Pop-ups lift spirits, but break bodies
Two Southern chefs chat about the challenges of going solo
Pop-ups were already surging prior to the pandemic. Now they’re everywhere.
Typically defined as solo nomadic cooking operations, pop-ups are more nimble than traditional restaurants, which is a distinct advantage in a time of supply chain breakdowns, staffing challenges and intermittent Covid closures. And because pop-ups don’t require the financial outlay that it takes to open a restaurant, the format has been hailed by former hospitality employees and consumers alike for diversifying the industry and facilitating creativity.
Still, popping up isn’t easy. The Food Section invited two pop-up chefs—one who’s closing out her successful pop-up career and one who’s just starting down the pop-up road—to talk about the realities of their work.
This Zoom conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hanna Raskin: So excited to have you both here. Y'all don't know each other, right?
Sam Fore: No. I just started following you on Instagram, I think.
Ana Alexandra Richards: Same.
HR: Why don't we start by having each of you introduce yourselves? Ana, do you want to start?
AAR: Sure. My name is Ana Alexandra. I am an entrepreneur here in Charleston. My latest project is Mama Ana's Arepas. My mother is from Colombia, so I grew up eating arepas and all that delicious food, and I was sick of not being able to find it here.
I started Mama Ana's during the shutdown and just started delivering. Then once things opened up a bit more, I started doing popups.
SF: That's awesome. Cool. I'm a big fan of arepas.
AAR: Cool. How could you not be?
SF: I know, right? A Venezuelan buddy of mine used to come over to my house and make them for these huge potluck dinners we'd have in Boston.
I'm Sam Fore. First generation Sri Lankan American. Born in Kentucky, raised in North Carolina, spent a ton of time in Boston. Came back to Kentucky about 10 years ago. Went through the motions, was in tech and advertising and marketing for a while.
Then my husband got super sick. He’s OK, but we were just like, ‘If we want to do things, we should probably do them.’
So, we started a tent. It's been a whirlwind. Now I spend the majority of my time either recipe developing or wandering around the country, cooking.
Paying the price
SF: Ana, I'm curious: Since you started [after the pandemic] hit, did that make it more difficult, health regulation-wise?
AAR: Honestly, the initial [health department] checks were done via FaceTime. So that was a lot easier to schedule. But it's been very hard in terms of starting a business in the city. I actually just got a postcard today about some new law…
SF: They are raising the fees, I'm sure.
AAR: No. It’s 2021 licenses will now expire on April 30th, 2022, even though I just renewed for 2022 [in] January.
SF: You have to get to know the receptionist at the health department. That's my trick. I have to get a health certification and a permit every time I set up. When I started setting up, I was...I don't know, what is your setup?
AAR: Mine's just a tent and a grill, little fryer sometimes.
SF: Perfect. I [did] a tent, couple tables, fryer, maybe a cooking element and some hot holding equipment. Then they instituted a commissary fee so that I could not bring hot food from the kitchen that I was prepping in. I would have to cool it all the way back down within four hours and time and temp that, and then come back to the outside and then warm it all back up again.
That didn't make sense to me. So then, I had to pay $125 for a commissary license so that I could serve hot food direct from the commissary.
From the health department's point of view, it makes sense, because they don't know where [food]'s coming from. But all the little things that they tack on at the end, it started to really get on my nerves.
Fifty dollars every time you set up. If you want to set up for a week, you can pay $150, but you can't set up in that location for three more weeks.
By year three, I was just storing my stuff at the back of the bar because I could not handle it anymore. The backbreaking work of setting up a tent and breaking it down…
When work hurts
AAR: Yeah. The breaking down, the setting up: I had to have arm surgery because I had an old injury that was becoming so bad.
SF: I had to have surgery. So wait, is that a statistic? How many popup owners have had to have corrective orthopedic surgery?
AAR: Too many.
SF: Because I had to have surgery on both of my legs.
AAR: Knees are probably next for me.
SF: Oh no. I've had three on one knee.
When you're cooking and doing a popup, obviously you're on your feet for about 20 hours of that day. Because you're not only on your feet in the kitchen: You're getting all the setup done. My calf muscles would swell and not un-swell to the point that they were causing stress fractures in my shin. They were like, ‘Yeah, this is what happens to people in car accidents.’
