The pop-up restaurant and supper club scene is big in the UK, spanning from secretive to mainstream. We take a look at a whole new world of opportunity for the fresh produce industry
If you’ve spent time in any large UK city just recently, you will know that the pop-up restaurant/supper club concept is flying. In fact, in certain circles, it’s so well used that if your eatery has a fixed abode, it raises eyebrows. No-one wants to be known as too posh to pop up…
Quirky and experiential, the pop-up offers obvious financial and creative independence akin to a modern speakeasy. From very small barges to artist studios, temporary buildings or bookshops, you are equally likely to walk into someone’s living room as you are a disused warehouse.
It can be as exciting and unnerving for the customers as it is for the organiser, but the most important aspect is that anything goes. It is not very bohemian to complain that there’s a small dog in the kitchen or that it’s 12.30am and your dessert hasn’t been served. Trust me.
But, in culinary terms, it’s a temporary blank canvas. It regularly includes a large number of small taster courses, meaning chefs and cooks can experiment without the worry of alienating regular customers. And customers can usually get some top-notch food for a suggested or relatively low donation.
Pop up – the definition
So, let’s take this back a step; what exactly is a ‘pop-up’ restaurant or supper club? Depending who you talk to, the supper club probably sprung up first in New York and London about 10 years ago, and was a way of every-day people getting a taste of creative food in a secret venue. With a distinct underground edge – mainly due to no one really knowing how legal they were – a lot of the first supper clubs wouldn’t even disclose its address until hours before the event.
The concept then followed the economic zeitgeist of the last 10 years.
Around eight years ago, before the bottom dropped out of everything, well-known chefs, such as Pierre Koffmann, started high-end pop-ups in actual restaurants and places like Harvey Nichols, which shifted the bohemian ideal slightly.
As the economic mood swung back to thrifty, intimate pop-up supper clubs, and restaurants began to, well, pop up everywhere. “It's less underground now, which is both good and bad,” says Kerstin Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover, who started her London-based underground restaurant in 2009. “It is, in some ways, less exciting, but also more ‘legal’. High street restaurants have nicked our ideas, so it has become mainstream.”
Michelin-trained chef Josh McDonald-Johnson took the concept from London to Exeter, with notable success. The events organised through his company, Pickle Shack
, take from 25 to 100 guests in tasting cellars, theatres and vintage stores, with enough demand for an event each week. “There’s a feeling that having a fixed menu is outdated,” explains the chef. “We have had nothing but fantastic feedback and returning customers since starting in July. It is just snowballing. We hold events in places you wouldn’t usually see and cook dishes you can’t get anywhere else.”
Now described as ‘alternative’ dining, pop-ups from Edinburgh to Exeter can be found quite easily, providing plenty of opportunities for suppliers. New to the pop-up scene, Rosie Llewellyn started up her supper club A Little Lusciousness in her home a year ago, taking up to 20 diners each month.
“The standard of cooking has got better at supper clubs due to competition, so you can't get away with not being on point,” says Llewellyn. “People try to stand out from the crowd.”
Rodgers even takes on commercial clients, designing and executing fit-for-purpose supper clubs, showcasing the product for chosen guests – usually press. She offers a personally designed menu, creates campaign recipes and blogs those recipes on her multi-award winning blog, as part of the deal, for clients like The Avocado Brotherhood and Jersey Royals.
“With the avocado supper club, I was told I had put on a more original, creative event than the Michelin-starred restaurant they'd used before,” says Rodgers, who hosts with a dash of humour. “People can relate to my cooking, as even though it is creative, it is not using tons of weird molecular machinery.”
Opportunities a plenty
Product, especially niche and in low volumes, can be hard to get hold of. MsMarmiteLover uses catering wholesaler Chefs Connection, as she hasn’t the time as a one-woman band to source individually.
“Large catering suppliers are often more expensive than supermarkets,” she says. “But they have more of a selection and they deliver, which is great, because I don't have the time to go out shopping. But sometimes it's a pain when they don't deliver something.”
Llewellyn, who puts on a supper club every month, chooses a few key ingredients and builds her menus around them. “Sometimes this leaves me a little stuck, when fruit and veg comes into season early or late, but I've got a great guy who goes to New Covent Garden Market the day before and picks up what I've requested or as near as. My butcher sources my cheese and for one event, his cheese wasn’t delivered on time, so he drove to Borough Market from Chiswick, then brought them straight to me, in the nick of time.”
McDonald-Johnson has gone one step further and sources all the food used from a 10-mile radius personally. He has even teamed up with independent retailers, The Real McCoy, and a form of people’s supermarket to put on particular supper clubs. “I go straight to the farm to keep the costs down, as well as the food miles,” he explains. “We have just started to work with a small grower called Incredible Vegetables, which grows the foot-long Thai bean and tromboncino squash, but volume-wise, timing has be right. Sometimes we can’t use a farm we would like to because they don’t produce the volume, but the variety of products is essential – we never repeat the same dish.”
Move with the changes
The movement has begun to evolve further, with pop-up organisers such as London’s Grub Club facilitating chefs, cooks, venues and customers.
Having launched in 2013, Grub Club’s co-founder Olivia Sibony says that she wanted to change the perception of supper clubs from very secretive to inclusive. She wants to work with suppliers to take it to the next level. “The challenge is giving a good price for the diner, but sourcing from high-quality, independent food producers or distributors,” she says.
“It's important to engage diners with the whole food supply chain story. People are happier to know that their money has a constructive impact on the industry.”
In the know…
Produce Business UK asks pop-up restaurant and supper club expert, Grub Club’s Olivia Sibony about the trends going forward into 2015
What trends have you seen food-wise, and what do you think is here to stay?
Olivia Sibony: There is a trend towards food being an experience – a catalyst towards greater connections and bringing people together. This is taking us back to the concept of ‘slow food’, where it's lovingly prepared from scratch and enjoyed over a longer period of time, rather than grabbing a quick bite on the fly and having the food as an after-thought or a filler before people go out to get drunk.
Food is increasingly become the central focus that brings people together for a leisurely evening.
Have you ever put on any fresh themed or concentrated supper clubs?
OS: We partnered with London Food Link to promote Urban Food Fortnight, where everyone had the challenge of only using produce that was not only fresh and seasonal, but also grown or made with produce that came from a maximum of 25 miles from their home.
The Urban Food Challenge got diners to each take on the challenge and share a dish they prepared from locally sourced produce and Rosie from A Little Lusciousness put on a Little London Lusciousness grub club, where she sourced everything directly herself and cooked for everyone.
Are you looking for food supply partners?
OS: Slow Bread Company, who all take such care in making small-batch, high quality food, which tastes completely different to what you would ever buy in supermarkets where everything has to be mass-produced. As we look to grow in 2015, this is something we'd like to support more of.
Sample menu from The Pickle Shack’s Chagford Grub Club
Tortellini of broccoli and chilli, pickled romanesque and courgette, baby salad and crispy leek roots
Slow cooked and pressed whole goat, kale and potato fricassee, kale crisp and rich goat jus
Raw goats milk and lavender panna cotta, honeycomb straight from the hive, roast plums and salted oats