by Signo Uddenberg Director, Research, Design & Innovation
Good food on its own doesn’t cut it anymore. People want more than just their taste buds tantalized when they dine out. To partake in a unique, curated, and unconventional experience. Pop-up restaurants are filling that bill and have been steadily on the rise since 2009, with little signs of slowing.
The clothing store across the way is now the hippest spot for Vietnamese street food. The former donut shop, the only place to be seen eating Ramen. Pop-ups are literally popping-up all around the city. Often temporarily occupying vacant spaces until a permanent tenant moves in. The short-lived nature of the pop-up is a big part of the allure. Get it before it’s gone. And for chefs, pop-ups present an ideal opportunity to test out menus with paying customers before undertaking the financial risks of opening a permanent location.
Ticketing platform Eventbrite released a 2014 study that found that among the company’s 40,000 Food and Beverage events, pop-ups were growing at a rate of 82% year over year.  A Google Trends search reveals that the term “pop-up restaurant” didn’t even exist before 2009. Platforms Feastly and Eatwith have emerged to promote and coordinate pop-up events, both at private homes and at cool (even unorthodox) public venues.
Imagine savoring delectable food—tasty, fresh, melt in your mouth. Now imagine eating that food in a laundromat under the buzz of fluorescent lighting. Doesn’t work right? The food just isn’t as good. Or is it? But your perception is marred by the harsh ambiance of the environment, which detracts from the flavors.
Pop-ups, by and large, and likely by necessity, thoughtfully plan out their experiences. Often on a limited budget. Drop the lighting down to the tables, or just use candles. Paint the background black to spotlight the food and conceal unfinished or unsightly features. Play upbeat music to energize the room or infuse the food with a rebellious flavor. Pop-ups are succeeding at what many restaurants have failed to do—designing truly multi-sensory experiences that enhance the flavors of the food.
The proliferation of pop-ups is exposing people to a greater diversity of experiences that highlight the essential elements of unique and memorable dining—food, drink, service, lighting, seating, sound, smell, warmth, touch. Pop-ups are not the first to cater to, or to manipulate, our senses.
Restaurants are playing with elements of the dining environment to re-imagine the overall experience. Dinner at Opaque in San Francisco takes place in a pitch-black dining room and is served by waitstaff who are visually impaired. From the SanFrancisco.com review, “Opaque challenges the way patrons perceive their surroundings and cuisine. Feeling for a fork, running fingers along inviting tabletops, recognizing only the voices of companions, drawing in sweet and savory aromas, identifying each ingredient and spice as they eclipse the palate.”
Radio Habana Social Club, also in San Francisco, keeps the thermostat at a toasty 75° F to transport patrons to Cuba and make the signature sangrias go down that much smoother. Proprietor Victor Navarete never wanted to open a restaurant but rather a place “where people would share ideas, where poetry would collide with live performance, where intellectual discussion could thrive”. From the Mission Local review: “The Dada-esque cubbyhole-cum-art-installation is [Navarete’s] own ever-evolving masterpiece, chock full of kitsch and crafty pieces as thought-provoking as they are whimsical—pieces to spark conversation”.
In New York City, the food at Charlie Bird is infused with music and art—“there are jazz roots in hip hop, graffiti roots in Warhol, Basquiat and Haring, and Italian roots in our space, but overall we hold above all else a deep-seeded ideal to be creative and provide a welcoming place for you all to eat.” Says chef Ryan Hardy, “I think it’s possible to drink great Burgundy, eat great food, and listen to music that makes your head bob at the same time… If you can’t handle it as an adult in downtown New York City, you can’t handle it!”
Restaurants experiment with different sensory features to explore their unique identities. Some critics consider it manipulation. A joint study conducted by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that “dimmer lighting and softer music” resulted in 200 fewer calories consumed compared to the identical setting with louder music and brighter lighting.
For better or worse, environments affect our perceptions. An environment can transform an ordinary evening into an extraordinary one, or render a scrumptious meal mediocre. So next time you dine out, enjoy your food, no matter what, enjoy your food. But do take a minute to survey your surroundings. Is the environment enhancing your meal? Hurting it? Or manipulating your waistline?