Jeff Lefko, 19, wanted to experience the adrenaline rush of opening his own restaurant — if only for a few days.
So following in the footsteps of other cutting-edge chefs across the country, he opened Concept One, a pop-up restaurant, for four days in June.
The $60 tickets were quickly snapped up online for the three-course dinner at Studio Dan Meiners’ private event space near downtown. The pop-up was a culinary success, attracting local food personalities, including James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Smith, Bad Seed farmers Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer, and Alan Gaylin, owner of BRGR Kitchen & Bar, Urban Table and Gram & Dun.
But the buzz it created could have just as easily turned to buzz kill if the health department discovered that Lefko and his business partner had failed to obtain required inspection and permits. The department could have shut them down before dessert.
Concept One is just the latest “pop-up,” or temporary restaurant, that opens and closes within a few days’ time in non-traditional spots around Kansas City. It’s a trend that took off in London in the mid-2000s and spread to U.S. cities with adventurous food lovers, such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami.
“The pop-up concept will outlive the economic downturn,” said A.K. Crump, chief executive officer of Taste TV, a food and lifestyle network in San Francisco whose Popuprestaurants.com website has kept track of the phenomenon since 2008. “The whole temporary situation is growing in speed.”
Temporary, Crump said, is the new normal for small businesses trying to stay afloat in recessionary times.
Half a dozen pop-up events have been staged in Kansas City in the past year. The concept is still so new here that ambitious local chefs are not always clear what is required to open, and government regulators are scrambling to keep up with the innovations.
Most pop-up chefs pride themselves on pushing the edge of the culinary envelope, but by operating in ad hoc spaces, they often find themselves out in front of regulation. Some government officials contacted for this story weren’t necessarily up on the trend. Several responded to reporters’ queries with, “What’s a pop-up restaurant?”
Setting up in an event space, warehouse, museum or outdoor space and operating for a limited time doesn’t give chefs permission to fly under the radar of regulation. Yet frustrations arise when chefs try to do the right thing and find there is no checklist, or worse, conflicting information, when trying to follow the letter of the law.
“You can’t be stagnant,” said Deb Churchill, property manager and leasing agent for the City Market, which hosted a pop-up restaurant in July. “The health department should progress as trends change and alter policy to make things more viable.”
Kansas City Health Department officials first heard about pop-up restaurants a year ago when a story about one was featured in the press. A City Market event was just a day away, but the department met with the pop-up organizers and coached them through the required paperwork. The event launched on schedule.
As of yet, the department reports that it has not prevented any pop-up events nor closed any down while under way.
The department now requires a temporary event permit for all chefs opening pop-ups. Officials also review the menu and make certain the event planners are using appropriate kitchen and food sources and understand and follow the 258-page Food Code. These requirements are similar for all eating establishments, from sampling stands to pushcarts to fine dining restaurants.
“The biggest challenge that we encounter with pop-up restaurants is, because so many of the chefs are either from out of town or just starting out, they do not realize that they need to apply for a permit for these events,” said Jeff Hershberger, spokesman for the Kansas City Health Department. “We tend to hear about them either in the news or social media, and then we have to stop the process until all the necessary steps have been taken. Our goal isn’t to keep them from doing it. Our purpose is to make sure the food is safe.”
Concept One, for example, should have had a temporary permit.
“Our system shows no permit under either the business name or the names of the two organizers,” Hershberger said.
The health department didn’t know about Concept One, or a few other similar events, until after the fact, and it does not plan to retroactively collect the fees, he added.
Lefko, a college student and graduate of Shawnee Mission School District’s renowned Broadmoor Bistro culinary program, declined to comment for this story.
Some pop-up organizers try to get around the regulations by saying they are hosting a private event and therefore don’t need a permit. But if the public is notified through news reports, advertisements or social media, the event is on public record and is not considered private.
Beyond the health department regulations, the checklist gets fuzzier. Government officials new to the concept hedged on absolute requirements, since each situation, venue and duration of the event varies. For instance, a pop-up restaurant also may need a zoning clearance, a business license or a sales tax ID number. To further protect the business concept, the pop-up organizer may choose to register through the business services division of the Secretary of State.
Pop-ups also need to touch base with the Department of Revenue to determine what kind of registration they need. “In general, if it is open to the public and you are selling food, you are supposed to collect and remit sales tax to the Department of Revenue,” said department spokesman Ted Farnen.
In other cities, Crump of Taste TV has observed that regulators are less focused on pop-up restaurants than on food trucks and food festivals.
“In this economy there’s a definite need to foster the small, small businesses that have under five employees, or maybe just one,” he said. “You don’t want to crush that.”
Pop-ups have a built-in aura of spontaneity that allows the chefs to indulge their creative impulses while giving diners a chance to break away from the conventional restaurant rhythms and try something less predictable for a night. Lefko’s Concept One, for example, offered among its three-course choices an appetizer of scallops and chorizo, an entree of pork chop and cassoulet, and a panna cotta dessert with chocolate and salted caramel.
“From a consumer perspective, it’s the thrill of the hunt aspect, and the appeal of having a limited time definitely adds to the mystique,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. For pop-up owners, “it allows them to test out not only new concepts, but new menu items. They can extend their brand into new areas where they are thinking about expanding and see how the demographics align.”
On the business side, a pop-up venue also gives chefs a chance to test a particular market without the commitment of a long-term lease. Property owners who are stuck with higher vacancies due to the economic downturn have become more open to nontraditional and temporary tenants that might, if successful, turn into a permanent relationship.
With five pop-up events under their belt, chef Alex Pope and partner Jenny Vergara seek out spaces with a health department-approved kitchen, and they collect and remit the required sales tax. “There’s no reason to make it harder than we have to,” Vergara said.
So far, their venture, called Vagabond, has hosted dinners at three private event spaces as well as the City Market and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Vagabond is also talking with Union Station about opening a pop-up there before the end of the year.
“As more and more people have found out what we want to do, the spaces have come to us,” Vergara said.
At least one of those spaces, the City Market, works closely with event planners to make sure they fill out all the necessary permits, including a business license as well as temporary event and health department permits.
“We tell everyone to call and ask before the event rather than to be caught on the back end and risk getting shut down,” said Churchill with the City Market. “You don’t want to do that when you’re trying to set up a wonderful event.”