Opening a restaurant before technology was integrated into our lives was no easy task.
In pre-Internet days, restauranteurs and chefs had to follow a hunch that a certain location could use a specific type of restaurant (Ben and Jerry, of the eponymous ice cream brand, bought a clicker and tracked pedestrian traffic on various corners around Burlington, Vermont, to find a high-traffic spot to open their first shop). There were few ways to test the waters to see how a product would do, and once open, restaurants had to rely on local news outlets to spread the word.
But since Ben and Jerry started their first shop in 1978, digital advances have opened countless new doors for the food industry. From scouring rental listing sites to find a shop, to utilizing census data to select a prime location, to reaching out on social media platforms to understand a demographic and potential market, restauranteurs are no longer going in blind. And perhaps the biggest changes are the new modes of bringing a concept to market. Chefs can open a food truck, spend a fraction of what they would on opening a restaurant, and can essentially test out a new concept and an unlimited amount of locations at the same time.
“Food trucks have gone from fad to necessary platform,” Matt Gellar, co-founder and CEO of The National Food Truck Association, told Utah Business. “Food trucks continually innovate because they can. They don’t answer to investors. If someone has a crazy idea for a Mexican/Asian-fusion concept, they can bring it to the public and allow people to decide for themselves whether the food is good or not. Consumers are very platform agnostic. They just love good food.”
Beyond food trucks, pop-up shops in temporary markets and vendor booths in food halls or stadiums offer restauranteurs the ability to build a customer base and drum up excitement without committing to a permanent brick-and-mortar location.
“For the most part, it’s hard to go from being a weekend baker to running a store that operates seven days a week,” says Eldon Scott, president of Urbanspace. “There’s a big gap between those two things. It’s harder to be successful at owning a restaurant than it is to have a great concept.”
Food markets, like Urbanspace—which operates permanent and temporary food markets in New York, London and an upcoming Los Angeles location—provide vendors with those in between spaces that offer direct access to prime community locations and customers. But what the vendors choose to do next is entirely up to them.
For chef-owners of pop-up restaurant Talat Market in Atlanta, the success found during their stint as a weekend-only pop-up dinner spot has spurred the pursuit of their own brick-and-mortar location. They now have a location secured and plan to open their permanent restaurant at the end of the summer.
Similarly, in San Francisco, Hillside Supper Club started as just that—a supper club run out of friends’ houses. To test how they’d fare as a slightly more permanent spot, the chef-owners transitioned into a pop-up restaurant a few times a week and maintained that business for over a year. Finally, only after thoroughly learning the neighborhood and understanding its wants and needs, did they transition to a permanent restaurant.
According to CBRE’s 11th “How Global Is The Business Of Retail?” report, restaurants and coffee shops make up 25 percent of all new retail openings in 2017—the highest percentage for any retail category—proving that even though the path to brick and mortar might have changed, it’s still a well-traveled road.