Pop Goes the People

Pop-ups fill more than just empty storefronts; they fill our need for discounts.

As far as winsome, widespread trends go, we just might pop till we drop. It started with those makeshift outlets for Halloween costumes and Christmas trinkets peddled in vacated storefronts that can’t possibly lease for what the landlord is asking. But these days, with more empty storefronts begging for a refill, we’re witnessing the rise of the highly respectable pop-up. It’s the hybrid vehicle of choice for inventive chefs, green fashionistas, artists and even compassionate educators, as seen from Brooklyn’s indie designer venues, L.A.’s vintage pop-ups all the way to Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

As reported in Good, the makeshift daycare for toddlers was set up by demonstrators to accommodate mothers wishing to join the historic protests amid the closing of schools in Cairo. Along with ordinary moms, some teachers were among the many professionals storming Tahrir, and the kids were kept at a safe distance and entertained with activities like painting or doing their own micro-marches around the square.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the pop-up is the brainchild of a needy entrepreneurial spirit frustrated by banks, greedy landlords and bureaucracy – the father of convention. If a bunch of anti-war hippies could transform Yasgur’s Farm in rural New York into a weekend music festival venue, why can’t eager foodies in our cities strut their saute pans in makeshift cafes in empty storefronts or parked alongside a street fair? It’s all part of what EcoSalon has described as part of a foodie underground movement – which is stirring great excitement in L.A., NYC and San Francisco, where foodies feed.

Take the now-closed Mission Street Food pop-up feed house, housed until June in the unassuming Lung Shan Chinese take-out joint in San Francisco. Each week, a guest chef prepped top fair for diners in the Mission District, a veritable indie culinary ghetto known as the go-to place for innovative small plates and ethnic fusion. By infiltrating underused kitchens here and elsewhere in the Bay Area, young talented chefs can live out the fantasy without the risk of losing their coats.

It all sprung from the creative vision of chef Anthony Myint and his wife, Karen Leibowitz, who started out vending pork belly sandwiches from a taco truck before moving the operation into the Chinese restaurant. Myint also has opened Commonwealth, a progressive American high-end eatery which donates part of its tasting menu proceeds to charities. It serves as a charitable model in haute cuisine, perhaps the same way pop-ups serve as a business model in an economic downturn and beyond.

“I don’t think the pop up is specifically tied to the recession as much as it is to social media,” Myint explains, citing the advent of blogging as expedient advertisement. “Let’s say 20 years ago, if you had a pop up you couldn’t get any attention because you would basically be depending on word of mouth but now blogging has facilitated the trend with a lot of street food vendors using Twitter to get out their whereabouts to customers.”

Myint believes that people have segued into pop-ups as a culture, something that is perhaps here to stay for open-minded diners looking past what Myint terms the “white tablecloth experience.” In his case, the pop-up experiment has given way to a new eatery called Mission Chinese Foods, named in the top 100 Bay Area Restaurants by The San Francisco Chronicle.

“Business is overwhelming,” boasts Myint, whose other accolades include being named one of Chow.com’s 13 most influential people in the food world, Eater.com’s empire builder of the year for San Francisco, and Charitable Chef of the year by SF Weekly. It’s all a far way to travel since his days as line chef at Bar Tartine. His story demonstrates the brilliance and ingenuity lurking behind many pop-ups, which might first give off an impression of being transitory and unstable.

Such would seem the case with fashion reps hosting pop-up shops in various towns, such as A Current Affair, which hosted a pop-up marketplace in downtown Los Angeles delivering rare vintage garb from Halston, Lanvin, Comme des Garcons, YSL and Chanel for a $10 admission fee. Even EcoSalon got into the act last year, hosting EcoSalon Shops!, selling an array of sustainable garments produced by 20 emerging designers at a green venue  in Manhattan.

“Pop ups are a great way for small brands to have an audience with customers they might not have had,” explains EcoSalon Fashion Editor, Amy Dufault. “So far, I don’t know of any pop-ups enabling designers to have their own venues, but there are lots of designers within the community for events like these, where they can create solid relationships and continue in the vein of more pop-ups together.”

In this way, the temporary booths are not much different than the accessible parking lot flea market, where sellers can circumvent the red tape to market their wares – the same way East Village pop artists like Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring bypassed the exclusive agent and gallery system to take their graffiti art directly to the people in the streets. They put themselves on the map, earned recognition and ended up in the major leagues with high priced sales and clout.

In fact, the pop up concept is an age-old way of doing business by carpet and tea traders, milkmen and flower growers pushing carts long before we relied on small business loans, rent control and foreign fuel to put food on our tables. Pop up power to the people? It might just be the new modus operandi of generations tired of banking on the traditional route to visibility and viability. As with everything, it will be up to consumers to decide if the temporary movement gets a firm footing in the marketplace.

Images:  Charleston’s Thedigitel; Good; A Current Affair; KQED; Museyon

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.