How restaurants pivoted to pop-ups during the pandemic

By Samantha Lande

Pop-ups are a great way to road test possible new concepts or menus. While making any pivot can feel daunting, pop-ups during a pandemic are an even heavier lift. Yet — faced with never-before-seen challenges — many chefs are throwing out a lifesaver for their business by trying a new concept or revamping a current one to meet state guidelines for COVID-19. We spoke with a few chefs who have been down this road to learn their suggestions for popping up new concepts.

Staying True to Your Soul

Chef Yia Vang is no stranger to pop-ups. He successfully hosted his pop-up restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen, for the past few years at different locations in Minnesota before preparing to open his first brick-and-mortar concept, Vinai, this year. 

“The funny thing is, we were often looked at as the little guys [because we didn’t have] a brick-and-mortar [location], and now we are looked to for our expertise [with pop-ups],” says Vang, who named Vinai after the refugee camp he grew up in — located in present-day Laos — after his family fled the Vietnam War and violence against the Hmong people.

At one point, Chef Vang’s pop-up took shape as a food trailer parked at Sociable Cider Werks, a cider brewery in Minneapolis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when indoor dining closed and it came time to shift entirely to carryout, Chef Vang knew he needed to remain true to the cuisine of his home country of Laos and his Hmong background, and took the time to truly evaluate the meaning of his food. “I could have pivoted to burgers and tater tots, but I knew that wasn’t who I was as a chef,” he says. He encourages chefs to look inward when popping up another concept: “Is the food you make about a certain space and ambiance? How can we translate all of that into the food that we are having people come to pick up?”

That means thinking about every detail of the meal, not just the food: the packaging, the plating, how well it travels or reheats, and more. Chef Vang took a “deeper dive into his own culture” and decided that family meals most closely reflected the Hmong-Laotian ideology. “Our people will take care of each other, no matter what happens,” he says, thinking about how, while they were living in Laos, his mom would always have more than enough food on the table for guests to take for what often was a half-day walk home. The four elements that were always on the table — protein, rice, vegetables and hot sauce — are the backbone of his family meals at Union Hmong kitchen. Of course, “doggy bags” will be provided for any leftovers.

Narrowing the Scope

When Chef Genevieve Vang (no relation to Chef Yia Vang) was forced to shut down her restaurant Bangkok 96 — located in the suburbs of Detroit — it was an easy pivot to takeout, which they had always done. But her newer location, Bangkok 96 Street Food, was housed in a popular new food hall, Detroit Shipping Company, in an area that was very much destination dining in the heart of downtown. With forced shut-downs by the state, Chef Vang decided to turn her food hall stall into a ghost kitchen.

She “put the panic and worry aside,” and started intense research on how to open and operate a ghost kitchen. “I had to take a different approach — [considering] what packaging would keep my food fresh for 45 minutes or more, [for example] — and I had to really refine my menu without losing the soul of my food,” she says.

 With all of the new things to worry about, she found it was essential to change in other ways, especially with a 75% decrease in her staffing. Chef Vang asked herself, “What can we do to simplify cooking in this small kitchen, and how can we make things more efficient, even if it means we pay a little more to stress less?” For Chef Vang, that meant investing in pre-chopped vegetables, or trying to use a smaller ingredient list across all dishes, for example.

If the ghost kitchen proves successful, she may eventually open another one and rent out the space to other vendors, or keep running both the ghost kitchen and food stall simultaneously. “The future is challenging; it’s important to keep thinking outside the box,” she says.

Revamping Your Current Space

Many chefs right now are left with large, empty spaces that can’t be used for their intended purpose, as is the case with Chef Mark Woinoski, CEC, CCA, executive chef at the West Point Club, located on the U.S. Military Academy campus in West Point, New York.

His day-to-day usually consisted of catering or lavish events at the club, which all came to a halt in March 2020, resulting in a loss of $5 million in revenues for the club. “I really missed fine dining,” says Chef Woinoski, who decided to temporarily turn the unused ballroom into a fine-dining restaurant to give the military officers and students the opportunity to experience something different. “The closest fine-dining restaurant is over an hour away,” he says. “This gives people a chance to have ‘date night’ and experience something other than takeout pizza.” Takeout menus have included everything from fried oysters to bleu cheese-crusted filet and wine to go.

Chef Stephanie Izard, chef/proprietor of Girl & The Goat, Little Goat, and Duck Duck Goat in Chicago, has always had packed dining rooms in the past, but with the city’s restrictions due to the pandemic, she started to rethink her spaces. Inside her Little Goat Diner, which is currently only open for to-go orders, she popped up a new bakery concept called Sugargoat, where people can grab pastries with innovative flavors, including one that tastes like French fries dipped in milkshakes.

“This past spring, I baked more than I have in years. It’s such a comforting form of cooking,” Chef Izard says. “Faith [Taheny, Little Goat’s sous chef] and I started to think of all of our favorite childhood flavor combinations.” Sugargoat offerings include cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pies and ice cream.

And with a robust catering team already in place, it was a no-brainer for her to also shift into creating meal kits like pork shank or goat tacos to ship nationally, so people across the country could cook her food at home.

Avoid Complacency

With many restaurants across the country shifting to takeout and small businesses clamoring for support, it’s critical to stay focused. “It’s really important our to-go hits the mark. We can’t be lazy about that,” says Chef Yia Vang, emphasizing customers can truly see a difference. “Taking care of our customers is still key — and takeout right now is the only way we can still communicate with people.”

On that note, at a time when restaurant workers are often feeling defeated or afraid for their health, Chef Vang also thinks it’s key to communicate with his staff often. “It’s important to keep iterating that we will take care of each other and our guests,” he says. “We have to keep moving forward.”