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May. 28 2019

The Pasteurization of Pop-Ups

All it takes is curiosity, peripheral vision and a Sunday stroll to stumble upon a pop-up shop in your local city.

Whether it’s a cauliflower-based pizza joint on Bleecker or a buoyant art installation like the Color Factory on Spring, pop-up shops are the best-kept secrets dotted across a city. Why, though, are we so fascinated with these ephemeral spaces? The answer is surprisingly simple.

In short, pop-ups are cool. They illicit the image of walking down an alleyway, knocking on a door, providing a password and winding up in a Prohibition-era swing bar. They let you in on a secret — make you part of it, in fact — and allow you to experience lightning in a bottle. But issues creep up when the owner opens the lid and releases that electrified whisper.

Consider Oxalis, a pop-up in New York that borrowed unique spaces for intimate dinners. When Oxalis settled down into a permanent home, the review by Pete Wells was mixed, less glowing than when it was an on-the-go novelty. While the food still shined, the restaurant’s mistakes were cosmetic, the failings of a rushed new spot with no real nesting experience.

It raises several questions about the nature of pop-ups: Is it less about the content and more about the thrill? Can pop-ups only survive on the outskirts of Yelp reviews? How does time make or break a dining venture?

Indeed, time seems to function differently in a pop-up shop. It’s as if they can freeze the seconds that carry us through the day and hold us there, like leaves frozen in a river. Excusing the wax, you can see why some business owners might not want to risk a departure from this oasis against time’s cruel advance. Yet, some pop-ups revel in time’s current, using it to slowly build brand loyalty.

Take, for example, King of Pops. When Steven Carse got laid off from his analyst job at AIG in 2009, it was clear what he had to do next: He’d start a popsicle business with his brother Nick. Together, they created King of Pops, an Atlanta-based popsicle company that can be found at many high-end delis, urban markets, sporting arenas and Whole Foods Markets. With its proven success, it begs a would-be absurd question: What lessons could a gourmet restaurant like Oxalis learn from some pop-up popsicle pushers?

For one, rather than going straight from a pop-up to a brick-and-mortar, the Carse brothers atomized their operations. The company started with Steve selling the frozen treats out of a pushcart in front of a gas station. Keeping with the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” King of Pops stayed mobile long enough to establish a fierce fan base.

Station by station, store by store, King of Pops slowly grew their brand. In time, they had become a ubiquitous force — a pop-up gone viral across Southern state lines. Today, their business operates 40 pushcarts and two customized ice cream trucks. With demand pouring in from their loyal fans, the Carse brothers have opened several “Pop Shops” around the South, proving one thing: In a world where pop-ups can be a flash in the pan, slowly stoking a flame can yield resilience.

And while this writer believes that questions for the sake of rhetoric are worse than answers for the sake of a transition, I’ll leave you with one last inquiry: How do you know when it’s the right time to move? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the pop-up conversion, but an owner needs that sixth sense to successfully anticipate — and avoid — jumping the shark.

The only solution that comes to mind is reading the room. If people walking into your brand-new brick-and-mortar need to squeeze through the kitchen to get to the bar, you might be letting the lightning out. But if it’s all rave reviews, if it feels like a secret, well then, make like the Carse brothers and keep pushing that cart.

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