It’s not uncommon to see a crowd of people at Scratch Biscuit Co. on a Saturday. They just usually don’t come at night.
However, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 24, it was hard to find an open table at the Grandin Village breakfast joint. While the restaurant is typically closed in the evenings, every few months it hosts pop-up restaurants, when guest chefs make a special meal for one night only. Diners who want to try it out only have a few hours to do so, and repeat customers know to buy tickets early. The prime seating times generally sell out in just a few days — or sometimes a few hours — after the pop-up is announced on social media.
The term “pop-up” has become a lot more common over the last few years and is generally used to describe an event or business that operates at a specific time and place for a limited time, or one time only. Restaurant pop-ups like the ones at Scratch have become more frequent in larger cities. Stores now launch temporary pop-up shops to sell their goods. Artists who want to advertise their craft can host pop-up art shows. Want to sit in on a yoga session in a brewery or concert hall? Pop-up yoga is a thing, too.
People have always had craft fairs and have set up shop in temporary spaces, but social media has made it possible for anyone to advertise their events with little, if any, marketing expense.
Bart Smith, the director of the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center, said most of the current crop of pop-up shops and events wouldn’t have been considered 10 years ago unless someone had a hefty advertising budget. Now, he said, these shops and events likely will become more common as social media use thrives and more people turn to side gigs to make extra money.
“I think it’s a genius way to get your product out there and see how people react to it,” he said. Pop-up events are fast and have the attraction of being something new and vibrant, he said. And since events and shops like this generally don’t take the investment of a brick-and-mortar building or permanent spot, it’s a good way to test the market.
Food trucks, he said, are an example of how the model can work. Food trucks often use social media to report where they are and market themselves, and running a truck can be a good first step before owning a restaurant — or at least a way to earn some good buzz in the community.
The pop-ups at Scratch are hosted, organized and promoted by John Park, the man behind the popular Roanoke food-themed Hungry Asian social media accounts. Park uses his connections in the food and restaurant business to find chefs to participate in the Hungry Asian Pop-Up dinners. Most of the chefs are from out of town and serve up meals that aren’t widely available in Roanoke, or not available at all. One pop-up served Nashville-style hot fried chicken, another dished out ramen. On Feb. 24, a mix of dumplings was on the menu. Each pop-up has a different price, but most have been $20 or less per person.
There have been about seven Hungry Asian pop-ups so far, with an average attendance of about 200 people. They are marketed almost entirely on Facebook and through word of mouth. The guest chefs rent out the restaurant, receive the proceeds and get exposure in the process. Park now earns a small percentage of the ticket sales. But he said he started the pop-ups just to try something new and cool in Roanoke, blending his skills of social media, networking and food scene knowledge, and to get people excited about living in Roanoke and staying here.
With the rise of social media, it’s never been easier.
Virginia Tech senior Kaley Roshitsh used social media to market her pop-up thrift store. Roshitsh, who’s interested in pursuing a business in fashion, put together thrift-store outfits and in January hosted a one-night event at a student-run art gallery in Blacksburg. For a $10 donation, attendees could take an outfit home for themselves. Roshitsh’s last thrift pop-up drew about 130 people.
She credits the high turnout primarily to the excitement generated by the buzzword “pop-up.”
People are more likely to show up when it’s a one-time-only event because they crave authentic experiences and like the idea of getting something that is one-of-a-kind, she said — which is also a reason Park cited for the popularity of the restaurant pop-ups.
“I think there is something about waiting in line and having a buildup,” Roshitsh said. “There is a concept of the products that is temporary. I think of a traditional store and you see things and say, ‘I came here last weekend and it’s the same stuff.’”
She hopes to host another thrift pop-up this spring and is looking into how she could turn the events into a viable business plan after she graduates.
Finding the right place to host a pop-up event can be tricky, but some property owners see it as a marketing opportunity.
Yoga instructor Laura Guilliams agreed to teach a lunchtime pop-up yoga class on stage at the Jefferson Center last summer. It’s a quirky, random spot for a yoga class, Guilliams said, but it was fun and allowed her to share her passion with others. The first pop-up session had such good attendance and word of mouth that Jefferson Center organizers decided to continue it. Center spokesman Matthew Wirt said this allows the Jefferson Center to get some buzz about something other than its concerts without a big marketing push. The yoga pop-ups are announced on social media and the center pays Guilliams, but the classes are free.
Roanoke property manager Aaron Garland said allowing pop-ups at some of his properties maintains or increases interest in the locations and can lead to occupancy of the space. If nothing else, it gets people through the door. He had a florist host a Valentine’s Day pop-up at 16 West Marketplace, which he manages, and multiple last-minute shoppers came in to purchase flowers, he said. Beth Deel, who works with his company, Garland Properties, on a contractual basis, hosts pop-up fine art shows alongside art gallery openings at some of Garland’s spaces, including The Aurora on Campbell Avenue. They are designed to give artists exposure and show off different ways the space can be used.
Deel is also the founder of Riot Rooster, an annual indie craft fair held at 16 West. Artists set up booths over a weekend and the event has brought out thousands of attendees in the past few years. Deel said many of the participants have been able to make a living just by attending craft shows and hosting pop-up shops because they have become commonplace.
In another downtown property on Campbell Avenue, Roanoker Ariel Lev recently launched a store called Virginia Design Collective that sells Virginia-made goods and art. She wants the collective’s space to house pop-up events and classes that highlight local goods. A lot of creators don’t have stores and make their homemade goods as side gigs, she said, so these events can be a good way for prospective clients to find them.
Smith said pop-ups are mostly conducted by people who do it as a passion, much like Guilliams, Park and the artists at Riot Rooster. It’s also a way to make a little money on the side. And as more people explore a side hustle in addition to their regular job, more pop-up events and temporary spaces will launch. Roanoke is just at the beginning.
“We are just barely scratching the surface,” Smith said.