The "here today, gone tomorrow" culture has become a firm fixture on the UAE foodscape, as pop-up restaurants and vendors mushroom across the UAE. You can seek out or stumble across everything from plant-based delights and steak burgers sprinkled with gold flakes, to beachside food trucks and intimate 12-seater chef’s tables.
Inspired by supper clubs dating back to the 1960s, pop-ups and underground dining were all the rage half a century ago. The trend has made a comeback as discerning modern-day diners are forever on the lookout for alternatives to usual eateries, as well as, in part, the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic (even the current World’s Best Restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, launched a pop-up burger joint in May 2020).
Pop-ups are also a great platform to showcase a chef’s culinary talent, catering to both in-the-know foodies and curious passers-by. The limited time and seats serve to generate buzz and create a sense of urgency. Also great for young and emerging brands, pop-ups can offer everything from an exclusive one-night food event to a dining experience that stretches across the UAE’s cooler months.
One Degree Cafe, for example, is a winter pop-up located on the Dubai-Sharjah border, about a 40-minute drive from Downtown Dubai. Located in the middle of the desert, it offers guests dune views, majlis-style seating and dishes such as burgers, hot dogs and chips, plus high-quality tea, coffee and shakes.
Due to its short-term nature – that leaves a small margin for word of mouth – attracting repeat customers is perhaps one of the cons of a pop-up stall, but, then again, this exclusivity is also its USP. Arguably, the cult following that One Degree Cafe enjoys is down to the fact it closes as soon as the weather gets warm.
A seasonal trend
The festive season and other time-bound events, too, lend themselves well to pop-up culture. Case in point, the various “winter wonderlands” custom-created at malls around the Emirates, which offer everything from gingerbread and turkey stations to homemade cookies and candy cane trees.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, meanwhile, saw a number of pop-ups by The Italian Way by Peroni Nastro Azzurro, which had a presence in Filini Garden at Radisson Blu Hotel, Amici Terrace at W Abu Dhabi and Stills at Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi. A branch of Dubai's Il Borro Tuscan Kitchen also popped up at Yas Marina Circuit, as well as Nobu, making its Abu Dhabi debut.
So what's the appeal to business owners?
“It's a safe bet where we don't have to risk it all and has a lot of potential for developing the brand we're showcasing for the future,” says Hamad Alawar, co-founder of High Joint and The Phil by High, a Philadelphia cheesesteak pop-up that’s currently serving rib eye, grilled Wagyu and other prime cuts (alongside provolone cheese and caramelised onions inside a buttery roll) at Market Outside the Box, which is part of the Dubai Shopping Festival, in Burj Park until December 31.
Another vendor to look out for during DSF is Mihbash Bubble Tea. Founder Yazan says “pop-ups such as the ones organised by DSF are impactful and strategic for food and beverage outlets. Through such events, businesses can test out a new turf of different markets and customer bases that they would not normally be exposed to in their flagship branches, without the heavy expenses of a new shop.”
Marcus Sutton, general manager, Zabeel House by Jumeirah, The Greens, agrees. “Pop-ups, such as Vista Del Verde, our Mexican concept, are a great way for us to showcase new ideas. It gives us the freedom to be flexible and has a cost factor advantage that we don't get with permanent spaces. It also gives the team an edge to be more creative and test out unique ideas, and build a reputation and following.”
'Making products more accessible'
While most entrepreneurs seek to attract a wider customer base with their makeshift stalls, sometimes a vendor will, well, pop up to cater to a specific culinary group. Earlier this year, online boutique Not Just For Vegans teamed up with Thrift For Good to launch a day-long vegan market in Palm Jumeirah. On offer were brands such as Grawtitude, which makes plant-based cheeses; Veghana, which serves okra, fonio and other plant-based dishes from West African cuisine; and natural ice lollies brand House of Pops.
“It’s about making people more aware and making these products more accessible,” says Carly Dubery, founder of Not Just For Vegans.
One golden oldie that is often found at various pop-up events around the country is Sugargram. Taking advantage of its stall, the brand serves not only its signature bite-sized cupcakes, but also offers limited-time creations. At the recently concluded Beach Canteen and the ongoing MOTB, for example, it launched a unicorn-inspired ice cream in pink vanilla and chocolate flavours, topped with sprinkles and sauces.
“As we are an online brand, pop-ups are a great opportunity to interact with our customers” says Elaf Patel, founder of Sugargram. "It’s also been so fun to create the Uni-Cone, something everyone in the ‘sugarfam’ has been obsessed with, but that we could never deliver.
"The best part of being at a pop-up is the guests we’re meeting; you get the impression they are consciously seeking out local businesses to support.”
Local brands are also all the rage at the various farmers’ markets that sprout up in parks across the UAE. The popular Ripe Market brand, for example, introduces visitors to home-grown vendors who display and sell everything from sauces and chutneys to artisanal breads and other baked goods.
On a more global stage, popular Sri Lankan restaurant Ministry of Crab erects pop-ups across the world, from Abu Dhabi to London, with the latest passing through Dubai last month.
Over at the Expo 2020 Dubai site is Bombay Brasserie, Taj Dubai’s Indian restaurant, which is hosting a dining pop-up at the India Pavilion, offering visitors a chance to sample flavours from various states around the country.
“The expression ‘good things come in small packages’ fits perfectly for F&B pop-up concepts,” says Raghu Deora, executive chef at Taj Hotels. “For a chef and his team, it is an exciting challenge to work outside of the comfort of their kitchen, it allows for more creativity and can expand the outlet’s demographic and geography.
“For a guest, a pop-up is a great chance to either get familiar with a ‘lighter version’ of the original outlet or sample the best selection in a different, often more affordable, location. Traditionally, a pop-up features a selection of bestsellers, which allows the culinary team to diversify offerings and change the menu regularly. And guests are provided with an enhanced experience.
“For example, at the Bombay Brasserie pop-up, we have a regional thali that changes every two weeks. This way, we can cater to multicultural visitors. In a competitive market like Dubai, the pop-up scene is full of high-quality, exciting and popular outlets that provide guests with multiple options, suitable for anyone from a food connoisseur to a casual passer-by interested in a quick bite.”
The end game is to build enough loyalty and curiosity to draw customers to the flagship restaurant once the makeshift walls of pop-up have been taken down.