Cellar 912: Pop-Up Dining

Pop-up restaurants intrigue me. The concept is simple – a chef or catering unit wants to try out some new dishes, a new approach to service, or spread their brand with new clients. So, they host a one-night only (or multi-night) event in which they create a restaurant from scratch. The infamous Top Chef Restaurant Wars challenge is a twist on pop-up dining.

When Liquid Catering, the Old Cigar Warehouse, and Chef 360 partnered to create Greenville’s first pop-up restaurant, I wanted to try it out.

Pop-up restaurants don’t have traditional fan bases, given that they are temporary events, so many pop-ups capitalize on social and participatory media for strategic communication. Whereas many of the dinner guests salivate over the food, the intersection of space/place, user-experience design, and digital media is the thing that gets my mouth watering.

The site for Greenville’s first-of-its-kind dining experience was the Old Cigar Warehouse on Main Street in Greenville’s West End:

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The venue itself is inviting, for a warehouse with interesting lighting, lots of flexible space, and seperate entry room and main room. Here’s a look at the main room set for dinner service:

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One of the real draws of the event was the menu and its selected wine pairings. Each table was preset with glasses and tableware that made you feel like you were going to experience a great dinner service.

20140221-213528.jpgAs it turns out, the food was good, but I was much more interested in the experience of the event. The evening really delivered on two fronts. First, the food and service was good. We weren’t expecting a pop-up restaurant to be perfect fine dining, so our expectations were that we might try some concept dishes a chef wanted to experiment with. The meal was fun, but the clear highlight was the dessert. Second, the live entertainment provided by Jacob Johnson, a “neo-acoustic folk/funk guitarist” was awesome.

What really surprised me were two things:

  1. The event didn’t reference its pop-up-ness at all. Instead, the actions of the waiters, hosts, and servers were in line with what one might experience at a typical restaurant. I thought the whole event could have embraced its temporary nature – for the food to take more risks, for the waitstaff to be more excited, for the hosts to be excited about the pop-up, for the restaurant to poke a little fun at its temporality, or at least reference it even once.
  2. The use of social media was lacking. A sheet of paper on one table in the entry room invited diners to post a picture on Facebook. No other reference to it was present. When I looked at the facebook page (and posted a picture), no one else had submitted a photo. Nothing on instagram. Nothing on Twitter. The Facebook page reposted one story from a local broadcast news station before the event and thanked its staff for a good event afterward. During the event, there was no buzz, no playfulness, no liking of my picture (I’m not holding a grudge), no use of social media to generate excitement during the event. The Facebook page was very active as a marketing tool leading up to the event, but then failed to market the experience of the event during (or after) the pop-up.

So, I take the following idea from this event – pop-up restaurants (and temporary events like it – think 5K’s, fundraisers, annual conferences, experience-based meals) can use social media to promote their causes. But, social media is also a valuable tool to employ during and after the event. Media outreach before the event calls us to attend, but media outreach during and after the event cause us to reflect on our experiences- and to share with others. Without follow-through, an event which people registered for using the Internet loses its digital luster.

I’ll remember the restaurant and the great date it provided for my wife and I, but I’ll also remember that this pop-up didn’t embrace its identity. I remain hopeful that the next one I attend will be as excited as I am about the “pop-up” part of the dining experience.

What are your thoughts?

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