The phrase “pop-up restaurant” is transitioning from abstract idea to cultural mainstay. A pop-up is an ephemeral eatery hosted by an established venue that allows a chef or a concept to take over or share its space for a limited time — usually for one evening, but sometimes on a recurring basis.
The format is well-known in foodie cities around the world as a way for restaurateurs to make creative use of their spaces, especially during off days or hours. However, in Asheville, the encouragement of entrepreneurism and creativity by restaurant, bar and brewery owners, in tandem with the generous lending of resources, is turning pop-ups into something of a small-business incubator that many in Asheville’s culinary community are taking advantage of.
Burial Beer Co., which opened in 2013, is a relative newcomer to the scene but has already helped give life to an offshoot project called Salt & Smoke. The symbiotic relationship began as a food busking project for Salt & Smoke co-owner and chef Josiah McGaughey, who started off by setting up a table occasionally at the brewery’s South Slope taproom. He prepared a minimal menu of snacks and small plates with no fixed prices, just asking for donations. The project was a barometer for what would eventually morph into a popular weekly brunch series, then a mainstay restaurant.
Meanwhile, over in the River Arts District, J.T. DeBrie works as a line cook at All Souls Pizza while taking steps toward opening Intentional Swine, an artisan butcher shop and deli he’s planning for 285 Haywood Road in East-West Asheville. DeBrie’s employers let him use the All Souls kitchen and its adjacent field for pop-up events, something he says is a good dress rehearsal for the business he hopes to open in the near future.
“Pop-ups are venues for chefs to manifest creativity and innovation. Ideally the growth of the business creates growth opportunities for chefs and cooks,” says Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani, MG Road and Buxton Hall Barbecue. His restaurants have hosted numerous pop-up concepts over the years, including a variety of events that helped sustain chef Elliott Moss during his two-year transition from Ben’s Tune-Up to Buxton Hall. Irani sees the effort as a restaurant-ownership simulator of sorts.
“It is a way to test out a concept and gives a chef a taste of what it feels like to handle all the other aspects of a restaurant: food cost, labor cost, margins, marketing, service, setup and breakdown, logistics, etc.” says Irani. “It’s never going to be the same as actually opening a brick-and-mortar, but it does give you some idea of what to expect.”
An idea of what to expect is what McGaughey was looking for when starting his relationship with Jess Reiser, co-owner of Burial Beer Co. McGaughey pitched the pop-up concept to Reiser one evening, and, she says, “It just kind of naturally grew from there, as far as our relationship and vision for the future. [They] resonated with one another.”
McGaughey was working fulltime at The Bull and Beggar when he and his wife, Salt & Smoke co-owner Shannon McGaughey, started their pop-up eatery at Burial. Shannon, who was also working full time hours between two restaurants, says the project gave them a much-needed foothold in the midst of a murky market. “We moved here from Chicago to open our own brick-and-mortar. We were looking into loans and having a hard time. … The real estate is crazy. We figured this would be a good way to at least get some exposure,” she says.
Josiah concurs, adding, “I think we would still be searching for buildings. Who knows, I really have no idea. I believe [having a restaurant today] is definitely due to Burial opening up its space.”
Burial and Salt & Smoke function as independent brands, but both companies are seeing the fruits of cross-pollination. “I think where we’re at right now is people are starting to come here for Salt & Smoke and think, ‘Oh, I should get a Burial beer,’” says Reiser.
Back at All Souls Pizza, DeBrie is deliberate about having a mutually beneficial relationship with his employer while getting Intentional Swine off the ground. “What I’m doing can help bring some business in for them, like having a charcuterie board on the menu. … I feel I get more out of it than they do, but they seem OK with it,” he says. But he notes that maintaining a balanced relationship is always in the back of his mind. “It gives me anxiety on a regular basis, trying to make sure I’m not taking up too much space in the walk-in, using up too much equipment,” he says.
Samara Rasmussen, co-owner of Intentional Swine, is also still working a full-time gig at Table restaurant downtown. She says she and DeBrie are learning valuable lessons while hosting their pop-up events. “It gives me a newfound respect for small-business and restaurant owners. Being in charge isn’t always an easy position to be in,” she says.
Too many cooks?
So what do owners and management who are working with employees who have designs on moving on think about the arrangement? Matt Dawes, head chef at The Bull and Beggar, says supporting Josiah was a no-brainer. “It should be important in any community to help others achieve their goals. I believe firmly a rising tide raises all ships,” he says. Dawes notes that Josiah was a hardworking employee and, in return, he wanted to lend his experience.
“I was happy to offer advice and encouragement,” says Dawes. “I’m not sure it was in the form of purposeful mentorship, but, more likely, it was being available to answer technical questions and offer advice about many small things along the way.”
