Could this be your year to open a pop-up restaurant? With so many things in flux in the restaurant industry, a pop-up holds more appeal now than ever.

With the potential cost of opening a full-scale restaurant running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the main advantage to a pop-up is its limited scope and lower cost. And as COVID’s resurgence continues to cause uncertainty, pop-ups may have even more staying power than ever.  

Since it’s less of a commitment, pop-up owners aren’t forced to invest as much time and money in opening as they might for a typical restaurant. A pop-up restaurant is also a fun and creative way for chefs and restaurateurs to test out new concepts on eager diners.

So how do you get started opening a pop-up? Here are 8 steps you can follow.

8 Steps to Opening a Pop-Up Restaurant

1. Set your objective

While pop-up restaurants have “popped” in popularity, why are you opening one? Identify your overall purpose and desired outcome. Are you testing out a new restaurant concept? Exploring an up-and-coming neighborhood? Expanding your customer base to a new area? Or experimenting with a new type of cuisine? Whatever the reason, you’re much more likely to achieve success for your pop-up with a clear statement of goals from the beginning — as well as pre-determined metrics for measuring success.

2. Choose a location

Even if it’s temporary, you’ll need to choose your location early on in the planning process. Conduct a little research to find the right place for your pop-up. Where do you see the bulk of foot traffic in your area? Is there a sizable population of students nearby that are eager to try new things? Or maybe a downtown location with a steady lunch crowd? Some cities, such as San Francisco and New York, have dedicated spaces for pop-up restaurants, so it’s easy to find a spot to rent. Oftentimes, unusual locations — an old airplane hangar, a rustic barn in the country — can be part of a pop-up’s appeal. Alternatively, you could team up with a brewery or other local business and snag a space in their location. You just need a place where it is safe (and legally permitted — see step #3!) to cook and serve food. 

3. Apply for permits and licenses

There’s some paperwork and red tape involved in opening a pop-up, but if you create a checklist and are diligent about following through on it, you can make headway pretty quickly. The following list outlines the general necessary permits and licenses, but be sure to check with your local municipality on specific paperwork needed:

  • Business Name Registry
  • Business License
  • Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  • Certificate of Occupancy
  • Food Handlers Permit
  • Building Health Permit
  • Employee Health Permit
  • Seller’s Permit
  • Resale Permit
  • Live Entertainment License
  • Liquor License
  • Music License
  • Dumpster Placement Permit

It’s worth noting that food trucks are regulated differently than pop-ups, requiring a different set of permits and licenses. Contact your local county website to learn about requirements in your area.

4. Create a budget plan

The next step is to arm yourself with a pop-up restaurant budget plan. To the best of your abilities, try to estimate your pop-up’s income and expenses — either weekly or monthly. You can either start with labor or with food and alcohol, as both of those categories will be some of your largest expenses. For income, you’ll need to wait until you’ve finalized your menu and pricing, but you can start by determining whether you’ll offer seated dining or takeout only. If the former, look at how many people you can seat, how much they will spend, and how quickly each table will turn over. Either way, remember to factor in your expected pickup and delivery sales as well. For more extensive budgeting information, see our blog post on how to create a small business budget plan.

profit and loss statement template

5. Set up your kitchen

Depending on the theme and offering of your pop-up restaurant, you may not need a full set of commercial kitchen equipment and supplies. But you will certainly need to purchase or rent some major items for food preparation, warming, cooking, and sanitation. Scour the web for bargains — as restaurants open and close frequently — and you may be able to pick up a few things at a discount. Get the word out and ask around, and don’t overlook classifieds and secondhand websites like eBay and Craigslist.

6. Set up your dining room

If your pop-up is going to offer in-house dining, you’ll need to set up your dining room — one of the most important aspects of your brand and a major opportunity to make a great first impression with new customers. In designing your dining room, you’ll need to balance seating capacity with ambiance. In other words, you will want to do two things at once: maximize the number of customers to sell more meals while also making your guests feel comfortable. Depending on the type of décor you choose, your dining room may require booths or tables and chairs, a host station, and a wait station. A good wait station needs to be accessible to staff, but less intrusive or obvious to patrons. Wait stations should be stocked with glassware, silverware, table linens, and condiments.

7. Create and price your menu

Based on your staffing plan and location, you can then determine the ideal number of items you want to offer for sale. Make sure you offer a variety of price points for your dishes, too — satisfying the bargain-hunters as well as those looking to splurge. Keep in mind that most pop-ups offer a smaller menu than full-scale restaurants. Many also experiment with prix-fixe pricing as well to further simplify the operation. Since customers who frequent pop-ups are often looking for something new or unique, they may be more open to paying a set price for the meal rather than paying per dish.

8. Develop your marketing plan

Due to their temporary nature, pop-up restaurants rely on marketing more than any other type of restaurant — primarily through social media, though also through other mainstays like word-of-mouth and local press. Just because this step is last on the list doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start thinking about it from day one. Start your social media accounts early, photograph your signature dishes, befriend local influencers, and advertise your menu or daily specials on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Marketing and promotion will be key to your pop-up’s success.

restaurant social media marketing

So there you have it — eight steps to opening up your pop-up. We wish you all the best of luck in this exciting business endeavor! 

If you’re looking for resources to help you get started, check out our Restaurant Checklist: What You Need When Opening a Restaurant and our guide: Optimizing for Delivery and Pickup.

diana donovan
Diana Donovan
Copywriter

Diana Donovan is a freelance copywriter and digital marketing consultant based in the Bay Area. She has been helping brands with digital marketing since the days of AOL and MySpace (though she admits she’s not yet on TikTok). A graduate of Brown University, she adores gelato.