Pop-up Restaurants and Stores: Great Places to Start a Business
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Follow the Gypsy Chefs from Venue to Venue
By Lee Ann Bowman
Miso & Ale partners, from left, Chris Okuhara, Keola Warren, Chris Gee and Gavin Murai surround Liz Schwartz, owner of Kaimuki’s Coffee Talk, who invited the pop-up team to present an evening of meats and sweets on Oct. 26.
Photo: Lee Ann Bowman
They call themselves “gypsy chefs,” because the four young men who started with a pop-up at Moke’s Bread & Breakfast in Kailua more than a year and a half ago have since shown their stuff at a half dozen or more brick-and-mortar restaurants, as well as setting up tents at various festivals and catering private events. Among their chef’s tools are smartphones, an iPad and social media.
“How many times have we done this?” one of them asks another. There seems to be no definitive answer.
The gypsies, better known as Miso & Ale, are chefs Chris Okuhara and Chris Gee, business partner Keola Warren, and graphic designer and social media guru Gavin Murai.
I caught up with them at Coffee Talk in Kaimuki. For four hours on a late October evening, customers dropped in (no reservations were accepted) to enjoy “appeteasers” of Roasted Beet Salad and The Great Pumpkin Soup, entrees such as The Open Faced BLAT, Chinese Style Beef Stew and The 2 a.m. Special, and parfait and pastry desserts.
The location was thanks to Coffee Talk owner Liz Schwartz, who was on site and seemingly enjoying every moment of the pop-up, and for good reason. For years, she’d kept her coffee, sandwich and pastry shop open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. “But at night it had become a library,” she notes. People brought books and laptops and, often, their own food and drinks. Maybe they’d buy a cup of something. Maybe.
“I wasn’t making money. I had to have staff on and pay for air and lights and so forth, so I started to think about closing early.” As of Oct. 1, she started closing at 6 p.m., which meant nights were available for such experiments. Besides, as a self-proclaimed foodie, she was fascinated by pop-ups and “in awe” of this particular one.
The Miso & Ale gypsies (the name reflects their love of Asian fusion and their favorite beverage) have come to love the creative freedom of using different venues. They have become so popular that established restaurants are now coming to them instead of vice versa. And they recognize that when they leave after a pop-up, they’ve created a whole new customer base – not just for themselves, but for the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
They also like the flexibility of seeing what works rather than the drudgery of doing the same thing every day, and the losses are not as great as with a standard restaurant.
Like other pop-ups, they rent or pay a flat fee to commercial kitchens for food prep, but they also have family kitchen connections: Okuhara’s grandparents own Like Like Drive Inn and Moke’s in Kailua is owned by Warren’s family.
Each time they pop up in a different place, the agreement with the owner is unique to that site. In the case of Coffee Talk, Schwartz asked for a percentage of the evening’s take. Sometimes they’ll pay a flat rate.
“Our cover average (the amount that a restaurant sets as a goal to take in per customer) is variable by event. We’re learning that events in Mililani are different from events in Kakaako,” says Okuhara.
The big question: can you earn a living doing this? Yes, he adds, though it’s the catering part of their business – weddings, birthdays, anything – that puts them into the black. On those occasions, they’re not limited to Asian fusion. “We’ll cook anything anywhere,” he says.
And the whole team stays from setup through cleanup.
What are the downsides of being “a gypsy chef”? A few they mention: “You don’t have your own space, ever … There’s no place to keep all your stuff … You really beat up your car, picking up everything.”
They all agree on another downside: Pop-ups are not an option for people who just want to show up at work every day and have their own space.
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