Across the city, pop-up restaurants are opening doors in unexpected places. In an age in which the “red tape” of business and entrepreneurship is becoming more and more removed (especially since the innovation of funding resources like Kickstarter and GoFundMe), chefs and cooking enthusiasts are realizing their dreams of owning and operating their own dining establishments and cooking what they want to, the way they want to.
The past five years have also seen pop-up restaurants open many doors for diners as well—doors to types of cuisine and ways of cooking that were previously non-existent in New Orleans, and doors to a dining experience that deviates from the classic trip to a restaurant. This expands the possibilities for experiencing and learning about food in a setting that goes beyond the restaurant, to the back spaces of bars in Mid-City, to the cracked sidewalks of Uptown, and to the backyards of the Marigny. In a city in which gastronomic tradition is an engrained element of daily life and culture, this trend has significant implications for the future of dining. It’s a future that seems to be moving more and more toward newer, unknown flavors, and a dynamic both in the kitchen and at the table that reflects community impact, engagement and, most importantly, quality.
It’s no secret that restaurants are an expensive endeavor. From real estate to kitchen equipment, there are countless expenses that make opening and operating an establishment a huge economic risk. In contrast, the pop-up concept allows chefs to practice their trade on a modest budget, without incurring a financial risk that could potentially turn into a significant debt. In this sense, the pop-up enables chefs to test out their concepts, and to work and create a following without putting their necks on the line.
With the tourism industry booming and a genuine passion among many of the city’s residents about trying and celebrating new foods, a customer base exists for new restaurants and eateries. Indeed, the economic incentives of a pop-up often can be ideal for growth into a full brick-and-mortar establishment. Such has been the case for many of the city’s top purveyors. Places like Pizza Delicious and NOLA Smokehouse have gone from weekly pop-ups to nationally recognized restaurants, staying true to their focus on quality ingredients and dedication to their craft, and maintaining a positive and meaningful relationship with their clientele.
For many chefs, perhaps most important is the ability to control and create what they truly want to pursue. “Being a pop-up gives you the opportunity to be more than just a cog in the machine; it allows you to build and operate the whole machine,” says Christian Dischler, whose pop-up Chilango NOLA serves up authentic and delicious Mexican brunch fare from the kitchen at The Franklin in the Marigny. Since opening in January 2015, chefs Baruch Rabasa and Christian Dischler have garnered a loyal following, which eventually led to them both becoming mainstays on The Franklin’s kitchen staff (with Rabasa recently becoming executive chef). “What starts off as a passion project, maybe one or two days a week, can quickly become something more significant. Take Milkfish, for instance, which started as a weekly pop-up and now is showing more and more people unknown flavors and dishes that otherwise would be hard to find in New Orleans.”
For some, like Dischler and Rabasa, the passion that blooms into a pop-up is found in the kitchen, through years of working various positions and discovering interests and tastes that eventually flourish into a business. Yet for others, inspiration is found in more unlikely places. Orlando Vega, one-half responsible for the hugely popular mainstay at the Hi-Ho Lounge, Congreso Cubano, credits his entry into the business to noticing a burgeoning interest in Latin food, but an absence of respectable eateries. “Upon moving to New Orleans, I became saddened by the way that the historic links between Cuba and New Orleans had fallen by the wayside. For a while there, in the 18th century, New Orleans was basically North Havana. I found myself in a unique position to treat some homesickness and explore those connections further in a way that my friends could get excited about.” With little kitchen experience, Vega teamed up with long-time friend and experienced cook Rick Ostry to recreate their grandmothers’ traditional Cuban recipes, adding modern and unique twists to them. In this sense, the pop-up was born out of a motivation to educate and to share with people the long, rich and important history of a cuisine that was seemingly lacking in the city.
From a dining perspective, it is clear that the pop-up dynamic is bringing new flavors and experiences to New Orleans. The past decade has seen a serious resurgence in ethnic cuisine, and pop-ups have had a lot to do with that. From Congreso Cubano to Lagos (at St. Roch Market) to Seoul Shack, ethnic cuisines are being celebrated, enjoyed and supported throughout the city—a testament to the public’s enthusiasm for trying new flavors and discovering new types of food. “I think this city is experiencing an ‘ethnic overhaul.’ Slowly, the Vietnamese places have crept over from the Westbank, and we are seeing more and more places open up serving unheard-of cuisine from all over the world,” said Dischler of Chilango NOLA. Like the famous food-truck lots in Portland or Austin, places like St. Roch Market and the increasing number of gastronomic events and gatherings are becoming educational hotspots for food. They are places where customers leave with not just full stomachs and satisfied palates, but also a sense of appreciation for the food they ate and an insight into its deeply rooted history.
With an ever-increasing number of pop-ups making their way to bars, communal spaces and restaurants, it’s safe to say that the concept is gaining traction. This past May, Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation (a co-working space and start-up incubator that focuses on social issues and provides a network for hopeful entrepreneurs) held its annual Propeller Pop event, featuring food from over ten different pop-ups, stretching across all corners of the globe, from Mexico to Burma. Attracting a huge turnout, the event was a testament to the potential for smaller, niche types of cuisine that is at the forefront of the burgeoning pop-up movement. Adding to this, more and more ex-pop-ups are realizing their dream and becoming full restaurants—Pizza Delicious, and Milkfish, to name a two. These are restaurants whose success is rooted in the following they acquired and the community support they received initially as pop-ups. With this transformation, the potential for chefs, culinary enthusiasts, bartenders and diners is seemingly endless.
Today, social media and the internet serve as crucial platforms on which to connect and create, allowing anyone dedicated and determined enough to realize their dreams. “I think the internet has become an essential tool for the way we deal with and think about food. Anything from Yelp, to using Twitter or Instagram, to updating our following about what is going on—it all helps us maintain a rapport with the customer that would otherwise be harder to maintain,” says Dischler of Chilango.
With the rise of these new concepts, it’s safe to say that New Orleans is emerging as a hub for creative, modern, and alternative dining experiences. The increasing number of food-focused events and programs—such as the Eat Local Challenge, Dinner Lab, GrowDat Youth Farm, and Top Box Foods—makes the future appear optimistic for food education and celebration. Hopefully, the future will also be one in which good, quality food is not a luxury but a norm, and in which our relationship to our food can be felt and understood by those on both sides of the table.