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Pop-up Gourmet Food Stores

June 9, 2010

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

In the world of food and retailing, you never know what's going to pop up next -- literally. Two chefs in Oakland, California are demonstrating just how such a concept can work by setting out their wares in an ex-streetcar depot in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as "an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood."

Open from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in May, the Pop-Up General Store was not expected to re-open for several more weeks, so the 200+ shoppers who turned up left with their bags crammed full of "restaurant quality" food to eat in the comfort of their own homes.

Chris Lee and Samin Nosrat came up with the idea of selling the dishes they most enjoyed cooking directly to consumers after Eccolo, the restaurant where they both worked as chefs, closed down. Along with chefs from other restaurants loved by locals, they set up shop selling exceptional food made from exceptional ingredients. The offerings include heat-and-serve and frozen dishes.

The Chronicle said that Mr. Lee and Ms. Nosrat's store "is part of the new phenomenon of temporary eateries, farm stands and even one 'underground market' that spring up here and there around the Bay Area, sometimes regularly in the same location, sometimes not."

Ms. Nosrat told the Chronicle they had no plan initially but didn't want people to forget them while they decided what to do next. Their objective is to "create community and cook the food we love to cook and share it with people - without all the externalities of the restaurant ... When it's just between us and the customers, something more direct is spoken to people -- they can see it and feel it and taste it ... So it just magically happened."

During their first session in January, the pair were on their own and filled just 28 orders. The May session had more than a dozen stalls. Prices were high but so was enthusiasm. Customers said they were willing to pay for quality and wanted "to support their own." One made the fairly obvious observation that it still costs less than eating out.

That said, the project isn't yet profitable although Ms. Nosrat is concerned that "building too quickly might jeopardize quality." It is far more important to "develop the sustainable food system" and help the cooks "make their products known." Fine-tuning with pantry items rather than expansion is one such development. Others may pop up in due course.

Discussion Questions: What do you think of the potential of local food-centered pop-up stores? Are chefs and consumers in other parts of the U.S. likely to be interested in such a niche outlet?

Discussion Questions:

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Are chefs and consumers in other parts of the U.S. likely to be interested in the type of pop-up food stores described in the San Francisco Chronicle article?


We all keep talking about the time-starved customer, but it's also time to talk about the adventurous customer who's looking for a relatively inexpensive thrill to put on the dinner table. This trend is going to be a topic of conversation long after the economy is on strong footing again.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

Pop stores are increasing in many areas--it's a great way to bring new products and concepts forward. They have been a great success in seasonal markets and product intros--small space, great visibility, attract attention.

Gourmet Food is endlessly appealing but it's difficult to create the right image, venue, and selection as a growth opportunity with trend focused consumers. Getting the right exposure and feedback on a limited investment would be significant here--pop-ups can be used to an important advantage.

Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

I placed my first order with Pop-Up General Store last week, and I pick it up in Oakland tonight. I'm excited--the food looks absolutely incredible. It does make me wonder if we're at the beginning of a new Farmers-Market-like movement, with prepared food.

Another local Bay Area example: an outstanding local Singaporean chef, whose restaurant closed last year, is now cooking Singaporean food in a shared kitchen and delivering it to homes ever Thursday evening. The food is amazing. His overhead is far lower. Is that an expandable concept?

The Bay Area is often on the forefront of things like this. Like Farmers Markets, I expect these ideas will be highly local, but perhaps there is a role for broader facilitating organizations. We'll see how these ideas grow.

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Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies

Yes, I believe it's a big idea waiting to happen. There's an old retail adage: "go where the customers are," and today, customers are not going to focused areas like malls as much as they used to (internet). Therefore, the notion of getting out to them while staying very flexible and focused seems like the next generation of that old, simple idea.

For inspiration, look at the success of the "Taco Trucks" in L.A.--using social media, they pop-up in a different place (usually near a club or gathering spot) every day and do a fantastic business. Makes sense to do the same thing on a different level and even with something other than food.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Brand, Strategy & Design, WD Partners

Another idea and concept put in action that could start a national trend. I think it is exciting and look forward to seeing it happen in more areas.

We always look for something different to eat. This is not that much different from the "Carry-out window" many restaurants have opened. But somehow I see this as more intriguing and exciting. It adds a spark to the evening meal.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

We talked about the pop up stores taking advantage of empty store fronts before Christmas. It was a way to bring goods to consumers at the shoppers' convenience.

Consumers want prepared foods but they are not always conveniently accessible, appealing or perceived as a price value. Buying from chefs with credibility and an array of dishes that appeal to the eye and taste has great potential. No doubt others will follow the pioneers of Oakland and cross back East to my neck of the woods. I am looking forward to making my first purchase.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

Since writing this piece, I've read one about NYC in the NY Times which casts a shadow over such enterprises--licensing requirements for the kitchens in which the food is prepared. While it is obviously important to take precautions and prevent the use of unhygienic equipment, extremely small food producers could be shut down before they even get started if they have to go through the expense and sometimes restrictive practices involved in accreditation. The NYT article was about the success and popularity of individual cooks who were selling food that their customers loved BUT preparing it in home kitchens. While these obviously cannot and will not meet industrial or professional standards, there will have to be some flexibility in regulations in order for them to survive and thrive. Hopefully demand will help ensure supply.

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Bernice Hurst, Owner, Fine Food Network

Bernice's piece left me with a lot of questions (which the original Chronicle article--unsurprisingly--left unanswered as well): What about health/safety issues? We talk a lot on RW about food safety, and this kind of set-up seems problematic, not substantial enough to be able to absorb many of the regulatory burdens that a permanent business would, yet nevertheless needing oversight; Marketing? Given the ephemeral nature of this, how does word get out? (BTW, this particular location is a rather marginal, high-crime/low foot traffic area, so walk-in business must be non-existent.)


In some respects this reminds me a little of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck in L.A. that has developed a loyal following of customers that follow the truck's whereabouts on Twitter. Knowing where the truck will be at any given time is half the experience for their customers.

Beyond the quality of the food, which in both cases is apparently excellent, these guys are putting fun and adventure back into the equation for their customers.

As the lines between channels and concepts become increasingly blurred, I expect and sincerely HOPE to see more great concepts like this one.

Doug Stephens, President, Retail Prophet

The real beauty of this model is that their doors are only open for the 2 most important hours in their business day--most ready to go food retailers are bearing the costs of keeping customer service staff on for 10-12 hours, but 90% of their sales will be done from 5-7 pm. Using this model, the owners are employing cooking staff only, and are able to focus on productivity and quality in the kitchen. This should allow them to achieve profitability more easily.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the retail real estate industry to come up with sustainable leasing models that work for both retailer and developer.

Pat Wilkinson, Retail Marketing Consultant, Independent

This will work in high density city populations that have higher income people. the idea is sound as long as the finished product is high quality, and safe. Most rural areas could not do this, but in all major cities it could be successful. The other issue is permits, and politicians granting licenses to the pop-ups without stepping on other restaurants' toes in the immediate vicinity. I wouldn't want a pop-up kiosk outside of my establishment, so proper placement is critical.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

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