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Why Pop-Ups Matter: Two Hopeful SF Chef-Owners Tell All

In their words, Che Fico chefs David Nayfeld and Angela Pinkerton on why pop-ups are worth it

Angela Pinkerton and David Nayfeld in front of their pop-up restaurant
Angela Pinkerton and David Nayfeld in front of their pop-up restaurant
Courtesy David Nayfeld

Welcome to the first edition of Hot Takes, a new Eater SF series that tackles burning topics on the minds of restaurant industry workers in the Bay Area — from their perspectives. In this week's column, upcoming Che Fico chef David Nayfeld and pastry chef Angela Pinkerton talk about how they're making ends meet until their impending Nopa Italian restaurant Che Fico opens. Nayfeld and Pinkerton met at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, and are now roommates, friends, and business partners.

As of Tuesday, June 21, they'll run Mission D&A, a semi-permanent pop-up in the Mission, which will feature rotating concepts, starting with a Russian dinner party (see full details here). Here's why they're doing it, in their own words. Check back soon for the next edition.


David Nayfeld: From the beginning, we decided against adding salaries for ourselves to our business model during the pre-opening of Che Fico. It's not wrong to do — you better believe if we had families we would work that in — but we are in positions in our lives to live a little more lean. We've been doing consulting jobs. We did two weddings last month. We do private dinners. That's been enough to float us to cover rent in San Francisco, groceries, and utility bills. But event costs are pretty high for us. We have to buy everything retail. And while one wedding can be enough to live lean for a month, we generally don't get a wedding a month.

So Angela and I started talking about doing something else. Because every time we do an event, we get to cook together and have fun, and we notice at the end of this grueling 17-hour day — when you should be feeling super exhausted and beat up — instead there's this high. We had never done pop-ups before, but that feeling made us start to think about it.

"Time out of the kitchen for a cook is like a fish being out of water; you feel the air being sucked out of your lungs."

You're always told that, "Oh, this time off should be reinvigorating." But time out of the kitchen for a cook is like a fish being out of water; you feel the air being sucked out of your lungs, and if you can't be in the kitchen doing your everyday tasks — something as simple as making sure there's no tape on pint containers or organizing the walk-in or cleaning mushrooms and shucking peas — you start to feel like a different version of yourself. And sometimes you don't want to be a different version of yourself. You want to be the version of yourself you've been growing into the past 18 years.

And cooking at home is not the same thing. The restaurant is like a production. In a play there's makeup and set design and the orchestra getting tuned up — for us you get in, you get your mise ready, you accept your orders, you start breaking down fish and butchering meat and prepping pastry, and all of a sudden the lights go on and you're in character. And we miss that.

Angela Pinkerton: The whole concept of a pop-up allows most chefs to realize their little dreams. You create this vision out of your brain, and cook, and do your thing for people who really want to be there.

On the flip side, Che Fico is a grand, really thought-out project. It's a dream. But it's one dream. As a creative person, there are always little dreams, too. The pop-up is not a full commitment. Our pop-up concept — the first inspired by David's Russian heritage — is an awesome concept, but we haven't committed to this whole grand brick-and-mortar deal. There's more whimsy to it and less pressure. The consequences and stakes are not as high; we don't have investors, we don't have a ton of employees counting on us. So it gives you a little more freedom and flexibility to have fun.

"For us to get the chance to be creative together and to get our other chefs and friends in the industry involved — and pay our bills — is awesome."

DN: We're like brother and sister. We have fun cooking together, and so for us to get the chance to be creative together and to get other chefs and industry friends involved — and pay our bills — is awesome. We're putting in about ten grand of our own money to fund this pop-up. We're looking at similar operating cost percentages to a restaurant. So occupancy is between five to eight percent. Food costs between 28 to 32 percent, labor between 29 to 33 percent, general and admin another eight to ten percent. And operating costs for things like linen and toilet paper are another ten to 12 percent.

When all is said and done, if we can walk away with about 12 to 15 percent, that's great. Any restaurateur will tell you that if you're walking away with 20 percent, you're doing incredibly well. But up-front costs like liability insurance — as well as SF's high occupancy rates and labor costs — are not baked into your structure and knock that number down. So a lot of restaurants in this city are operating between five and nine percent profit — and that's a successful restaurant by the way. The reason we're hoping to achieve a little higher than that is our labor is ourselves and potentially a porter and a server.

This pop up is just the satisfaction of our own creative souls. Our time at Eleven Madison Park was about the greater good and achieving someone else's vision and getting to ride along one of the most momentous restaurant experiences of our lives because we had the privilege of witnessing greatness. Che Fico will be our fully-realized, permanent dream. But we'll have 25 years to do Che Fico. Right now we have the summer of 2016. It's us and Drake, summer '16.

Mission D&A opens on Tuesday, June 21. See full details about the concept here.