Pop-ups have a lot going for them on both sides of the kitchen. A chef at, say, a French restaurant who's been dying to cook an Indian feast can let the biryani fly without angering customers. And if you're a sous chef or line cook, always stuck cooking someone else's recipes, pop-ups are your chance to show everyone what you can do. As for diners, it's a chance to try something different, something special and "exclusive."
But pop-ups are far from perfect. As any caterer will tell you, bringing the restaurant to the people is a giant, expensive headache. And even if you're borrowing a fully outfitted space, there's still the planning, staffing, and marketing to do. And for diners, let's be honest, pop-ups can be a very expensive crap-shoot.
Aiming to solve those problems, one dinner at a time, is a two-year-old company called Dinner Lab, which just made its first foray into Portland. The New Orleans-based outfit, which has rapidly expanded from five cities in 2014 to 20 cities today, specializes in producing affordable pop-up dinners around the country featuring any chef with a good idea.
"Pop-ups are not easy, so we're removing the barriers and taking the logistics out," says Bryson Aust, co-founder and CFO. "Chefs just need an idea and they'll work with our team. They don't have to put up any money and they get paid no matter what."
Chefs can do their thing — cook — and not worry about things like staffing and selling tickets. And diners can feast on a multi-course meal that hovers around $65, all inclusive of unlimited beverages and tip, or a $30 cocktails-and-small-plates happy hour, aimed at giving bartenders the limelight. And since Dinner Labs are, at their core, a place for chefs to experiment, diners get to complete surveys offering honest, anonymous feedback without feeling like they're going to insult the chef.
"We do two seatings of 60 people each night," says Aust. "That's 120 people offering feedback. Every course is rated, so we're arming the chef with data. If they get a 5 on taste but a 1 on creativity, they know where they need to work."
The company keeps costs low by renting out cheap spaces — empty warehouses, factories, and "underutilized rooftops." Even empty office spaces are fair game. And the prices on the dinners are subsidized by yearly membership fees. In Portland, the fee is $175, which allows you to buy tickets to any Dinner Lab popup, in Portland or beyond, for you and a guest. And — insatiably curious diners take note — the Portland popups aren't limited to Portland chefs. In fact, the first dinner on May 8 features modern Creole food from New Orleans chef Brent Tranchina, whose seven-course dinner will include dishes such as smoked and chilled water fowl with bayou grasses, sweet potato puree, candied walnuts, and poached raspberries.
"We share chefs and cross-promote all the time," Aust says. "If a chef wants to take their popup regional or national, they can. They can go on a six-city tour if they want. A Northwest chef can go to Miami or New York, and they can have us bring in their own food and beverage producers. It opens up a lot of cool ideas."
Dinner Lab's Portland memberships launched today. To snag yours (New York sold out in 48 hours), visit the website.