Opening a restaurant is a dream shared by many, yet very few succeed in manifesting that dream in reality due to the intense commitment required by the venture. From managing a venue and its employees, to preparing and servicing massive amounts of food, entering the restaurant industry is no small task. Consequently, there are an endless succession of challenges that can make or break even the most robust of teams. Enter pop-up restaurants: a “safer” alternative for enthusiasts who cannot necessarily invest the time and financial resources into getting a permanent business venture off the ground, but who still wish to gain invaluable experience, further their careers, or simply try something new.
Pop-up restaurants have a historically global presence. For decades, they have been ingrained in Cuban tradition in the form of paladares: small, family-run restaurants, often set up in owners’ homes. Since the 2000s, pop-ups have gained popularity in Britain and Australia. Restaurant Day was the first institutionalized framework to embrace the idea of the pop-up restaurant concept. Started in 2011 across various cities — initially as a sporadic event — this celebration of the do-it-yourself, foodie culture is not an ongoing, year-round event (since 2016). To better understand pop-up restaurants, I sat down with Drew and Kat — two food enthusiasts working in the food service industry with restaurant dreams of their own — a few days before the second installment of their pop-up, Fig & Pear.
The night before
When asked to define what a “pop-up” is, both Drew and Kat agreed: “[It’s] taking part of DIY culture,” says Kat. That couldn’t be more true – throughout the interview, Drew was chopping vegetables and browning meat that would later become a delicious stew on the menu at Fig & Pear. In fact, the food preparation began days before: first with Drew scouring Montreal shops for ingredients, then as he slowly simmered delicious bone broth and experimented with untried recipes. While the event itself is only a few hours, it’s that slow, preparative work — sometimes days long — that gives the meal its depth of flavour.
The work isn’t limited to food: without the traditional restaurant structure, pop-ups must set up a kitchen that can feed dozens, with the seating and kitchenware to match. In Fig & Pear’s case, this means subjecting Kat’s apartment to a complete makeover. Within a day, her Montreal dwelling permutes from an ordinary home into a dining hall that can comfortably accommodate fifteen people. Similarly, her kitchen is transformed into a well-oiled machine that can churn out a five-courses meal at the same rate as any other restaurant.
For budding professionals with an entrepreneurial spirit, the pop-up restaurant is also a chance to gather invaluable experience. Drew and Kat remark that “[It’s also] about getting a taste for what running a restaurant would entail, and creating our own vision [accordingly].” Creating a pop up restaurant from scratch is then not only a feat of culinary talent but a tough promotional endeavour. Fortunately, social media offers fertile ground for grassroots projects like these, and Montreal’s omnipresent foodie scene facilitates a scene for amateur restaurateurs. Through Facebook and word-of-mouth, Fig & Pear filled its first dining room. Their presence grows stronger by maintaining an Instagram platform, which allows them to periodically share photos of their events and preparatory steps.
The ideas of independence and mutual respect are also prevalent throughout Fig & Pear. According to the duo, one of the perks of the DIY approach is the power to make executive decisions that shape a final product as close to the desired vision as possible; both the menu and venue then become a direct translation of the passion and effort put into making it happen. The independence also allows pop-up restaurateurs to diverge from traditional kitchen and business environments that do not prioritize self-care. “We can foster an environment that is a lot better to work in than those in restaurants,” Drew commented. With their only real revenue-goal being to break even and have a good time, a lot of weight is taken off of the product-creation process, which in turn leaves more space for fun and creativity.
An evening at Fig & Pear
From the outside of Kat’s apartment, you would never imagine that a DIY restaurant lies inside. Diners flock in and occupy the few tables present in the living-room-now-dining-room. The event menu, kept secret by chef Drew until the night-of, is displayed in the entrance for all to see. From foie gras to delicious lamb, those in attendance are in for a treat. As the variety of the menu suggests, Fig & Pear is primarily about experimenting and tasting. Their first installment sets the bar high, with a salt-baked fish dish that impresses many. As plates are rolled out of the kitchen, a thick, satisfying layer of smells fill the room. Occasionally, the hosts take a break from their duties to peek at the smiling faces happily munching at the tables.
From time to time, a course is accompanied by a small speech from Drew, who comes out of the kitchen to talk about the dish being served. The moment of transition serves as an occasion for him to see the fruits of his labor, as leaving the kitchen in between courses could mean overcooking a food piece sizzling on the stove. To maintain low costs for diners, the food budget is kept tight, and the portions are counted. Drew has no problem managing that contingency as he is well-integrated with the ways of the restaurant industry.
By the end of the evening, the kitchen winds down, and diners are served dessert and coffee. Exhausted but extremely content with what they have accomplished, Drew and Kat are able to sit down and talk longer with guests, some of whom are already migrating home to digest their meal.
Pop-up restaurants are about more than food. The ephemeral nature of the event adds to the novelty of the experience: the idea that the day after, the venue will no longer exist, and the people staffing it will go back to their daily lives. Pop-ups remain an occasion to try something new and to taste recipes that may not be found in other restaurants. There is a certain magic to the whole ordeal: an underground network of fine dining might be thriving next door, and you might not even know it.
Follow Fig & Pear on Instagram for news about upcoming events and to check out what they’ve done so far!