Looking to Start Your Foodservice Business? Begin with a Pop Up Restaurant Instead


Thinking to start a restaurant? Consider starting with a pop up instead. This month’s guest post by Austin Fabel of RestaurantMBA provides a guide to testing your restaurant concept with a pop up in a low-risk, low-cost, fun way.

So What Exactly Is A Pop Up Restaurant? – The Basics

A pop up restaurant is a temporary location to test out your menu, drink items, and overall concept. It’s also a great opportunity to get feedback from the community and make a little extra money on the side. Pop ups can be held pretty much anywhere you can host people, serve food, and have a good time.

What Does A Typical Pop Up Look Like?

There’s really no wrong way to host a pop up. That’s the best part about it! It is uniquely you and that shines through in the experience your customers will have. An example pop up might look something like this:

  • French themed at a local event space
  • Mild French decorations to set the tone and add to the overall experience
  • 20-30 Guests
  • 2-3 Dishes – Appetizer soup, main course, dessert
  • Two Wine Pairings – one for the meal, a dessert wine for enjoying after dinner

The options are limitless; you can truly provide a one of a kind experience. Test out your ideal restaurant menu and cook up some family recipes to learn how they restaurant with your guests before you invest time and money into a brick and mortar location.

How Do I Get People To Come? What If No One Comes?

Today’s access to social media means you can be your own marketing team — and other online tools like EventBrite mean you you can make your own custom page to sell tickets to your event with little to no cost outside of the investment of your time.

While you should be able to easily promote the event to friends and family and through social media in order to ensure a good turnout, EventBrite will allow you to cancel the event ahead of time for free if you don’t sell enough tickets. You can even market your event and see how many tickets you sell before lining up a location. This way you know exactly how many people are coming and how much money you could potentially make before moving far into planning. Using this tactic you ensure there is no way you lose money or end up with an empty venue.

How Do I Get In Touch with Venues?

Unless you already have access to a space large enough to accommodate your guests, you’re going to have to find a venue. The good news is there’s no shortage of ideal places, and many can help with your marketing efforts as well.

  • Local Restaurants – reach out to some of your favorite local places and partner with them. This can look like a profit share, a special menu selection, or a one night only event featuring you and your menu.
  • Catering Businesses – all catering businesses have industrial kitchens and all the utensils you could possibly need. Typically they also have a dining space where they showcase their menus for upcoming weddings and events. Partner with a catering company and allow them to share in the profits or add some of their own culinary flare to host a great event. Oftentimes they will also have connections to wait staff, making finding event labor very easy (more on this below; or if you’re interested in starting a catering business, consider this great resource by Nisbets).
  • Find a Venue Space – venue spaces frequently have industrial kitchens. These spaces can be rented out and usually have set prices. While this route may be much easier and straightforward, paying for rented space will cut into your profits, so price and plan the rest of your event accordingly.
  • Other Venues and Spaces – as we mentioned earlier, really any space that will accommodate your cooking requirements will do. Get creative! Museums, parks, your mom’s backyard, or your friend’s rooftop deck all might be good options.

Be sure to ask good questions about the pricing, number of guests you can accommodate, and whether you may need a permit, etc. as you are making your decision about where to host your event.

How Many Pop Ups Should I Host?

As many as you want! We recommend starting out with one pop up restaurant per quarter or four a year. Pop ups can be great fun; give a few a shot and once you feel you can ramp it up, go for it!

What Will Hosting A Pop Up Teach Me?

Hands On Food Business Experience!

Many people are culinary masters in their home kitchens, but cooking for 20 to 30 people at a time is a whole different ballgame. On top of being able to cook, you need to be able to manage the other logistical aspects of the pop up as well. Learning to juggle all of these things at once and ensure every aspect of your pop up remains high quality will give you the real life experience of what it feels like to manage a food business.

Hiring and Managing A Staff

Part of managing a food business is hiring great staff. A good server can make or break a dining experience, so it’s important to ensure these employees know what is expected of them. For your first time, we recommend reaching out to any friends or family who would be willing to work for free. Not only does this help cut down on costs but can also make the event more fun for you and helps keep you in your comfort zone.

You can also utilize local classified ads and Craigslist. Another idea is to ask those who serve you on your next night out. Have you had a server who really made your experience? Ask them if they’d be willing to work one weeknight for a few hours for hourly pay and tips. Many servers love taking on events outside of their normal shift.

Planning and Financial Experience

While the financial planning for a pop up is extremely easy and straightforward, doing so is important as it will give you a look at what to expect from labor costs, food costs, and other costs associated with hosting your event based on the number of guests you expect. By using EventBrite’s feature to pre-sell your event, you can get a complete picture of how much customers will pay, cost per customer, and how much you will make before ever spending a dime on location or supplies.

What A Pop Up Gives You

Validation From Potential Customers

While I’m sure your spouse and friends love everything you cook, it can be helpful to get a second (outside) opinion. People can mean well, and often will love your food more because they love you, which isn’t always a good reading on the market.

By inviting everyone in your social network, in your area, and some special ideal guests you’ll get honest feedback on everything. Not only will you know what people liked or would change, but this also gives you an opportunity to collect contact information and personally invite guests to future events.

Know Whether This Is The Right Path For You

Everyone who has a passion for food loves delighting others with their cooking. This, however, is just one aspect of owning a foodservice business. You’ll have to deal with other variables such as unruly customers, staff that isn’t getting the job done, and cooking under pressure.

Cooking for money is completely different from cooking in your home. Operating a pop up restaurant is an absolute must if this is your first experience in the professional food industry. Life in the food business can be the most rewarding career imaginable, but like any other, it comes with its unique challenges. Hosting a pop up gives you personal insight into this world and is the easiest and cheapest way to learn, grow, test your menu, and win!

Local Tastemaker Status

Reach out to local bloggers, neighborhood publications, or those with an audience in your area. Researching these people and personally inviting them to come enjoy your food can be a great way to get a feature article or a shout out that dramatically boosts your reach and celebrity. Most bloggers provide their basic contact info on their website. Sending an email or filling out a contact form will often result in a quick response, especially when inviting them to a free event. Everyone loves to feel wanted. This may be limited in certain locations but it never hurts to reach out. The worst they can say is no.


A pop up is a great way to make additional income with your passion. If you continue to host pop ups, the extra income can be a very nice side gig. If you’re considering opening a brick-and-mortar location, the money you earn and the reputation you develop from your pop up can be very helpful in attracting investors.

You can also expect to gain the irreplaceable satisfaction that drives every chef and every home cook: Delighting diners with something you made just for them.

Austin Fabel is the Director of Development at Fresh Hospitality and RestaurantMBA, with a mission to “Help Entrepreneurs Grow” and provide foodservice businesses with the information and resources they need to be successful. He is also the host of the RestaurantMBA Podcast.

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