Story and photos by Melissa Schilling (Pictured above: Samin Nosrat)
“Pop-ups are over!” —Chef Samin Nosrat, co-creator of Pop-Up General Store
Could it be true?
It was only two and a half years ago that chefs Samin Nosrat and Christopher Lee held their first Pop-Up General Store sale in a borrowed West Oakland catering facility. By all accounts, it was wildly successful.
“Let’s make cassoulet and just have a simple sale,” Nosrat recalls saying to Lee late in 2009, right as Lee was closing Eccolo, the Berkeley restaurant where he and Nosrat cooked for some years after their stints in the Chez Panisse kitchen. They were both interested in finding a way to chef more occasionally without the hassle and headache of running a restaurant. A friend at Grace Street Kitchens offered to lend them commercial kitchen space at holiday time and Pop-Up General Store was born. That first market featured a $125 cassoulet sold in a real terra cotta dish along with boudin blanc and other goodies to eat at home or perhaps give as gifts. By the next iteration, quite a few big-name East Bay chefs were on board offering quality handmade artisanal foodstuffs.
Nosrat remembers thinking, “Hey, maybe this is a THING” as she emerged from the first event with a few bucks in her pocket and more than 1,000 names on her social media mailing list. When the dust started to settle a year later, she had around 10,000 names, with more people clamoring for her attention.
But when a reporter from the New York Times called to interview her about the phenomenon last fall, unaware that Nosrat was in the process of terminating her pop-up project, the chef wasn’t so sure how to say that the “thing” doesn’t translate into the word “success.”
“I just feel, emphatically, that the pop-up trend was just that, a trend, and that it is on its way out,” she says.
“It was in the air, for sure. Pop-ups were it,” says Suzanne Drexhage (pictured at left). A longtime culinary innovator, she put on small dinner parties in a variety of venues, such as the one a year ago at Local 123 in Berkeley that featured a “backyard borage cocktail, nettle and sheep’s milk ricotta crostini, and a local lamb shoulder with artichoke and fava bean ragoût.”
So what happened?
Looking back to 2004, we find Facebook still in its crass babyhood and the tweetosphere a vast, empty space containing fewer than zero characters. The Internet, however, is all grown up and awash in a big orgy of food-centered blogs, mailing lists, e-newsletters, and Flickr photo groups as two cool, creative, and hungry Oakland dudes—Jeremy Townsend and his brother Joe—post an ad in the “misc romance” category on Craigslist for an underground supper theatre. Their Ghetto Gourmet quickly becomes a “thing” and Jeremy Townsend runs it as a 45-seat Monday night “pirate restaurant” in his living room until a health inspector shows up in 2006. “The Ghet” then goes nomadic and eventually morphs into what Jeremy gleefully calls a “[web] portal into the world of underground restaurants, speakeasies, supper clubs, and other community-based alternatives for dining and entertainment.” Find it at theghet.com.
“When you run these big mailing lists, you find yourself becoming a caterer rather than just cooking whatever the hell you want in the kitchen for a few appreciative people,” Townsend said in a recent interview.
Nosrat agrees. It ceases to be about cooking. No matter how big your mailing list gets, you can still only make so many cassoulets or seat so many people in your living room. You can raise your prices, but it doesn’t change the fact that your main job title has become social media maven and event coordinator. When not informing the masses about when next your pop-up will surface, you’re taking orders or reservations and making sure you’ll have the goods. When the big day arrives, you and your staff of two or three scurry around filling every role from general manager, busboy, and cashier to chef, hostess, and saucier.
Drexhage says she saw the dinners grow larger and larger while her profit grew smaller and smaller, until it stopped making sense to continue running the parties. Others too watched as their events grew into giant, bloated affairs affairs bearing a slightly metallic corporate tang and lacking any of the hidden-gem charm that urban foodies seek to discover. Even with the strong word-of-mouth currency, pop-ups were not turning a legitimate profit.
Drexhage admits that she wouldn’t refuse a return to the culinary underground stage if the right opportunity came up, especially if she could bring “that warm community feel” back to it. Nosrat feels the same way. Today, she runs a small, earthy supper club at Tartine in San Francisco. It’s simple and holds that feeling of friends around the table, just the way she likes it.
The postscript to this story is probably that pop-ups, by their nature, are ephemeral and fueled by the kind of fun that has to keep being reinvented. While many of the larger-name pop-ups have died, there are still plenty of speakeasy dinner clubs and pop-up markets operating under the radar in the East Bay. To find one, you just have to know the right friend. •
On a balmy Saturday afternoon last October, high on a rooftop overlooking the harbor in Oakland’s Jack London district, chef Carla Marie Lobato blithely slices leeks while sunshine winks off her knife. Nearby, pastry chef Sarah Miller wraps tags handmade from recycled brown paper bags onto jars packed with ingredients for pies that her guests can later bake at home. Jason “Pork on a Fork” Moore paces around the dining area with a timer in his hands, calculating the perfect time to lay down his pork loin on the grill.
All the food items, cooking supplies, flatware, and chairs had been hauled up onto the roof by 2pm. The guests arrive at 5:30, finding their way up to the seventh floor via symbols marked on the building’s windows. Cocktail glasses are clinking and laughter is pelting away in perfect sync with the slowly sinking sun. The dinner is timed to perfection. The main course is served exactly at sunset. Cookies and port follow at twilight as disco is cranked up on the portable sound system.
The whole execution takes a little over nine hours with additional pre-game-day prep in the preceding weeks. Each cook in the collective walks away with $100 cash. Fortunately, these friends aren’t in it for the money; it’s about the show and the chance to experiment in the kitchen on someone else’s dime.
This collective of cooks, Patchwork Kitchens, puts on the show six times a year. Their August fête is a Southern barbecue dinner. And here’s a tip from a friend:
Melissa Schilling, a published writer and photographer, has spent the last 10 years restlessly roving the planet raising awareness of the power of artistic and culinary expression. She has spent time coordinating photo-art therapy in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, searching for huitlacoche on the Mayan Riviera, riding bicycles through Patagonia, cooking in the País Vasco, and deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba. You can track her down on her website.