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The Popup: There and Gone, and Here to Stay

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega The Popup: There and Gone, and Here to StayPhoto via Hai Poké.
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For today’s gourmand, food is no longer just about sating hunger. A meal needs to be an adventure — something unchartered, unusual, and even a little exclusive.

Trend experts are noting the rise of what they call “experiential diners,” who value a meal’s context over its content, and their role in popularizing the popup.

The popup is like an experiential diner’s dream. It’s here, then it’s gone, usually within hours. It can take over different venues, spanning several neighborhoods. And sometimes, it can run out of food, offering the excitement of exclusivity.

According to a 2015 study by Eventbrite, the number of popup events has grown more than any other dining format (82 percent). And, the study found, people are actually willing to pay more for the same menu if it’s served outside a traditional venue or restaurant.

The Columbus food scene is responding, and noticeably. Over the last few years, several popups, including Hai Poké, Eden Burger, Woodhouse, Freaks and Leeks, and Simply Rolled have launched, demonstrating a cheaper and more relevant route to success for aspiring restauranteurs.

“It literally took our business to where it is now, and now we’re going into a restaurant,” said Nile Woodson, Hai Poké co-founder.

Woodson attributed much of Hai Poké’s success to their ability to naturally cater to the experiential diner. They partner with places where regulars can try something new in a familiar venue, popping up at Oddfellows in the Short North and Pure Pressed Downtown to test out different markets.

They were able to build hype organically, too, making their eventual opening in the Short North an anticipated event with a guaranteed customer base.

“We’ve put in the short term pain for the long term gain,” Woodson said. “We wanted to eliminate as much risk in opening a restaurant as we possibly could.”

Chad Goodwin, co-founder of popup-turned-permanent Eden Burger, said that their time at Julep, Barrel on High, and Oldfields North Fourth Tavern let them know an entirely plant-based menu could work in the Short North and near campus.

“I think in the next few years we’re going to see a lot more people starting through popups, or these takeover type deals to test concepts and provide options at a low risk to themselves before they spend a bunch of money on a physical space,” said Goodwin.

As startup restaurants turn to popups for risk reduction and minimal overhead, developers are taking notice. Corso Ventures is the first to adapt, creating the concept of Food Hall to incubate popups and provide more options to the city’s gastronomes.

Planned to open in the Short North in late 2018, Food Hall would host four popups at a time to serve the venue’s main bar, rotating them out based on popularity. While there, each popup would have access to Corso Ventures’ resources, including equipment, hot and cold storage, and food safety training.

Reed Woogerd, Corso Ventures President, said that as Columbus gains more national attention for its growth and its culinary scene, it has to keep up with other cities. He looked at places like Denver and Chicago for reference, finding the popup incubator concept to be a huge success that Columbus shouldn’t miss out on.

“We’re trying to bring some of these ideas that are hugely popular in other cities and just make sure we can offer it to people that want to travel to Columbus or to the people that live here,” Woogerd said. “We don’t want there to be a drop-off when people travel here. We want to be on par with what’s going on in those other cities.”

“People love to watch people cook, and they like different types of food, and people want access to it,” Woogerd added. “I think this is just a very user friendly way to give people what they want in a one stop shop kind of way.”

Enticing to consumers, cheaper for business owners, and stimulating to the food scene as a whole, popups seem to be the perfect dining format. As Columbus sees the inevitable rise and fall of food ventures to come, it’s safe to say the popup itself is here to stay.

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