I'm like, ‘What? I cook, dude. I cook, that's all I do. I fry some lentil fritters. It's fine. We have a huge crowd.’
Do you get the big crowd[s] at the tent?
AAR: Yeah, and I just want to breathe for five minutes beforehand.
SF: You can't do that. Because the second that they see you...It is a total clusterfuck when you're setting up because everyone's coming up and asking questions.
AAR: ‘What is this?’
SF: ‘What is this?’ ‘Oh my gosh, what's on your menu today?’ ‘What did you make this with?’ ‘I heard that you met...’ Basically, they scour your Instagram, and they want to be friends, which is fine. I just don't like it when I'm setting up for business.
AAR: I don't think people understand it's a job sometimes.
SF: They forget it's a job.
AAR: I'm trying to build a business and educate people on the food, because nobody really knows what Colombian food is. But also, when you're exposed more, especially with the tent--as opposed to inside of a kitchen in a restaurant--that really doesn't give you any boundaries to set with the customers. That's a little bit difficult.
SF: That's exactly what I would've said. The thing is that it removes your anonymity, too. Because all of a sudden everyone has that personal connection to you...It creates this almost false sense of closeness for people.
It's fine. They're very supportive. They're very kind, but sometimes you have to enforce boundaries. They can get very aggressively into you. I have one gal that still gets mad at me for driving down a certain stretch of highway and not coming to see her mother-in-law. I don't know her.
AAR: That's insane.
SF: But you get the big visits that change everything. It's so weird because once it builds and once you get those boosts, there's that little hipster bitterness where people are like, ‘Well, I liked it when you were accessible.’
I was just like, ‘I like it when I can actually make a living wage.’ A popup, even if a popup goes super-duper well, you're not taking more than a grand home a night.
AAR: Oh my God. No, not at all. And it's not worth what it does to your body and your mental capacity. It's so bad. There's so many highs and lows.
SF: Do people give you any guff? Because I had people who would come up to the tent and be like, ‘Well, you're doing well, even though you don't know how to work a line.’
AAR: Yeah. I get a lot of people who expect arepas to be one way and they don't understand there's 79 different ways you can make an arepa. They'll come and tell me, ‘Well, this is just my opinion as maybe someone who's a little bit more Latina.’
They assume that I am 100 percent white and because my boyfriend has dark hair, he is the Colombian one.
SF: Why is it that if you're in a popup, you have to produce your credentials? You have to show why you're there. Whereas some dude can go get a gochujang wing recipe from page four of Google and get lauded for the best special of the weekend.
AAR: I also feel like it might be more of a woman thing too, because I know a lot of men in the popup industry that do not get asked why they're cooking this food.
SF: I'm in the South too, and there's obviously a gender role and a gender expectation. But I also leverage it in a weird way because I have them help me set up and break down. I'm like, ‘If you guys want to be chivalrous, why don't you do this?’ And that's fine.
But I have never had to fight harder for legitimacy. Then, all of a sudden you become the authority on things and that for some operators is a threat.
Do they give you trouble about pricing?
AAR: Oh my God, absolutely. I can't even let that get to me anymore because I've hurt myself physically to make these Goddamn corn cakes for people.
Also, the price of everything is tripled. I can't get to-go boxes.
SF: One time I did deli paper instead of an actual to-go box. I couldn't afford to go boxes. Those are a dollar in the quantity that a popup can buy; it's not like I have the storage space to put it away.
I was going to go into a brick and mortar. A bunch of people had noticed [me] and said, ‘OK, we're going to build you a restaurant.’
Three years go by. People expect you to wait. It's like you're lower on a priority list than a chef that was voted ‘Best Fried Chicken’ by newspaper readers or whatever. They don't give you the same respect, which is fine.
I've had guest dinners where the dishwasher has thought I was the dishwashing trainee. Before this huge Southern Foodways dinner, I was in the dish pit with this guy.
People always, especially if you're foreign, they always say very weird things about the country they think you're from. This poor guy was just like, ‘I hope your family at the border is OK and I hope that you don't know anyone in cages.’ I'm like ...
AAR: Oh my God.
SF: Dude, I could write a book off of the ridiculous shit people have said to me in the last five years.
SF: Being able to represent a country's cuisine in the way that I've been able to is a complete blessing because you get to steer the story. You get to make sure that the right things are heard.
