Death of a Pop-Up 

Richmond finds out what happens when guerrilla dining meets Twitter.

click to enlarge food31_pop_ups.jpg

Like other trends in the restaurant business, Richmond came late to the pop-up phenomenon. Such restaurants are temporary dining spots that commit to a few nights, a few weeks or a few months, and they’ve been enticing West Coast diners for years before moving east.

Often the guerrilla-dining experience starts when a chef wants to try out a new concept without the hassle and expense of opening a restaurant. Sometimes they’re held in empty warehouses or galleries, giving adventurous diners fleeting food experiences with little chance that they will be repeated.

Pop-ups have become so well-known in larger markets that some of them take reservations. Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBites events got so popular he hired OpenTable to take reservations. The site crashed and many people were left frustrated.

In Washington, chef Jose Andres just last month converted his Café Atlantico into a pop-up called America Eats Tavern, intended to last through Jan. 3, only as long as the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam” exhibit runs at the nearby National Archives.

The pop-up experience also can involve food carts that show up in parking lots or alleys to serve and then disappear. In Richmond’s Museum District, Henry Reidy’s Meat on the Street cart did several pop-up brunches in the lot behind Belmont Butchery before Reidy scheduled regular gigs at First Fridays Art Walks and farmers’ markets.

Richmond just saw a short-lived pop-up organized by three men with a passion for local food and well-crafted drink. Born out of their daily bread baking, each of the four events offered a specific dish and a vegan alternative, along with a craft cocktail and dessert, in a different alley each week. Style Weekly agreed to not publish their identities because of their concern about legal troubles.

The first event featured grilled pizzas. At the second, it was BLTs for which the chefs smoked the bacon, added local lettuce and tomato, baked the bread and made the mayo; they served blueberry-rhubarb gin cocktails and warm zucchini bread for dessert in an alley near Hollywood Cemetery.

In Jackson Ward, the guys dished out shrimp and yellow corn grits with local tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and locally salt-cured Thai bird chilies, followed by panzanella made from their homemade sourdough and local tomatoes, all complemented by a habanero-infused tequila cocktail with cucumber-mint sour mix. Dessert was strawberry sourdough shortcake with local honey.

Unlike in major markets where the price tag can run as much as $150 a head, Richmond’s pop-up pioneers were doing this for $5, all inclusive. It wasn’t about making money, they said — it was about sharing a passion with a small group of similar-minded food lovers.

To get things started, they told friends with an appreciation for food and local ingredients about the dinners, hoping to make conversation on those subjects a part of the meals. It worked and attendance grew from a couple of dozen people at the first dinner to about 40 by the third. Their goal was 50 people.

But, as with any underground movement in the 21st century, social media moved in, co-opting the information and tweeting it to the multitudes. Suddenly their website was blown up and they worried about legal repercussions related to holding their events. And Richmond’s first pop-up died as suddenly as it had appeared.

The organizers acknowledge that their naiveté was the primary reason for shutting things down. They hadn’t planned for the events to be more than small alley dinner parties for friends and friends of friends. Even as they closed, the organizers say they hoped someone else would pick up the mantle of pop-ups and carry it forward.

Chef Tim Bereika of Secco Wine Bar plans a short-term pop-up in October or November. Unlike the unlicensed alley gatherings, his venture will use a rented space with two seatings a night for two nights. He’s considering a four- or five-course menu with wine pairings. Guests would attend by advance reservation, and then the party would be history — an offshoot with variations of the looser underground dinners.

One of those original, doomed pop-up nights here was in full swing in the Henry Street alley when an older man came walking down the street, taking a rest on someone’s porch steps. Immediately, the guerrilla food team made up a plate, took it over and invited him to join the party.

“Nah, I’ll just eat it right here, thanks,” he said, digging into the shrimp and grits and panzanella. He was part of the scene, even at a distance, and when he finished eating, he had the same look of satisfaction as everyone else there who’d just enjoyed an impromptu local meal under the stars.

It was also an acknowledgement that, by the end of each event, there was no way of knowing if it would be the last. S

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