David Bauer, co-owner of All Souls Pizza, says he wants his employees to succeed, knowing full well DeBrie will eventually be leaving the nest. “One way I’ll measure [success] is to see if people who worked for me went out and did their own thing and built on what they learned,” says Bauer. “To me, one of the cool, exciting things is when the people that work for you start their own projects and become your peers.” And Bauer says DeBrie was on that trajectory with or without him. “[He] was always going to have his own thing. It’s not like we gave him something he couldn’t have done on his own.”
Irani says that while nurturing the ambitions of talented staff leads to departures, it also creates a desirable environment for up-and-comers. “It’s not a zero-sum game. The more we foster and help people develop, the more we build a reputation for being a creative and innovative workplace and the more talent we attract,” says Irani.
Dawes adds that part of the business is imparting skills and knowledge to your staff. “It would be misanthropic not to. As chefs, we can be hard on our kitchen staffs as we strive to achieve and maintain levels of consistency and performance, but this should never be mean-spirited or neglectful in nature,” he says. “After all, cooking is a craft, and apprenticing is an important aspect of the craft.”
Irani also says that being intentional about allowing staff to act on their creativity and ambition not only aids in attracting top-shelf employees but helps with retention. “Because even the most loyal people will eventually leave if there’s no opportunity to grow, and they feel stuck in their current position,” he says.
Most professionals have career goals, and, in the culinary industry, that often means starting a business. While Burial Beer Co. and Salt & Smoke are currently enjoying and prospering from their relationship, it’s one that will likely come to an end at some point. While neither party is in a rush part ways, it’s just the reality of the situation.
Shannon says she and Josiah occasionally talk potential concepts for a brick-and-mortar operation with a larger footprint, but she is quick to note that they’re not overlooking the current opportunity. “Our focus is really on getting this up and running and working out the kinks,” she says. Josiah adds, “We know there will be a future and expansion to some degree, but right now it’s important to stay focused on this and make it the best it can be without getting too far ahead.”
Reiser says watching another business grow from the venture she created is rewarding but also creates some proximity anxiety. “I see our start in them. Watching how nerve-wracking it is waiting for inspections. I remember feeling like that,” she says. “[Burial Beer Co.] started without any loans, any investors. … We started small and see the possibility for them to grow the same way we did.”
Bauer says regardless of expiration dates, it makes sense to align yourself with talented people. “I just view it as a great partnership. We benefit from having [DeBrie] work with us, and he benefits from using the restaurant as a springboard to his own project. It’s a good trade-off,” he says. “We feel lucky to have this time with him but understand it will come to an end at some point and hope he feels the same way.”
While Rasmussen and DeBrie forge ahead with their plans to open Intentional Swine, they know their day jobs continue to provide not only a paycheck and experience, but also a means to build the Intentional Swine brand via word-of-mouth. “From what I hear from servers at All Souls Pizza, people often ask, ‘Where is Intentional Swine? Can I go there and buy something?’” says DeBrie. “It will be cool if and when we have our own shop, but I would assume if we had no reputation whatsoever, and we opened a butcher shop in West Asheville … I don’t know who would show up.”
Rasmussen adds, “They genuinely want to support us. I don’t know who helped them when they got started, but they are passing that forward to us.”
And, as Irani notes, quality staff moving on to bigger things is part of a healthy progression. “We put the emphasis on growth for the business,” he says. “We believe that if the business grows, that creates opportunities for talented people to grow.”
Asheville’s pop culture
While staff from various Asheville restaurants move upward and on, they, along with city’s entire service industry, continue to play a role in supporting pop-ups and the opportunities inherent to them.
“Competitive yet collaborative” is how Irani describes the pop-up scene. “It’s really awesome how chefs are excited to work with each other, and there’s a healthy competitive aspect to where each pop-up is trying to raise the bar with creativity and originality. That makes for an exciting food scene in Asheville that brings in more press, increases tourism and benefits the local economy.”
Bauer says, for the most part, there’s level of maturity and confidence in the city’s culinary industry that lends itself toward being a supportive environment. “I think in any city when you find restaurateurs and chefs who really have their s**t together and really know what they’re doing, there’s going to be a tendency toward professionalism. And with professionalism comes an understanding of the career path of a chef,” he says. “If I hear about a chef trying to constrain one of their cooks, that to me is a red flag of amateurism and insecurity.”
Rasmussen says coming from a larger city, Asheville’s attitude is refreshing. “I don’t think people are trying to climb over each other to get to the top,” she says. “The thing I’ve found here is a sense of community. I see it with all the chefs in town that are truly happy and supportive of each other. Now they’re extending that to us, and we hope to extend that to our peers.”
Josiah adds he’s been the beneficiary of that network and believes there’s a genuine, communal desire to “build up the Asheville culinary scene.” He also affirms the city’s reputation as collaborative. “One thing that drew us here is the community of other chefs asking, ‘What do you need? Let’s help each other out,’” he says.
“The pop-ups make the community seem more cohesive. In a way, everybody has some connection by helping out or being supportive,” says DeBrie. “In other cities, chefs know each other, but I think, actually physically doing things to help each other — I don’t know that I’ve seen that in other cities.”