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Pop-up Restaurants and Stores: Great Places to Start a Business

(page 4 of 4)

From Ethiopia to Pop-up

Meron Spencer prepares the dishes of her native Ethiopia.

Photo: Courtesy Jim Spencer

Jim and Meron Spencer loved having friends over for dinner, and guests loved the great conversation and the multicourse dinners of Ethiopian food prepared by Meron (pronounced Meh-roan). The parties ended with Ethiopian coffee roasted and ground by Meron in what she described as “sort of like a tea ceremony.”

She began cooking for her own family when she was just 8, while growing up in Ethiopia’s Kaffa region, where coffee originated and from which the beverage got its name. The couple met in the capital of Addis Ababa eight years ago while Spencer, a professor of urban planning and political science at UH-Manoa, was working on a health project. In 2006, they married there and, a year later, Meron and her then-7-year-old son arrived in Hawaii.

Ethiopian food was not new to Jim Spencer, who is the son of a Vietnamese mother and American father. “I always knew Ethiopian food growing up in New York,” he says. “And before coming to the U.S., we spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, where there are lots of Ethiopian restaurants in major cities.”

But there were none in Honolulu. Encouraged by friends who relished their gala dinner parties, the Spencers set out to change that.

They got the chance two years ago when a phone call introduced them to JJ Praseuth Luangkhot, chef and owner of JJ Bistro & French Pastry in Kaimuki. He had just invested in a new restaurant, J2 Fusion, and had heard about their great dinners. He offered them the use of his new facility one night a week and the Addis Ababa Hawaii pop-up restaurant was born.

The Spencers started with a Thursday night. “We said, ‘We’ll take care of the food and you take care of the service, the gas, the electricity and refrigeration and then we’ll split the revenues,’ ” says Spencer.

“I just sent out an email to friends and colleagues and asked them to send it out, got it on Facebook and asked for reservations,” he says. That first night had a deluge of 115 people, more than they could handle, but that provided an important lesson: A pop-up restaurant is more than just great food.

“Managing the people, that was really hard,” he says. “We could only seat 85 and some left. That was our mistake that first night, accepting too many reservations.

“But one of the things Meron also realized is that it’s not just about eating, it’s about culture, about education, about socializing. … That first night the governor came and the second night somebody who writes a blog wrote it up. There were reviews on Yelp, lots of different types of reviews. We never did any other type of advertising.”

The couple ran that pop-up for eight months, then moved to other venues such as the Lemongrass Cafe in Chinatown.

“Basically they cover the space and we cover all the food,” says Spencer of the restaurants they work with. “We’ve become kind of like the subcontractor.”

Yes, they are considering a permanent site, but they insist it will have to be “just the right situation.”

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