Some restaurants have even ditched menus and devoted themselves to only food served by pop-up chefs
Atlanta has always featured a strong pop-up scene, but over the past few years, more restaurant owners have opened their kitchens to these small-scale food operations. While the pandemic pushed some restaurants toward pop-ups to help offset the cost of rent and other overhead costs, others simply see it as a way to invest in a more robust dining landscape, give back to the community, and support people in positions they once found themselves in years ago.
When Nicholas Stinson, owner of Gato, helped jump-start the pop-up scene a decade ago, he wanted to showcase food he felt Atlanta lacked. He began by inviting out-of-town chefs to cook in the tiny Candler Park neighborhood kitchen, before eventually launching a ramen pop-up called Gato Arigato with Atlanta chef Allen Suh, featuring handmade noodles. Later, Gato hosted Little Bear chef Jarrett Stieber’s pop-up, Eat Me Speak Me, and then chefs Parnass Savang and Rod Lassiter with Talat Market. Both restaurants are now open in Summerhill.
Talat Market was the last pop-up Stinson hosted before he paused that side of the business to devote his energy to developing Gato’s own dinner menu. But during the first year of the pandemic, he re-welcomed chefs back to the kitchen to keep the restaurant stable, including weekend breakfasts from Taiwanese American pop-up Mighty Hans and dinners three times a week from Gigi’s Italian Kitchen.
As a neighborhood spot, Gato relies on its locals, many of whom Stinson says moved away during the health crisis or were takeout regulars and not quite ready to dine in again until very recently. This caused Gato’s once-predictable sales levels to vary from week to week. That, coupled with the industry staffing shortage and interest from pop-up chefs, made the switch back to pop-ups practical for Stinson.
“If they’re going to be sharing the space for an extended period of time, it’s a business partnership,” Stinson says. He also sees it as an opportunity to diversify the dining scene in Atlanta. Stinson anticipates scaling back to one pop-up at a time once the restaurant stabilizes again.
Gato isn’t the only business looking to pop-ups to help bolster sales. Sceptre Brewing Arts in Decatur did away with the traditional kitchen model altogether after its chef left two years ago. In May 2020, the brewery turned to chefs they knew who cooked at festivals. Now, the brewery constantly rotates its pop-up offerings and sells more food than it did when it had a chef on staff. According to head brewer Trevor Jones, selling food from pop-ups helps keep overhead costs low and offers a wider variety of food on the menu, which ultimately draws more people to the brewery.
“So far, it’s been really amazing, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to having our own kitchen,” Jones says. “Atlanta in general is really excited about rotating food options, and there’s just so much talent here that we’ll never run out of people to do pop-ups, so it really is an awesome win-win.”
Like most restaurants hosting pop-ups, Sceptre receives a portion of the proceeds from food sales from these events. In exchange, chefs have a space to cook, support with promoting their food, and a reliable customer base. The variety of food served at the brewery each week also showcases Atlanta’s diverse culinary communities.
That’s what Shane Pringle and Tim Song, owners of Boggs Social & Supply in West End, appreciate about their pop-up business model, too.
While the two always intended for the neighborhood spot to be open-ended and free to evolve, they initially saw themselves hosting different food trucks while making most of their profits off of drink sales from the bar. The pandemic changed those plans. Since the kitchen resembles a small commercial prep kitchen and they had relationships with some pop-up chefs, the partners decided to pivot and become a self-described “pop-up emporium.”
“Everybody was in survival mode there for 2020,” Pringle says. “It was a very symbiotic thing too: [Pop-ups] needed customers, and we needed people to come in and drink.”
“I feel like it’s a pivot point for a lot of people that want to get into food or [who] lost restaurants and want to start again,” Song adds. “It is extremely important that it keeps happening.”
Boggs charges a production fee that’s prorated based on the cost to operate the building monthly. Pringle and Song say they’re not likely to move away from the pop-up model. Rather, they hope to eventually host multiple chefs a night.
Other restaurant owners, many of whom once operated as pop-ups themselves, also recognize these roving kitchens as a unique art. The pop-up format lends itself to a certain creativity and experimentation, which allows these businesses to be more accessible and less financially risky than opening a restaurant. There’s no need to sign a lease or enlist investors. For some chefs and food entrepreneurs, a pop-up provides them the freedom to learn how to run a business on their own terms, while building a customer base and gathering resources for the future.
“[Pop-ups are] really important because otherwise you have these super creative people that can bring amazing things to the culinary scene, but then they can’t because they just don’t have the resources,” says Anita Hsu, co-owner of Sweet Auburn BBQ, which hosts pop-ups primarily focused on Asian and Asian-influenced cuisine.
