52 Things - Number 51: Open a Pop Up Restaurant

Overview and Background:

A very unique and innovative idea that community buildings could try their hand at is “pop-up restaurants.”

They are as their name implies – a restaurant-style evening that caters for up to 60 people, perhaps with a themed cuisine, and opens up overnight in a space not generally used for such a purpose.

A very successful example of this in action can be found at Masham Town Hall in North Yorkshire, where the small community of 1200 people have so far been treated to 3 of these exceptional evenings.

The approach: 

Two of these are catered around the theme of ‘fine dining’ while the third was a French-special in aid of Tour de France celebrations when they passed through the area last summer. The latter raised significant funds that contributed to hiring and running costs, as well as licensing and publicity. Nick Reed, Administrator for Masham Town Hall, advises that it is relatively easy to make costs back from running the pop-ups through the sale of tickets, and then have some left over for other activities in the community.

“We charge £20-25 a head – that gives you a three-course meal including coffee. Wine is extra, but we have been able to purchase at a discount rate from a nearby wine retailer, so it is worth looking at local suppliers in the area. Alternatively, we have gone with BYOB – Bring Your Own Bottle – as we have all of the relevant alcohol licenses in place to allow this. We have found that wine is where you make the bulk profit.”

Food is mostly pre-prepared outside of the hall and then warmed up in the kitchen, with some meals made to order, so a building would need to have a fairly large kitchen area, or at least enough space to operate a base from on the night. Catering is planned to offer vegetarian as well as gluten-free options.

“I run the winery from my office in the hall, we use volunteers to serve the starters, and then the mains and desserts are buffet-style so that people can go up and choose their meals. If we need more service than this in future, we would consider factoring employment costs into our budget. Perhaps one shift’s worth of work from a local cafe or students,” Nick explains, “but for now volunteers can cover this.”

Nick and the other volunteers play ambient music in the background, and in the future are considering offering light entertainment. An Italian-themed pop-up is in the works and the hall would like to hire an Italian singer to add a little something more to the night.

There were found to be relatively few issues in staging the events, as the caterers found it straight-forward, and were catering for less numbers (around 50-60) than they were used to with weddings and the like.

Publicity has been relatively simple, with word-of-mouth being the main instigator of interest in the restaurants. Masham have made use of newsletters, email, and the local parish councils. “There are also 31 retail establishments in Masham, shops, pubs and hotels, and they are happy to display posters for us, meaning we reach as wide an audience as possible.”

Nick admits that there is sometimes the risk of volunteer fatigue: “Masham is lucky in that across the different organisations there is an enthusiastic pool of volunteers, but they are spread very thin. If people hadn’t volunteered to help with the pop-ups on the night, we may have had to employ somebody. Volunteers are happy to do one-offs, rather than make weekly commitments, so it is worth considering this aspect carefully.”

What next: 

It is easy to see why volunteers are in high demand in Masham, with a plethora of exciting activities available to the public. More recently, successful new ventures have been a Tai Chi class, a sewing circle that teaches and improves skills, and a quilting group. They have also been successful in their endeavours to become a professional music venue, and films, live music and stand-up comedy are all in the works. “Cover bands in particular are often sell-outs,” Nick notes.

The positive returns of a pop-up restaurant seem to be infinite, with a headcount of 20-25 diners often covering all baseline costs, meaning any more attendees bring in a profit for the Town Hall and its caterers.

“I would definitely recommend this idea to other communities, in particular because the pop-up restaurants are less work than a coffee morning and they often raise more money.”