Hop on Pop-Ups


No doubt you’ve noticed the hot trend of Pop Up retail establishments.

The wave began as a way for scrappy, undercapitalized entrepreneurs to try out a new business idea without getting locked into a long-term lease. Good ideas almost always originate at the grassroots and work their way into mainstream culture through co-option so it’s not surprising that national retailers are hopping on board.

A lot of these early would-be business owners were victims of the economy. With fewer opportunities in the industries that smart, cultural creatives flock to, like computer programming, advertising, and graphic design, droves of clever people begin turning their passions into small businesses. These businesses are dynamic, fun, and provide customers with something new and different. Through their very originality and quirkiness, they bring something of value to the neighborhoods they adopt, the cities in which they are located, and to the culture at large.

For example, how can you not love the restaurant-inside-a-restaurant known as Mission Chinese Food? Located on one of the skankiest blocks of Mission Street in San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food improves the neighborhood by drawing people in to eat its amazing, authentic, affordable Chinese food, and it also gives away 75 cents per entrée sold to The San Francisco Food Bank.

Of course, the major retailers are riding the wave of the trend too. Lured by the economy-related explosion of empty commercial space and cheap rent, many national brands are opening Pop Ups of their own. As much as the kiddies love their craptastic plastic toys, a Pop Up Toys R Us is hardly as exciting or as a sexy as an unexpected restaurant or boutique tucked away in an out-of-the-way neighborhood.

Do we really need more chain retail outlets? And as TriplePundit asks in this piece, how green are these stores if they use and discard temporary signage and fixtures? Even less green if the stores are located in far-flung dying malls, which just encourage people to drive around and buy more crap.

On the other hand, a better corporate-driven use of the Pop Up concept is for businesses that ramp up for a specific purpose and then shut down, as this Business Week article notes.

Here’s a rundown of some good, bad, and ugly Pop Up concepts that have come to our attention. Tell us your discoveries in the comments below.

At the Pop Up General Store, located in a refurbished streetcar depot in Oakland, CA, you can buy handmade artisanal foods from Chez Panisse cooks. It’s pricey, but the people who can afford it are getting some top-notch goodies from real pros, who are in turn, hopefully, making a living through their talents.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s, roving restaurant, Ludo’s Bites has taken LA by storm in its various locations. Ludo’s a total pro and if anyone can get me a reservation, I’d be eternally grateful.

The Pop Up concept is always open for interpretation. In this slight twist, two cafés in Manhattan are sponsoring a Pop Up outdoor café for Park(ing) day.

The Detox Market pops up in Venice, CA, and provides access to a variety of super eco health and beauty products, some of which are not that easy to find elsewhere.

New Orleans has MVB (Most Valuable Burger), which operates Sunday nights out of a diner that is closed in the evenings.

One of the first dining-related Pop Ups, Outstanding in a Field has been connecting eaters, farmers, food artisans, and chefs in locations all over the U.S for the past decade. They’re even branching out to other locations around the world.

Burlington Coat Factory is opening up Pop Ups around the country this winter. While it isn’t as exciting as some of the food-related Pop Ups above, one can argue that it makes sense for a company that sells a seasonal product to utilize their resources more efficiently through using Pop Ups. Think about those Halloween Superstores that have been around for years.

Ford is trying to sell its Fiesta model to hip, urban consumers through a Pop Up Store in Portland, OR. I wonder how that’s going.

The Limited returns to New York City after being absent for 10 years via a Pop Up store. It makes sense from a corporate point of view if you want to test a new market.

It will be interesting to see how the Pop Up trend evolves alongside economic developments. Because I don’t believe our economy will ever be the same (due both to the facts of capitalism and the constraints of our environment) I think ways of doing business have changed permanently. What new methods to sell goods and services will smart, creative people invent next?

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Djjewelz

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.