injury, damage, negligence claims
- Liquor liability if serving alcohol
- Foodborne illness coverage
- Workers compensation for employees
- Automotive insurance for any vehicles
Apply 1-2 months out. Turnaround can be slow, delaying other plans. If using a shared kitchen or event space, their permit may cover the fundamentals. Clarify this when booking.
Purchasing Equipment, Furniture and Decor
Create detailed lists of every physical item you’ll need and make a plan for obtaining it.
Culinary and Service Supplies
- Ingredients for dishes, beverages, cocktails, snacks
- Disposables like napkins, cups, straws, utensils
- Cookware like pots, pans, baking sheets, knives
- Plates, bowls, serving platters, boards, trays
- Glasses for beverages, candles, flowers
- Cutting boards, tongs, ladles, spatulas, pitchers
- Linens like dish towels, aprons, tablecloths, cloth napkins
- Service gear like chafing dishes, warmers, utensil caddies
- Coolers, ice, refrigeration needs for transport and storage
- Small wares like graters, juicers, peelers, shakers, trays
Take inventory of what you already own and make lists grouped by rental vs purchase. Check rental costs vs value of buying.
Furniture and Decor Elements
- Tables, chairs, bars, stools, banquettes, benches
- Carts, stands, shelving units, side tables, counters
- Lighting like string lights, lamps, lanterns, bulbs
- Table decor – vases, candles, flower arrangements
- Signage for branding, menu display, directional
- Draping, linens, runners for table dressing
- Props, art, greenery, centerpieces, menus, chalkboards
Factor transport needs based on furniture size, weight limitations, and load-in access.
Staffing Your Pop-Up
Recruiting and managing staff is critical to executing consistent, high quality service.
Key Roles to Fill
- Servers – Take orders, deliver courses, tend bar
- Cooks – Prep ingredients, execute menu, plate dishes
- Dishwashers – Clean plateware, utensils, pots, pans
- Expediters – Coordinate orders between stations
- Bussers – Clear courses, reset tables
- Host/Hostess – Greet guests, manage waitlists
- Bartenders – Prepare cocktails, pour drinks
- Barbacks – Stock bar, collect glassware, slice garnishes
- Managers – Oversee front and back of house operations
Scale the number of each position needed based on your concept, menu complexity, projected volume, and space.
- Post openings 2-3 months out stating role, pay, commitments
- Vet candidates’ availability, experience, attitude via phone, then in-person
- For key lead roles, audition chefs by having them cook a dish
- Conduct working interviews with potential servers and bartenders
- Check references thoroughly
- Notify hires 1 month out with employment agreements
- Host 2-3 training sessions leading up to opening
- Review menu, recipes, ingredients, plating in detail
- Conduct team-building exercises to foster camaraderie
- Delineate duties, expectations, standards for each role
- Discuss customer service principles and brand philosophy
- Train bar staff on pouring, inventory, popular cocktail recipes
- Cover ordering systems, point of sale operations
- Hold a full dress rehearsal with timed courses to test systems
Solid preparation ensures the team can work cohesively to deliver exceptional hospitality.
Promoting Your Pop-Up Effectively
Strong targeted marketing provides the foundation for a well-attended event.
Creating Initial Buzz
Start promoting 1-2 months ahead to pique interest. Share imaginative concept art, behind the scenes construction photos, ingredient sneak peeks via:
- Social media posts, stories, reels with catchy text
- Email newsletter with countdown, exclusive content for subscribers
- Press release sent to local publication
- Networking events related to hospitality/food industries
- Posters and flyers distributed in nearby high-traffic areas
Driving Ticket Sales
- Open reservations via website/phone 2-3 weeks out
- Email first access to your best customers
- Post online ads targeted locally by interests
- Contact influencers in the food scene for comp tickets
- Send reminders to those who booked as day nears
Leveraging Media and Influencers
- Pitch story ideas via calls and emails to food journalists
- Reach out to social media personalities about attending
- Send 3-5 comp VIP tickets to media reps
- Provide professional photography for outlets to feature
- Express gratitude if you get coverage by sharing on your platforms
Encouraging Engagement and Reviews
- Offer a prize drawing for checking in and posting photos
- Prompt happy guests to leave online ratings and reviews
- Respond politely to critical feedback
- Repost user generated content and appreciate mentions
- Send follow up email thanking guests after attending
Track reservations and monitor marketing metrics to forecast turnout. Adjust promotional tactics and outreach accordingly leading up to the event.
