With retail sales declining nationwide, so-called pop-ups have become a trendy way for businesses to attract and engage customers.
Pop-up shops and restaurants have no fixed location, and typically rely on social media and word-of-mouth buzz to generate business before closing or moving to a new place.
Madeline Hennicke, a Charlottesville resident attending the University of Tennessee, said she was intrigued by pop-up bars that specialize in seasonal cocktails.
Hennicke said she had seen few pop-up businesses of any kind in Charlottesville, and wondered if they were better suited for larger cities.
“Just anecdotally, some people I’ve talked to seemed to think the whole concept doesn’t really work for Charlottesville,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘That would work in Richmond, but not here.’”
Some Charlottesville businesses have opened permanent stores after finding success as pop-ups in recent years. But most pop-up entrepreneurs acknowledge that this business model is fraught with unique challenges and risks.
For the most part, pop-up bars and restaurants exist on the margins of Charlottesville’s crowded dining scene.
Brazos Tacos, a popular eatery in the Ix Building, started as a pop-up in the former Al Dente restaurant before establishing permanent residence in 2015.
However, an experimental pop-up restaurant that opened on the Downtown Mall this year was less successful.
After Hamooda Shami’s Yearbook Taco restaurant saw less business in its second year, he decided to reopen the space as Eleven Months, a venue for quirky pop-up restaurants with unique themes and decor.
Shami planned to open a new restaurant in the space every year. The first pop-up, Sorry, it’s Over, put a celebratory spin on breakups with cleverly named cocktails and live DJ sets. A digital clock near the front door counted down the time until the concept would change.
However, Shami shut down the spot in April, less than three months after it opened. He said he does not plan to replace it with a new pop-up anytime soon.
“... The interest in pop-up restaurants in Charlottesville … was far less than previously anticipated — at least in the style we went for,” Shami said.
This spring, Shami will open an Eleven Months location in Richmond, a growing hub for pop-up restaurants. This time, he is starting with a more cheerful theme: Best Friends Forever.
“I’m not shutting the door on doing pop-ups in Charlottesville down the road,” he added.
Some of Charlottesville’s top chefs have applied the pop-up model to luxury dining experiences.
Mark Gresge, co-owner of l’etoile Catering, occasionally hosts ticketed dinners at his Crozet kitchen for no more than 10 people. He said he enjoys surprising his guests with unusual dishes such as rabbit consommé and veal cheeks.
Gresge said the pop-up dinners, announced spontaneously online, are inspired by his own nostalgia for the l’etoile restaurant in Charlottesville, which he closed in 2014.
“I miss the restaurant,” he said. “I miss that type of relationship with the guests ... I really enjoy taking care of people on a small, intimate level.”
The Underground Kitchen, a Richmond-based traveling supper club, has organized multiple pop-up dinners in Charlottesville restaurants and private homes featuring prominent chefs from Virginia and elsewhere.
The Underground Kitchen has hosted dinners in more than two dozen cities since its founding in 2014. CEO Micheal Sparks said Underground Kitchen tickets — usually priced from $150 to $200 — sell out within minutes when the events are announced.
Sparks said the Charlottesville area’s appreciation for local food and drink makes it a better site for Underground Kitchen events than some much larger cities.
“The population of Virginia Beach is so transient, it’s difficult to reach the big foodies in that area,” he said. “Our business works better in secondary markets like Richmond and Charlottesville ... There is a thirst for it, if you can keep the product consistent.”
Wendi Smith, owner of Leftover Luxuries, a consignment shop on Pantops, launched a national pop-up retail business from Charlottesville.
Smith started her business in 2009 by hosting pop-up sales for used high-end furniture, clothing and accessories in Charlottesville. The events were so successful that she decided to organize similar pop-up events around the country.
Smith said her pop-up sales inspired “retail urgency” in customers that they wouldn’t feel at a permanent store.
“You know you have to buy that sofa now, because it won’t be there 10 days later,” she said.
Smith set up 47 pop-up sales over several years in nine cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York. “I was never home,” she said.
“It was crazy, and it was fun,” she added. “I rolled into town like a circus ... I literally had to lock myself inside the store for two days to put it all together.”
Smith said she was worn out by the constant travel after a few years, and decided to focus on her Pantops store and online sales. She hasn’t opened a pop-up since 2014.
Chalk, a pop-up fashion boutique that showcases local designers, moved into the Downtown Mall storefront formerly occupied by the Young Men’s Shop last summer.
Bridgette Chavis and Kim Schalk, co-owners of Chalk, originally planned to stay in Charlottesville for just a month. But they ultimately decided to lease the space for a full year.
Chavis said pop-up stores have allowed her to “test the waters” and find out which areas are a good fit for Chalk. Chavis and Schalk opened pop-ups in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., for over six years, constantly hunting for short-term lease opportunities.
Chavis said the strategy required a lot of extra work.
“You have to set up an attractive-looking store and break it down in a month,” she said. “It can be a pain … You just have to go in, work hard and hope people accept what you offer.”
Chavis commutes to Charlottesville from her home in Northern Virginia, and stays with family in the area when she works at her store.
Chalk is scheduled to close on June 15, but Chavis hopes to open a permanent store in a different Charlottesville location.
She said she has mixed feelings about the impending closure.
“People are just realizing who we are, and we are about to leave.”
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How did this story happen?
This story is part of our initiative to get our readers directly involved in our reporting.
We call it #CvilleCurious.
First we asked you what story you wanted us to investigate.
Then you voted on your top choice.
The question submitted by reader Maddie Hennicke received the most votes!
She asked: What's going on with pop-up restaurants and pop-up shops in Charlottesville? Are there many and are they finding success?
Our reporter Josh Mandell spoke to Maddie and that started him down the path of telling this story.