Ssam, noodles, and tofu were on the menu at The Kebabery last night, thanks to a Korean-Californian pop-up by Nokni. Chefs Julya Shin and Steve Joo opened their doors at 5 p.m., and around 45 minutes later, a woman showed up, scoped out the scene, and announced she was a health inspector with Alameda County. And as soon as she heard the phrase “pop-up,” she sat down and wrote Nokni and The Kebabery a cease-and-desist notice.
“We were shocked,” Joo said. “It was disorienting, really. We were working hard throughout the day to get ready for service. Right when it felt like we had our heads above water, it was like, ‘Oh, we have to shut it down.’”
In all-capitalized letters, the official inspection report read: “Pop-ups are illegal.”
That’s news to many diners and chefs in the Bay Area, as pop-ups have been a strong part of the local dining scene for several years. You can find pop-ups almost every night of the week in many forms, from the full-service temporary restaurant to the taco stand on a brewery patio. The’ve served as a crucial way for chefs to test out ideas before opening a business — a la Chris Kronner with Kronnerburger or Preeti Mistry with Juhu Beach Club — while using spaces that would otherwise sit empty.
Joo said he thought the way Nokni operated was by the books. He and Shin are ServSafe certified. They have food handlers’ cards. They operate out of commercial, permitted kitchens. They also have an LLC, are registered with the State Board of Equalization, and pay taxes.
But it’s true: Pop-up restaurants are technically illegal in all of California.
“Only a person who has been permitted and licensed to run a food business is allowed to do so at that address,” explained Sherri Willis, public information officer with the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health. “That permit is not transferrable.”
It’s clearly stated on the California Health and Safety Code, California Retail Food Code: “A PERMIT shall be valid only for the PERSON, location, type of FOOD sales, or distribution activity and, unless suspended or revoked for cause, for the time period indicated.”
In other words, if a restaurant states it’s closed on Tuesdays, it legally must be closed — and not serve any food from a pop-up chef — on Tuesdays.
That said, county health departments don’t have enough staff or resources to actually crack down on pop-ups. They are aware that pop-ups are popular, that the dining scene is dynamic and constantly shifting, but they’re swamped inspecting regular brick-and-mortar restaurants. “It’s a capacity issue,” Willis said. “We don’t have the staff to do all of those inspections and be at all of those pop-ups at all hours of the day and night.”
On this particular night at The Kebabery, inspector Lisa Park just happened to be in the neighborhood when she noticed the restaurant appeared open despite the hours sign outside indicating it should have been closed. Willis said sometimes the department does receive complaints about pop-ups from neighbors, but this incident doesn’t signal a directive to suddenly pay closer attention to them.
As for Nokni, Joo said he’s still processing all the new information and the wider implications for operating a restaurant in general. He and Shin plan to discuss a strategy soon, which might mean emphasizing ticketed events in environments that are easier to control. “We’ll definitely figure out something,” he said.
Update: A previous version of this story misidentified the inspector’s name.