June 11

Hosting a Pop-up Restaurant with Friendlys


Sara Mardanbigi, Behind the New Persian Brunch Pop-up Friendlys, Shares Advice About Operating a Pop-Up, a Venture That Can Offer Not Just Business Success but Also Personal Growth and Learning

Restaurant and bar pop-ups are nothing new to our industry, but they’ve certainly experienced an upward trend in recent years and are, quite literally, popping up everywhere. 

Whether you’re a budding chef with dreams of opening your own business or an established restaurateur testing a new concept, pop-ups present a refreshing and flexible approach to running a restaurant business without the weight of high overhead costs or long-term commitments. 

To learn more about getting started with the pop-up scene, Sara Mardanbigi, co-owner of the renowned Nixta Taqueria in Austin, Texas, who recently launched her latest concept, Friendlys, was kind enough to share insights on organizing a pop-up restaurant.

What to Know Before Planning Restaurant Pop-ups

With any solid business decision, you need to consider the benefits and challenges of whatever type of concept you’re going for. 

While pop-ups can be a great way to test the waters, they don’t come without their share of challenges. We’ll break down some more apparent characteristics.

The Benefits of Hosting Pop-up Restaurants

  1. Provides Thorough Research and Development 
    One of the most significant benefits of hosting a pop-up event is that it’s a fantastic way to research and develop your menus and concept before fully diving into a brick-and-mortar store. 

    “I’ve seen many friends, Gado Gado in Portland, for example, start as pop-ups and flourish into multiple brick-and-mortar restaurants,” Mardanbigi said. “It all depends on your timeline and what you can manage financially.”

    Mardanbigi continued to share that business owners often jump into debt on the front end, making it impossible to catch up. With pop-ups, business owners can mitigate financial risks by testing whether their concept can be viable or by continuing to develop ideas until they are.  
  2. Builds Reputation
    Local food enthusiasts love new food and beverage options in their communities, but without an established following, it can be challenging to generate buzz. If you open a brick-and-mortar without press coverage, you’ll take on many risks and extra work in the beginning to ensure your concept takes off.

    Pop-ups can be a fantastic way to introduce yourself to your city, generate some hype around your menus, and network with press and influencers in the area so that when you’re ready to open your restaurant, people will anticipate the opportunity to dine with you.  

    We’ll talk more about partnerships later, but it is wise to connect with a well-established restaurant for your event space so that they can help promote your event within their loyal customer base and hopefully bring in some business as you’re just starting out. 
  3. Offers Unique Opportunities at Any Business Phase

    For Mardanbigi, the journey of operating the Persian brunch spot Friendlys as a pop-up was an unexpected but resourceful turn of events. It was a solution that allowed her to share her vision despite facing financial setbacks, proving that pop-ups don’t have to be just one thing. They can be a dynamic strategy, no matter your business goals or experience. 

    “We still wanted to tell the story of Friendlys, but it just wasn’t feasible financially to do another brick-and-mortar after we went through 7 months of very unexpected re-permitting from the city,” Mardanbigi said. “We’ve never had investors and everything we went through set us back on opening another restaurant, but we’re making the best of it.” 

    Friendlys is a modified pop-up running out of Nixta Taqueria, a well-established and award-winning restaurant. So, while Mardanbigi has years of experience, hosting a pop-up within her restaurant allowed her to still live out a dream, share a story, and have fun exploring new ways of engaging with her community.

    Pop-ups are not limited to those just starting in entrepreneurship. They can be a cost-effective way for established businesses to introduce a fresh concept and attract new customers. 

The Challenges of Hosting Pop-up Restaurants 

  1. Finding a Stable Location
    Unless you develop a relationship with a restaurant that lets you use their space regularly or rent it out over time, you’ll likely need to move between different venues, which can present a few challenges.

    “Again, Friendlys is a unique pop-up since we have all the resources at our restaurant,” Mardanbigi shared. “But in general, from other pop-ups I’ve seen, having a stable location to draw guests seems to be a challenge, as well as providing the level of hospitality you find in restaurants.” 

    One night, you might have access to a fully equipped kitchen. The next, you might be in an event space with limited resources. There are many variables to consider when you don’t have a consistent place to execute your concept, which can affect your customer experience. 

    If you must adjust your menu or experience to compensate for a location, keep your guests informed so they know what to expect.  
  2. Increased Unpredictability
    Because of the temporary nature of pop-up restaurants, there will always be a level of unpredictability. 

    A lot can happen between events, whether increasing or decreasing guest turnout or simply trusting the location’s equipment and resources. 

    Be sure to thoroughly research where you’re hosting your pop-up and plan ahead so that you’re familiar enough to understand what might be an issue and how you’ll be able to roll with the punches if something does come up during service. 
  3. Navigating Legal and Compliance Requirements
    You’re still operating a business even though you don’t have a brick-and-mortar, so complying with local regulations around temporary restaurants and events is a challenging and pricey necessity. 

    We won’t review specifics since requirements change between cities, states, and event types. Still, you’ll likely need to comply with zoning laws, food and alcoholic beverage licensing, and temporary use permits. 

    Additionally, you’ll want to research liability insurance to protect yourself against property damage, liability claims, and worker’s compensation. Be sure to familiarize yourself with workers’ rights for both full-time and freelance workers

Essential Steps When Organizing a Pop-up 

Before you get too far down the road in planning your pop-up, you must build your base by developing the who, the what, and the why behind your concept.  

“Have a clear story. It doesn’t need to be anything glamorous,” Mardanbigi said. “People like knowing there are real humans behind a project they are passionate about.” 

People get excited when they can connect with something, whether it’s a nostalgic part of their past, a new twist on a cuisine they love, or perhaps something they’ve never experienced before but would love to try. 

Speaking on her pop-up story, Mardanbigi shared, “Friendlys is a place where I’m hopeful other Persian-Americans will feel at home! It’s not traditional, but it’s dear to me.” 

Whatever you’re trying to create with a pop-up event, make it unique to you and your community. 

A thorough story will not only help draw in crowds and generate hype—it will also serve as the focal point as you plan the remaining parts of your event and can be essential in creating the best partnerships for your business.  

As you start looking for partner locations, Mardanbigi emphasized, “Pop-up with partner locations that align with your brand, your values, and your overall vision.” 

Mardanbigi shared that when Nixta Taqueria hosts pop-ups or other events, they consider how the concept aligns and vibes with their established brand. They want something harmonious rather than based on clout. 

Lastly, while the temporary nature of running a pop-up can relieve many of the financial stressors of a brick-and-mortar, you may have to work harder to get your name out there and a loyal customer base willing to be as flexible as your business model. 

Ensuring your customer experience is on point is paramount to running a successful pop-up business. Always do a trial run by holding a friends and family night to test your concept and work out any kinks, especially if you’re new to this. 

In final thoughts, Mardanbigi shared,  “The landscape of hospitality is whatever you want it to be. Sometimes, being forced to be nimble and think about alternative ways of growing and stretching yourself is a blessing in disguise.” 

When developing your pop-up concept, don’t be afraid to take chances, be yourself, and share a story that is dear to you.


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.