Pop-up like it’s hot

The low down on the pop-up

Pop-up dining is coming to Dayton, and Dayton, you want to get in on this. It’s a trend that’s been happening in a lot of American cities and beyond and is now starting to trickle our way. Pop-ups are a one-time unique dining event offering diners a chance to try something new. This can range from a young chef testing his culinary wings, to a seasoned chef who wants to break out from what she is used to doing.

But what does that mean exactly? The definition of a pop-up is pretty broad and a little elusive. These ticketed events can be something as exotic as experiencing a meal served completely in the dark. Famed chef Daniel Barber put one on recently at a New York City restaurant. It was called wastED, and was made entirely with food scraps. Blanc en Blanc dinners, elegant picnic style events where attendees dress completely in white, have sprung up in several U.S. cities recently. Pop-ups are often located outside of a restaurant space, maybe in a factory, on a bridge or at a park or farm.

Whatever the venue, these dinners will often showcase a particular type of a chef’s cuisine or dining concept. For the young guns, it’s a way to advertise their talent and maybe provide a launching pad to open their own places. For the old guard, it provides a way to be experimental and also to stay current and keep their present clientele excited. Pop-ups offer the chance for collaboration, something which many chefs don’t have the opportunity to experience. Probably my favorite definition comes from one of the chefs involved in the pop-up I attended here in Dayton. Jeff Besecker, chef at The Old Arcana, put it this way: “It’s like a play date for chefs!”

It’s hip to be there

And for the diner, there’s a huge cool quotient being in the know about a new underground thing. (Cue the Peter Gunn theme.) It’s like a super secret supper for 40 or 50 people. There’s a similar in-the-moment appeal with the current food truck craze. But it’s not just the wow factor, though that’s important. A unique menu, an unusual venue and the chance to interact with the chefs add to the nontraditional charm.

Cuisine quest

But how do you find out about a pop-up dinner? They are not usually promoted in traditional media, and that’s part of the event’s cache. Getting known as a “foodie” by frequenting places, which are known to have creative approaches to food can put you in the know. A good strategy is to “like” and “friend” restaurants and their chefs on Facebook. Many have blogs linked to their pages and welcome dialog and feedback from clientele. I found out about the one I went to in November on a Facebook post. Pop-up attendees usually make use of social media like the blogosphere and Twitter to discover, follow and make reservations.

If you’re suspicious that this might be a flash in the cast iron pan, the study by Eventbrite.com (an event management and ticket sales site) dispels that. It’s called “The Rise of Pop-Up Dining Events and the Experiential Diner.” According to the study, food and drink events increased 47 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, and the fastest growth was due to pop-up dining—a whopping 82 percent. The term “pop-up restaurant,” non-existent before 2009 on Google Trends, has exploded since then, indicating that the trajectory of these events is on the rise.

Pop-down?

Is there a downside to a pop-up event? Mark Flaherty, a nationally noted attorney specializing in restaurants and liquor licensing, points out, “Sometimes it’s just not worth it. Logistics can be a nightmare, and the execution of the food often isn’t the best if it’s in a challenging location. I mean, do you want to spend $100 a head to eat with plastic forks off of Styrofoam? However,” he continues, “that being said, I’ve attended several pop-ups, and on balance I’ve found them to be worth it despite the occasional pitfalls.”

So how did the pop-up I attended come to be? I asked Chef Besecker, who spearheaded the event, along with Chefs Zackary Weiner (Rue Dumaine, Taste, Olive) and Brendon Miller (Lucky’s Tap Room & Eatery, Roost).

“We all met up at a cooking demo event and realized we liked each other’s ideas and styles,” Besecker says. “We just sort of came up with doing something that day.”

Their idea turned into a $50, five-course, small plate tasting, which benefitted the Darke County Emergency Homeless Shelter. Besecker had the advantage of already having his own restaurant space, The Old Arcana, so it was a no brainer to do it there.
Besecker explained why he thinks this kind of event is important in fostering collaboration in the restaurant community.

“It’s a win-win for chefs,” he says. “It lets us co-opt each other’s audiences and build a web—a connection. Social media has really eroded boundaries, and now we are all connected. And that’s a great thing!”

Not too many cooks in the kitchen

And how did that collaborative spirit work when coming up with a menu? Besecker says it sort of evolved naturally.

“We just talked about our ideas, what we liked to cook and each of us kind of took the lead on certain courses,” he comments.
Indeed, the menu featured an array of delicious tastes and textures in each course with spectacular presentation and a whole lot of personality. It truly was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had here in Dayton. At the close came the final highlight of the evening, when all the chefs and line cooks came out to a rousing round of applause to answer questions from their pleasantly sated dining public.

The question now is when and where will the next pop-up happen? Chefs, the meatball is in your court! Same for Dayton dining fans. Have some intel on something in the works? Let me know, and I will be there! I am all for this trend catching fire and continuing. You can be sure I’ll be popping in to the next pop-up I hear about.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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