Earlier this month, a pop-up store in the Bowery promoting an Adidas and Arizona Iced Tea collaboration quickly ran out of their limited-run sneakers, causing hundreds of people to riot.  Now, I remembered hearing about this as it happened, but couldn’t recall the specific brands, so I gave it a quick google. As it turns out, googling “fight at pop-up” wasn’t particularly helpful, as this is not an isolated incident.  In 2017, fights broke out in the line of a Louis Vuitton pop-up in LA, causing it to be shut down before it even opened, and in 2013, violence erupted at a pop-up in New York promoting a Drake album after it ran out of shirts.   

Ok, I don’t even like this style of sneaker, but I’d fight someone for the ones on the bottom.

For the most part, pop-up restaurants haven’t had these kinds of struggles, especially since most take a certain number of reservations in order to combat unruly lines.  However, there are other concerns that have arisen due to the constant flux of pop-ups. And I’m not just talking about how they make me write crazy shit like this.

First off, I don’t want to make this entirely about the fact that I’m bitter about living nowhere near any of the big pop-up cities, so I do want to point out that pop-ups used to, and in fact still do have a purpose.  Originally, they were outlets for chefs to try out something new, whether a new menu or an entirely new style of cuisine. Or, alternatively, they allowed aspiring chefs to be king for a day, without all the associated costs and risks of opening an entirely new restaurant in an already cut-throat industry.  However, such aspiring chefs have found that doing pop-up after pop-up “doesn’t help with lease negotiations” for when the day comes that they want to start their own restaurant.  

In direct contrast to that last point, part of my problem with pop-ups is that the concept now seems to have been co-opted by corporations can afford to take said risks, but prefer to cash in on the exclusivity of limited-run engagements.  A copy of the Double R Diner sprung up to promote the third season of Twin Peaks, and reportedly served coffee that was anything but “damn good.”  A Saved by the Bell-themed pop up existed at some point in 2018, for all three of the people who were still thinking about Saved by the Bell in 2018.  This flavor of pop-up seems to be catering to those who are strictly looking for a photo op, and could care less about the food.  

Can pop-ups still have a purpose?  Of course. They can be a celebration of smaller city’s local food scenes, such as this Omaha charcuterie pop-up, where many of the chefs involved hoped to reinvigorate their city’s Or they can be used to raise awareness on different issues, such as this Toronto pop-up with a fully HIV-positive staff, aimed at educating the public against the stigma surrounding the disease. 

In the same breath, however, another Toronto chef opened a “dome-themed” pop-up in a highway underpass- two weeks after a tent city in an underpass on that same highway had been cleared out by city officials- and, in the ensuing PR backlash, failed to find a way to spin the situation around so that some of that $545 CAD per person could go towards fighting homelessness. 

Am I saying that every pop-up needs to be a charity event?  No, but they should at least have some sort of purpose. The Experience Economy is alive and well, and, chances are, pop-ups are going to continue to thrive so long as diners are excited by the idea of being able to go to a new restaurant for the first time.  But at some point, exclusivity for the sake of exclusivity took over and people lost sight of what should make a restaurant worth going to: the food.


2 thoughts on “The Problem with Pop-Ups

  1. RJG says:

    Related reading – an article from GQ earlier this year featuring Tunde Wey. https://www.gq.com/story/chef-tunde-wey-profile

    1. Riley Johnson says:

      Welp, there’s no point in reading my article anymore, he summed it up perfectly with “The problem is that we have too many spaces where food is just that. We need spaces where we can eat and not think about shit, but if all your spaces are spaces where you eat and don’t think about shit, then you’re never thinking about shit!”

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