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The Rise of Restaurant Pop-Ups in San Francisco

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Just ask Lazy Bear, Wise Sons, Wes Burger and more, which all started out as pop-ups.

Opening a restaurant entails a lot of behind-the-scenes work — or, at least it used to. In the last month or so, the chefs behind Wes Burger, Del Popolo, and Junju all announced they are taking their popular pop-ups permanent. It's a trend Bay Area diners are seeing more and more of these days, especially as other pop-ups-turned-permanent — like Lazy Bear and Wise Sons, both of which got their start this way — have been able to find such success with the scrappy, but sensible, model. Instead of privately throwing invite-only investor dinner parties and testing recipes behind closed doors, chefs are opening up their kitchens to the public with the hopes of honing the concept and food, building a fan base and finding potential investors. And it's working.

In many cases, the chefs who start pop-ups don't have a brick-and-mortar restaurant as an end goal. That was definitely the case with Wes Rowe who's been satisfying burger lovers since July 2013 with his weekly WesBurger pop-up at Mojo Bicycle Café. Becoming a full-time chef wasn't something Rowe even knew he wanted to do when he moved here from Texas in 2000 (he's a photographer by trade), but the people clamoring for his food made him realize he had something special. It's because of the organic customer base that Rowe's managed to grow (and the help of business partner Chris Hastings of the Castro's Lookout), that when Wes Burger n' More opens in the Mission at the beginning of 2016, Rowe will already be many, many steps ahead of most first-time restaurateurs. "We're not just starting a restaurant no one's ever heard of," Rowe says. "Instead, it's like ‘Finally! There's a restaurant.'"

Other chefs are able to use pop-ups as a chance to really work on their food and hone their concept, something Robin Song who is opening Junju in 2016 started doing at Hog & Rocks with the late night pop-up when he was the chef and will continue to do starting this Friday at Feastly's location in the Dogpatch. Song already knows people love his food, but by not taking a break while he gets the restaurant ready, he has the opportunity to keep the buzz alive, all while giving investors a chance to try his dishes and see what everyone's raving about.

I thought it might make us seem amateurish.

That's similar to what Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman experienced when they first opened their Wise Sons pop-up, even though their pop-up was totally unplanned and Bloom admits that, at the time, he thought it might be a bad idea. "I thought it might make us seem amateurish," he says, since pop-ups weren't all the rage in 2011, like they are now. Beckerman pushed for it, however, and Bloom now admits, "It was the best thing we could have done." He says the pop-up allowed the team to work on their food, come up with a better business plan, meet people who were willing to chip in (like the lawyer who helped them get a beer and wine license), and mostly, to build a loyal following. "There was a couple in their late 80s that followed us to each of the locations," Bloom says. "They'd go to the location before, ask where we went, and then find us at the next spot." Ultimately, the couple found Wise Sons' permanent home on 24th Street and continue to dine there today.

And while most pop-up chefs are just excited at the thought of having a full kitchen, their own permanent space, and living a dream they maybe didn't even realize they had, if all goes well, it can be so much more. Chef David Barzelay of Lazy Bear reflects that when he started his pop-up, in no way was it about trying to build a brick-and-mortar. "It was just a fun thing to do," he says. Still, as he started cooking for more and more people, he built a following. That following led to a group of just over 40 small investors. Which led to a permanent location. Which, as of last week, led to a Michelin star. Talk about a pop-up pipe dream.