The Poncey-Highland restaurant offers its space to local chefs, bringing them in on slower business days to increase foot traffic. Pop-ups serve the food, and the Sweet Auburn BBQ staff sells drinks. Those bar sales and the additional exposure keep the collaboration profitable, so there’s no fee for the pop-up to partner with the restaurant.
Hsu says she and her brother Howard plan to continue hosting other chefs and are interested in offering kitchen residences, particularly during late-night service, for pop-up chefs who might want to stick around for longer periods of time. Keeping this as part of the business model is not only beneficial to the restaurant, Hsu says, but to the community. It also becomes a springboard for future restaurants opening in Atlanta.
Community is the reason why George DeMeglio, owner of A Mano in Old Fourth Ward, began hosting pop-ups at the Italian restaurant in 2018. Before the restaurant even opened, he toyed with the idea of sharing the space with others in the industry, and since it made business sense to stay open only five days a week, pop-ups naturally filled the void. A Mano often hosts pop-ups like Happy Seed, the Bite Of Korea, the Cereal Lab, and Korean Fusion in the kitchen and the parking lot. Sometimes A Mano sets up a bar outside to sell drinks alongside the pop-ups.
DeMeglio charges $70 to cover the dumpster and utilities used during these kitchen takeovers, but says the collaboration isn’t about making money.
“From the beginning, I’ve looked at [my restaurant] as being about community, and community consists of your staff, your guests, your neighborhood and the restaurant community,” DeMeglio says. “I see [pop-ups] as an essential part of keeping a vibrant food scene in our city. Does it need to evolve more? No, it just needs to continue to be there to offer that avenue to these aspiring young chefs.”
DeMeglio plans to continue sharing kitchen space with pop-ups at the second location of A Mano, opening in the Capitol View neighborhood next year.
Luis Martinez, chef and owner of My Abuelas Food, wanted his Puerto Rican restaurant, which transitioned back into a pop-up after finishing its residency at Spindle Kitchen in December 2021, to provide an avenue for minority chefs, allowing them to iron out their vision in the My Abuelas kitchen.
“That’s what success means to us: to be able to allow other people to also have a moment to also see if that’s their passion, because that’s what we had,” Martinez says. “It was imperative for us to learn if this is really the road that we wanted to take, and we hope that that’s what we are able to do for other people as well.”
Martinez always intended to make pop-ups part of his restaurant, especially when it operated out of Spindle Kitchen, now home to pop-up Glide Pizza. He wanted to carry on the vision of the Old Fourth Ward location, which served as an incubator for several pop-ups before My Abuelas began the residency there in 2020. Kitchen takeovers really took off during the pandemic as a way to help others make money, but evolved into an outlet for minority-owned pop-ups — including Vegan X, Phew’s Pies, and Gorditas ATL — to share their creativity, culture, and food in a safe space. My Abuelas charged a $150 kitchen fee for the day, and staff who wanted to work the pop-up supported it on the day of the event.
For Hope Webb, co-owner and general manager of Filipino restaurant Estrellita in Grant Park, opening the restaurant to Filipino food pop-ups and bakers helps raise awareness of the variety of food from the Philippines. Since Estrellita doesn’t typically serve pastries, she naturally gravitated toward Filipino bakers, like Three Lola’s Bake Shop, Baolicious, the Real Deal Bakery, and Seven Fingers Baked Goods, filling that gap for the restaurant.
“One thing that we really, really wanted to show was a solid unified front when it came to our culture and our community just in general,” Webb says, adding that the Filipino food community didn’t yet have roots in Atlanta at the time. “The only way to do this is if we all show community first — community over competition.”
A common thread through all of these partnerships is this sense of camaraderie as Webb describes it. There’s informal mentorship, from sharing business knowledge, to guiding someone through appropriate menu pricing, to even assisting a fledgling business in the design of a permanent restaurant location.
“Being in the restaurant business, we’re naturally people who like to serve others,” Hsu says. “To me, what better compliment than to be able to share your knowledge with someone else?”
But the learning process goes both ways. For Stinson, the first pop-ups at Gato helped him pick up the techniques that would eventually allow him to confidently launch the restaurant’s own menu. Today, the pop-ups he hosts inspire him and offer different perspectives on food and service.
“I always learn the magic of why we started,” Martinez says. “At the end of the day, through collaboration, there is growth no matter what. As you open the door for somebody else, a door is being opened for you. It might not be right away, but it will happen in the future. I’m a big believer in that.”
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