Pop-up to restaurant: the next step

If you’re running a successful pop-up restaurant, chances are you’re eagerly awaiting the right moment to move into something more permanent. It’s a tricky stage in the progression of your brand; stuck in a sort of limbo between a perfectly adequate small business and the possibility of something much bigger. How do you avoid ruining a good thing? And how do you know when the time is right to take the plunge?

Finding investment

One of the main influencing factors in the outcome of this decision is, of course, money. Finding investment can be a huge challenge, especially if writing business plans and delivering pitches isn’t really your forte. With this in mind, I’ve been watching BBC Two’s Million Pound Menu with interest.

A sort of Apprentice/Master Chef/Dragon’s Den mashup, each week, two sets of hopeful restaurateurs get three days to present their dining concepts to prospective investors. The first day is a trial run – a chance to road test their idea on a full restaurant. The second day involves a private tasting with potential investors; an opportunity to discuss the menu in detail without the stress of a full service. And the third and final day is their last chance to seal the deal as they serve a full set of covers with both members of the public and the investors.

“Don’t be afraid to take the next step – just don’t do it blind.”

Caught in a trap

All of the ideas presented on Million Pound Menu (to me) seem to have potential, from street food (à la ShrimpWreck and Wholesome Junkies) to fine dining (Epoch, Hollings and Dynasty), and a number of the restaurant concepts are already operating and doing a good trade.

But, for some, when they convert their idea into a full-size restaurant, something strange happens. They lose that indefinable ‘thing’ that gives them their appeal – and the investors lose interest.

Like Trap Kitchen: a one-man-band takeaway created a year ago by 27-year-old Prince Owusu. It operates entirely from his mother’s council flat kitchen in South London and has become a social media sensation, with more than 70,000 Instagram followers.

Prince sought an investment of £500,000 from investors on Million Pound Menu, with hope of becoming the next Nando’s. His format was pretty simple: he opens three evenings a week on a collection-only basis, with customers pulling up outside to pay for and collect their food. His menu is a stodgy combination of Belgian waffles, macaroni cheese and lobster tails – not exactly your standard Instagramable fare. But for some reason, it works. He’s turning over 200 meals a night and taking £10,000 every week.

Prince didn’t get the investment he wanted in the end, despite having concrete proof there is massive demand for his food. He lost out because the takeaway comfort food format didn’t immediately translate into a scalable restaurant business. The investors responded more favourably to his food when it was served out of the polystyrene trays he uses in his takeaway, than when he served it up on fancy china.

If it works, keep it

Vital to making the transition from pop-up to restaurant work for you is ensuring you don’t lose your identity. You might think moving from a street food stall to a swanky new building will instantly boost your foodie credentials. But in actual fact, it could have the opposite effect if it isn’t executed properly.

Identify what it is that keeps your customers coming back for more. If it’s convenience, think about keeping a takeaway element to your restaurant, or offering light bites that can be eaten at the bar. If it’s your quirky location, think long and hard about how you choose your venue. Interior design can help maintain some of that character, but will you get the same loyal customers follow you from shipping container to shopping mall? What can you do to recreate that feeling of authenticity?

If you’re lucky and it’s simply the food that keeps people coming back, think about the little subtleties that make it unique: how it’s served, what it’s served in, cutlery, portion size – any of these small details could play a major part in how customers perceive you, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

Fortune favours the brave

Most of all, don’t be afraid to take the next step – just don’t do it blind. Minimise costly mistakes by speaking to people in the know. Find someone who understands your brand and can help steer you through the tricky process of expanding, without losing sight of who you are.

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