Decorating for Atmosphere and Functionality
Transforming a raw space into an inviting pop-up venue is equal parts artistry and engineering.
Front of House Decor Goals
- Visually support the cuisine, culture and themes
- Deliver the desired ambiance – liveliness, intimacy, novelty, etc.
- Guide guest flow with well-marked entrances/exits
- Display menus and specials attractively
- Add personality with lighting, greenery, artwork
- Create inviting, comfortable places to wait like bars and lounges
Back of House Functionality
- Signage providing directions around space
- Well-lit food prep, dish area, storage, garbage zones
- Adequate space between stations, no crowding
- Easy transfer paths between kitchen and dining room
- Staff areas for meals, belongings, quick breaks
Executing the Vision
- Sketch layouts showing kitchen, stations, furniture
- Gather decor elements like props, flooring, lighting
- Schedule load-in based on access hours
- Install signage, hooks, display shelving and counters
- Assemble stations – cooking, bar, beverage, dishwashing
- Set up furniture – bars, tables, benches, etc
- Add ambiance touches – greenery, art, flowers, chalkboards
- Stage table settings – glassware, napkins, plates, cutlery
- Check sightlines, test lighting schemes and music
The venue should facilitate smooth operations while wowing guests. Keep fine tuning until the space aligns with your creative vision.
Financial Considerations and Responsible Budgeting
Meticulous financial planning and data tracking ensures a profitable pop-up while minimizing risk.
Typical Pop-Up Restaurant Expenses
- Renting space and any equipment needed
- Food ingredients, beverages, cooking supplies
- Serving wares like glassware, plates, cutlery
- Furniture, lighting, decor elements
- Permits, licenses, legal fees, insurance
- Marketing costs like graphic design, ads
- Staffing – base pay, tips, bonuses
- Utilities like electricity, gas, internet, garbage
- Optional entertainment like music, decor
- Misc like parking, security, cleaning services
Revenue Goals and Metrics
- Define the capacity based on space and flow
- Project covers per day based on reservations
- Set menu prices based on ingredient costs and profit goals
- Calculate per person spend targets including beverages, tips
- Determine total sales needed daily/weekly to break even
Financial Tracking and Controls
- Create itemized budgets tracking all income and expenses
- Manage purchasing to not overspend on ingredients, decor
- Record inventory consumed each service for costing data
- Track staff hours to align labor budget to revenue
- Monitor actual spending vs revenue daily and adjust as needed
- Enforce cash handling procedures between services
With close oversight of finances, you can keep the venture profitable or pivot as needed.
Final Preparations Before Opening
The week before opening will be filled with critical last tasks. Maintain your stamina through late nights to cross everything off the list.
Facilities and Build Out
- Give space a deep clean before moving in equipment
- Set up lighting, decor, music, ambient features
- Build and style out all food/beverage stations
- Install directional and informational signage
- Finalize table layouts and centerpieces
- Ingredients and Supplies
- Place final food orders for specialty items with long lead times
- Pick up or receive all ingredients and double check you have enough for projected covers
- Label ingredients by station and date received
- Transport perishable items in coolers with ice packs if needed
- Stock beverages – liquor, beer, wine, mixers, juices, sodas
- Set up dry storage with backup servings of key ingredients
- Verify all cooking equipment, servingware, and smallwares are on site
- Print menus, signs, chalkboards and other decorative displays
- Staff Onboarding
- Communicate schedule expectations and send logistics reminders
- Distribute uniforms, review dress code
- Provide copies of health department certification
- Share staff meal policies and scheduling
- Assign lockers, storage areas for personal items
- Conduct in-depth menu tasting to experience each dish
- Review priority prep tasks that can be done ahead
- Deliver keys, alarm codes, parking information
- Systems and Operations
- Finalize positions, responsibilities for each team member
- Sync up points of sale and reservation systems
- Test all equipment – ovens, fridges, stereo, lighting, etc
- Clean and organize front and back of house thoroughly
- Establish prep lists and mise en place for each station
- Rehearse full service start to finish to test flow
- Stay positive through challenges and last minute fires by focusing on the imminent reward of seeing guests enjoy the fruits of your labor!
- Executing a Smooth and Successful Service
- Once the doors open, it’s showtime! Follow these tips for flawless services from start to finish.
