Chefs like Grant Achatz, Rene Redzepi and Dan Barber certainly believe in the power of the pop-up, having embraced experimental restaurant concepts in the last few years. But what about those who’ve yet to establish themselves in their own right before deviating from the traditional restaurant model? For a current wave of local food-focused entrepreneurs, the ability to experiment could be the thing that yields success.
Take Joint Venture. Chef Danny Newberg found himself disenchanted and discouraged by the negative experiences and seemingly broken systems he encountered in traditional kitchens, and wanted to reinvent how preparing and sharing a meal can be done. “I love food; I don’t love restaurants,” Newberg admits.
His first JV dinner was in March of 2015, when he was still thinking about opening a permanent spot. He realized he was only pursuing a restaurant because that’s the typical progression as a chef, and he let go of this idea when he saw those close to him struggling with their own places.
Since embracing a nomadic approach, Newberg’s hosted events at various locations near and far. He’s faced challenges, sure: Because he functions without a space, it’s been hard to form a permanent team, and he’s bought too much for events where people don’t show up. But he’s also had plenty of freedom to experiment. He works with friends, artists, farmers and foragers; an assistant who helps with “everything that’s not cooking”; and whatever “random people” want to come when he travels. Seeing meals as opportunities for collaboration and creative expression, he’s receptive to inquiries for private events, as long as those interested are open to telling him what their dreams are.
Newberg doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, but he knows he wants to continue to bring food and people together through a simple, alternative way of eating that’s not quite a restaurant or a pop-up. He might move to Mexico, or run an experimental community event space upstate. He’ll “see what happens,” but as long as he’s traveling, and learning with the flexibility to re-conceptualize, he’ll be satisfied.
There’s a purity to Newberg’s approach and an appreciation for simplicty that’s shared by Oxalis, a Brooklyn-based pop-up that doesn’t hesitate to identify itself as such. This brainchild of longtime friends Nico Russell and Steve Wong also seeks to better connect those preparing food with those eating it, focusing on “simple and natural” ingredients.
But Russell and Wong don’t want to be nomadic indefinitely. They began hosting dinners in March 2016 at places like Kitchen NYC, Fitzcarraldo, Egg and, most recently, the Brooklyn Kitchen to help pay for business expenses as they’ve worked through their longer-term plans, experimenting and ruling things out for a permanent location. Through their pop-ups, they’ve played with the pace of service, portion sizes and overall meal length, as well as tested their market.
They want to create an energetic dining experience inspired by the bistros Russell spent time in while working with Restaurant Daniel’s catering arm in France, and are looking at brick-and-mortar locations at the Prospect Heights–Fort Greene nexus with hopes to debut a permanent space next year. They recognize the challenge of continuing to create varied experiences for guests who frequently return to a permanent location and plan to offer their future permanent space as a pop-up location to others like them.
Oxalis and Joint Venture meals can range in price, with the potential to be more costly. This isn’t so with the Blue Light Speak Cheesy, Andrea Chetakian’s consistently casual grilled cheese pop-up. When Chetakian worked at the Rialto Cafe, a breakfast spot in Southern California, she was given the green light to use it as her own space on Friday nights. With help from a chef friend, she created her first grilled cheese menu.
After relocating herself and her business to Greenpoint last year, she jumped at the opportunity to make use of Budin’s seemingly underutilized counter space. She’s been slinging sandwiches there for about a year now with help from a small team that runs her operation out of the coffee shop on Friday and Saturday mornings. Her typical week can vary, with stints in office spaces, breweries or anywhere “with a cool vibe that doesn’t already have food.” But on Sunday, Chetakian is at Budin, serving a carb-heavy brunch menu that doesn’t stray too far from what her customers may already be familiar with, while allowing her to test the waters for what she hopes to eventually be a permanent spot elsewhere.
The physical labor associated with her current business model can be exhausting, and frequently changing locations make storage and deliveries difficult. While she’s become adept at streamlining her process for being mobile, she doesn’t want to be impermanent indefinitely.
Chetakian (whose love of wordplay is apparent not only in the name of her company, but also in menu items like “figgy smalls” and “chevre chase”) dreams of opening a neighborhood breakfast café with an open kitchen, where customers and staff can get to know each other and become friends. But she needs to be able to envision herself somewhere for a long time before making the leap to a permanent spot and, like Newberg, she doesn’t yet know where that will be.
While the exact futures of these impermanent restaurant concepts aren’t yet clear, the collective desire to create intimate dining experiences and connect providers and consumers to each other in a more meaningful way is. Perhaps the temporality of an experience is the very thing that unites those sharing it. And in the case of these select businesses, at least, even when locations are temporary, talent, ambition and dedication are not.