How (and why) to start a pop-up business
Pop-up markets and restaurants seem to show no sign of going anywhere in 2019 with the success of the new(ish) Bow Market in Somerville, the 16-year-run of the SoWa Open Market and what seems like an endless bounty of experiences at breweries and distilleries across the hub.
And why not? Temporary retail experiences are a boon for consumers eager to try something new and for entrepreneurs testing a concept or menu without having to invest in a full brick and mortar business. Both longstanding Boston businesses and up-and-comers find value in pop-ups.
Puritan & Co. Chef Will Gilson, who kicked his career to the next level with the beloved (and now defunct) Garden at the Cellar, which he describes as an early “food concession” in Boston, is one who sees that value. Gilson says, “I’m now one of the older chefs I wanted to be like, not in an egotistical way. I wanted to own my own place, I wanted to have the respect of peers, I wanted to employ people, I wanted to create food that people would believe in and trust, and I got there doing pop-ups.”
“Pop-us absolutely help grow your business, especially if you partner with a company who has a similar customer,” explains Gianne Doherty, CEO of Boston based beauty brand Organic Bath Co. “It’s a win for both brands since both brands are committed to marketing the pop-up.”
JJ Frosk, one of the founders of the Bacon Truck, explained that pop-ups have, in his opinion, surpassed the popularity of food trucks. Initially, he explained, “we were only focused on food trucks, that was the new, mobile thing, and then a few years went by and it seemed like we were the only ones not doing pop-ups.”
Gilson still sees the value in pop-ups. He’s planning on launching another pop-up experience very soon.
Locations are looking for vendors that align with their brand and vision
“You need a very thoughtful criteria for how the market is populated,” Bow Market’s Matt Boyles-Watson said. “We look at what is the mix and the context in which it relates to the population it’s around.”
Bully Boy Distillers’ Kelsey Stone elaborated, “The biggest thing we’re looking for when we’re looking for vendors or vendors reach out to us, is we really want something different. We don’t want the same people here over and over, and we don’t want the same product here multiple weekends in a row.” Bully Boy is always evolving their cocktail options, and they want their vendors to evolve as well. “We’ve done craft sandwiches that pair with a couple of cocktails on the menu. We are trying to give our guests as quirky and strange an experience as we can.”
Establish and grow a social media presence
In our era of connectivity, consumers turn to apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to follow trends and find hidden gems. Bradley St. Amand, director of operations for SoWa Boston says, “We really do try to take a close look at all of the vendors, and you’d be surprised at how many of them, their website doesn’t work or they have no Instagram feed, and no social media.”
“If I can see what their display looks like, and they have a good product,” Amand continued, “And they are active and engaged vendors, we’re more inclined to give them a chance.”
Feed and grow your fanbase
“If you have friends on Facebook, or people that just like what you do, that becomes your next chance to get people in the door,” explained Gilson. “And after that, you’re doing something that’s so cool and unique, it catches the attention of maybe a food writer or someone in the media who is hearing about it. And then you have to maintain that, which is tricky. People do one dinner and then they think they’re set. It’s not as quick as people hope, and they give up.”
Amand adds, “We do this to help promote the vendors, but it also helps everybody when the vendors help promote it themselves.
Keep your menu or product offering scaled down
“The idea,” Frosk says, “is to sell out.” Pop-up experiences often feel exclusive, manufacturing demand for a product — be it a sandwich or handmade jewelry.
“You go out and you wait for this thing,” said Gilson. “It’s supply and demand. It’s coveted and it’s cool.”
Be aware of the costs and plan accordingly
“Popping up at a retailer typically has no costs,” explained Doherty. However, other venues do charge fees. “Exhibiting at events such as [the Massachusetts Conference for Women] and SoWa does [mean] entry fees,” Doherty continued, “My team researches different events, evaluates opportunity (number of attendees, location, etc.) versus costs. Depending on the scale of the event the price to exhibit can be anywhere from $250 to $5,000.”
“We charge a vendor fee,” Amand said. “It varies from the artist to the farmers’ market to the food trucks. Most of that money goes right back into promoting the market.”
Other venues, such as Bow Market, Boyles-Watson explained, consider themselves hosts to “single car garage style stores that are part of an owner-operated economy” and charge a monthly lease.
“Unless you’re in an area like the Greenway, it can be tough,” says SoWa’s St. Amand. “Where we are, with the galleries and the shops, it really fits. It’s a nice synergy with the markets. I think sometimes you plop a market in a random parking lot somewhere and it doesn’t work.”