AAR: I can feel that because my entire life, all anyone associated Colombia with is drug dealers and cocaine. The amount of things that their culture and that country has to offer…I do feel like that's honestly what keeps me going.
SF: Do you do anything that's like a bridge dish for familiarity? Or do you go straight traditional?
AAR: I'll do pizza flavored arepas with za'atar and pepperoni inside. I did everything bagel flavor. So I do try to mix the traditional and the not traditional. But again, people are going to tell me what's traditional, so it doesn't matter what I put out.
SF: Do you see people starting to gravitate towards the traditional more as you've been in business longer?
AAR: I do. My exit strategy is I want to have these frozen, like Mrs. T's Pierogies, because they are really good frozen.
The thing is you have to go into debt to do these things. I don't know if it's the same in Kentucky, but in the last three weeks, I've seen a lot of brick-and-mortar restaurants with a lot of money behind them suddenly have food trucks.
I know that the entire popup scene is going to change because these restaurants have the money to be able to do the research, to see exactly how they can make the food truck most profitable
I'm like, ‘Well, that's wonderful. That's really wonderful for them. I'm really glad that they can do that.’ But I have literally no chance of buying a food truck.
SF: [But] I can speak out on things because I don't have a brick-and-mortar restaurant for people to be pissed at. It gives me a lot of flexibility. Because if they don't have a brick-and-mortar to associate you with, they don't have a central point of complaint: They want to complain to the manager
AAR: They do. They message you and they email you and DM you like you are not the sole operator and owner. People are surprised. It's called Mama Ana's. They're so surprised when I'm Ana. They're like, ‘You and your team.’
I'm like, ‘What team? What team? Who do you think you're messaging? It's literally me. These are my feelings.’
SF: I do dumb shit, and I'm allowed to, because I own the thing.
AAR: That's my motto.
Welcome to the mud pit
SF: Have you had to do ankles in the mud yet?
AAR: No. What's the ankles in the mud?
SF: Ankles in the mud is when they have you set up in the worst possible drainage spot for the restaurant because no one ever stands there. And it rains and you still have to keep on serving because they expect you to be there. And there's rain coming through your tent, on your tent.
AAR: I have had the rain. Luckily I've been on concrete when that's happened.
SF: The mud pit.
AAR: My favorite is jumping up to try to get the puddles of the water off. I literally was on my Instagram like, ‘Hey, you guys think I have a great life? Yeah, it looks fun on Instagram, but this is what I'm really doing. The fryer could explode at any moment. But I can't turn it off because I'm nowhere near shelter.’
SF: There were a lot of people who popped up after I did because mine did well. They're like, ‘Oh, this has to be easy.’ It makes you want to punch everybody in the face. And trust me, I know just how fucking terrible people can be. I had one chef in a guest chef situation, he stole my recipe book. He stole it out of my kit.
AAR: I couldn't even imagine.
SF: He stole my handwritten recipe book.
AAR: Oh my gosh.
SF: The thing is my recipe books are written for me to read. It doesn't make any sense [to anyone else.] But then you have people who will come up and be like, ‘Hey, I want to help out. Do you need some help?’ Then they try to take the recipes.
“Take care of yourself”
AAR: I don't know if it's happening in Kentucky. Here they're making it very difficult for popups to run legally. It's difficult because one person will say you're fine. And then another person will say, "Oh, you're going to be fined."
SF: I had [inspectors] who wouldn't show up and then they'd call their supervisor and say I wasn't set up. So, I had to get investigated because I was saying I was having popups, but they just didn't want to inspect.
AAR: Yeah. The fire marshal was trying to get $500 from me and I didn't have it. I tried to get an appointment with him, but to get an appointment with him, I had to get rechecked by [the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control] by a different person
They make it impossible unless you have a legal team and a bunch of money to just pay people. That's what these restaurants have.
SF: They lobby. But this is what you have to remember, and it's a lesson I've had to learn the hard way, because in moments of big momentum, my body's failed: You have to take care of yourself. Especially in a popup. And I know it sounds exorbitant and luxurious and whatever, but for the love of God, get someone to work on your back and on your feet.
AAR: Without my chiropractor, I would die.
SF: Because it's just, people will try to equate what you do with what is done in a typical restaurant. It's just never even close.