Popping up everywhere

Half a lifetime ago, during a warm summer down the west coast of Victoria, a mate and I set up a restaurant. It was going to be a luxurious taste of local seafood and mussels washed down with the best local wine served in a bush setting under the stars. We teamed up with a local café set on a back road surrounded by banksias and bottle brushes.

We paid them rent for the property and a slice of their outgoings, and they provided the tables, chairs, cutlery and crockery, as well as access to the kitchen after they finished lunch service, their final service of the day. It was called Big Night, after the restaurant film of the same name starring Stanley Tucci and Isabella Rossellini. 

It ran for 12 nights only, based on the number of nights we could get a limited liquor license. Our Big Night menu was dictated by what we could get by driving around the Great Ocean Road. Mussels from Portarlington, fish from Apollo Bay pier, vegetables from local growers — especially potatoes from Colac. To keep food costs down, we started with a hand-made pasta dish and moved onto classics such as trevally with caponata and chicken roasted with puréed lemon rind, garlic and oregano. We made a lot of cash that summer which helped both of us kick-start our careers. I went into food writing and he became one of Melbourne’s most creative and influential restaurateurs. We didn’t know it at the time, but we just created what would later be called a ‘pop-up.’

Back then, we were running by the skin of our teeth, using borrowed and mismatched glassware, napery run up on the Pfaff sewing machine by my wife the night before opening. Being held outdoors, a single drop of rain or breath of wind could bring our little culinary house of cards tumbling down. 

A quarter of a century later, I look around and see how far the concept of pop-up has come. Basically, a pop-up is inserting a retail offer into an existing space for a short time. A pop-up could test the market or a product, make the most of a seasonal increase in foot traffic, be a way to market a product simply by creating hype or to use another existing business’s real estate and cache to push a new business. 

In my neck of the woods in St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street, we have the local council team up with landlords of shops earmarked for development to create vibrant and affordable retail. It would otherwise have been whole blocks of empty shops turned into artist studios and artisan craftware shops. A great example of making the most of idle real estate in Melbourne’s Southbank is where an indoor micro green farm has taken over a former BMW showroom to grow punnets of edible herbs under grow lights. Greenspace.com now supplies chefs in the best kitchens in the city from where M3s were once sold. 

Developers understand the power of a pop-up to create buzz and interest in a new build. In the inner northern Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, developer Neometro held ground floor space for a café in a building earmarked for redevelopment. At the time, a spokesperson for Neometro said, “It’s not just about activation for the sake of selling. Our focus is on social and community outcomes.” 

Perhaps the most famous pop-ups in Australian history occurred when two international chefs uprooted themselves from their European restaurants and made Australia home. When Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Brae was being refurbished, he moved his team to the Crown Casino in 2014 for a six-month popup. Having one of the world’s best chefs in the casino brought great esteem to the business. Some of Blumenthal’s team stayed on to work in Dinner by Heston which ran another five years. Around the same time, Danish chef Rene Redzepi came to the Barangaroo development in Sydney for a brief 10-week stint. During that time, the modernist chef not only put the development on the map but also brought global attention to Indigenous bush foods — a lasting legacy.

While the pop-up landscape has changed dramatically in the past quarter of a century, becoming a much more corporatised concern, there is still space for young and hopeful culinary entrepreneurs to open up shop. As our cities expand, new spaces are opening up in old factories, old petrol stations and former council buildings. This is where a lot of exciting low-budget pop-ups are happening as young, ambitious people are getting together to cook the food they love in very low-fi surrounds. This is where the exciting stuff is happening.


Richard Cornish

appetiser. senior contributor