- Before Service
- Arrive several hours early to triple check all systems
- Hold a pre-service team meeting to review specials, priorities
- Take staff meal orders and give time to eat before guests come
- Brew coffee, prepare批ickets, stock service areas
- Plate amuse bouches or welcome bites for early arrivals
- Dim lights, turn on ambient music, light candles
- Help staff finish side work and confirm they are ready
- During Service
- Greet first guests warmly and make small talk while seated
- Monitor pace of courses and clear finished plates promptly
- Communicate 86’d items immediately between stations
- Restock dishes, glassware, utensils before running out
- Keep up energy and focus even during the rush
- Taste each course before it goes out for consistency
- Adjust portions if a dish is moving faster/slower than expected
- Monitor noise level, music volume, lighting for ambiance
- Address any complaints professionally and with empathy
- Closing Out the Night
- Thank guests sincerely and say goodbye as they leave
- Review any feedback from comment cards or online
- Reconcile payments and finish closing out POS system
- Break down stations, clean equipment, store perishables
- Reset tables and common areas to prepare for next service
- Debrief with team on successes and areas of improvement
- Express gratitude to everyone for their efforts before leaving
- After each service, identify lessons learned and areas needing adjustment. Consistently delivering excellent hospitality makes the hard work worthwhile.
- Post Pop-Up Wrap Up and Retrospective
- Winding down properly after the final service prevents chaotic loose ends. Use this time to reflect and set future goals.
- Breaking Down the Physical Space
- Clean kitchen thoroughly including appliances, floors, storage
- Clean dining space – floors, windows, bathrooms, furniture
- Disassemble any rented furniture and equipment
- Remove all signage, decorations, rubbish and recyclables
- Inventory remaining supplies – donate, store, or discard anything expired
- Review rental contracts for any exit obligations like repairs
- Schedule pickups or drop offs for rental returns
- Evaluating Operational Metrics
- Calculate total covers/revenue and how they compare to goals
- Review customer feedback surveys and online reviews
- Analyze sales data to determine most popular menu items
- Compare actual budgets to projections for insights
- Document lessons learned, challenges and successes
- Hold team gathering to celebrate efforts and gather feedback
- Future Planning
- Back up key photos, videos, recipes, and documents
- Discuss possibilities for repetition or new concepts
- Outline operational or business model adjustments for next time
- Strategize how to improve marketing reach and engagement
- Brainstorm creative ways to enhance the guest experience
- Personally reflect on your biggest lessons and accomplishments
Savor your wins and growth opportunities. The bittersweet process of closing a chapter just leads to new culinary adventures ahead!
Follow Up Communications
- Send thank you notes or small gifts to key partners like vendors, landlords, and sponsors
- Email guests who provided feedback thanking them for insights
- Share select professional photos from the event for guests to cherish
- Post announcements about the pop-up closing on social channels
- Notify media contacts of metrics and success stories for potential additional coverage
Staff and Recruitment
- Provide references and letters of recommendation for team members
- Set up alerts for open permanent positions that could be a fit
- Add impressive staff to your network on LinkedIn
- Compensate staff for hours worked and offer small bonuses
- Get contact info from standout individuals for future gigs
Accounting and Legal Obligations
- Pay any outstanding vendor invoices
- Process payroll and W-2/1099 tax forms
- File required sales tax payments from revenue
- Review insurance policies and cancel if no longer needed
- Terminate or non-renew required permits and licenses
- Manage any contracted payback terms for investors
- Register your pop-up name as a formal business if continuing
- Identify investors or partners interested in permanent spaces
- Research costs and steps for a permanent liquor license
- Develop a business plan highlighting successes and opportunities
- Search for affordable retail spaces ideal for a brick and mortar
- Create a timeline and budget for ramping up operations again
With proper wrap up, your pop-up provides a foundation for whatever comes next in your culinary journey.
Wrapping It Up
While starting a pop-up restaurant is intensive, the rewards of sharing your food and vision directly with guests make it worthwhile. With extensive planning across concept, marketing, team, logistics and finances, you can bring your temporary culinary experience to life.
Immerse yourself in every aspect of the process, from location scouting to decorating to service execution. Problem solve creatively when challenges arise. Build connections in your community through thoughtful hospitality and design.
Most importantly, approach each service with passion, positivity and purpose. By infusing the pop-up with your unique ethos and care, you provide guests a dining experience they’ll remember long after the doors close.