The Importance of the Pop-Up Pathway

These mini food incubators that celebrate food diversity in the East Bay allow restaurateurs to create a brand and build a following in a less-risky manner than an all-out brick-and-mortar outpost.


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There’s a cult-like following for Tacos Oscar.

Photo by Andria Lo

The Tacos Oscar dream started back in 2014 with a plancha, a stack of tortillas, and a gamble. A friend had offered Oscar Michel a chance to cook tacos at a recording studio opening in West Oakland, and Michel agreed. Illegal? Sure. An opportunity? Absolutely.

“I went in completely blindly,” Michel said. “I just started making tacos, and people started to line up and poured money into the tip jar.”

He made $700 in tips that first night, along with a new-found confidence that he could potentially pull off a food business. That party sparked what would become four years of Michel popping up with tacos all over the East Bay at places like Starline Social Club, Ordinaire, and in front of Cole Coffee in Rockridge.

And wherever Tacos Oscar set up shop, long lines followed. The business quickly gained a cult following from obsessed fans who would check Instagram to see where the pop-up would be showing up next — and then wait hours in line to get a bite of those fresh-pressed tortillas. Michel even had “Taco Stalker” T-shirts made, which sold almost as fast as the tacos themselves.

Late last year, Michel and his partner, Jake Weiss, opened a brick-and-mortar location housed in a shipping container in Temescal — a dream realized after years of building up their brand and following. One thing Michel said he knows to be true: The restaurant wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for the pop-up.

photo courtesy Nokni

As a pop-up at the Kebabery, Nokni was shuttered.

“We had a chance to prove our concept, build a fan base, and make sure that was something that will be desired after we start it. That is crucial in the restaurant industry,” Michel said. “By the end, we had people harassing us about when we’d be opening a shop, so we thought we may as well give the people what they want.”

Pop-ups like Tacos Oscar have long been a way for food entrepreneurs to get off the ground in the East Bay and the larger Bay Area. Plus, their portable and fleeting nature allows for a type of creativity and excitement that brick-and-mortar restaurants can’t match. Favorites like Nokni (Korean-American food), Okkon (a husband-and-wife pair selling okonomiyaki, the savory Japanese pancakes), and Likha (a permanent Filipino pop-up inside Emeryville Hometown Heroes sports bar) are serving some of the most exciting food coming out of Oakland.

That’s why, last August, when a health inspector shut down Nokni while the team was doing a pop-up at the Kebabery sent shockwaves through the food community. About 45 minutes into service, an inspector ordered the operation to close down immediately, noting that pop-ups are technically illegal.

“It was pretty shocking and unfortunate,” said Nokni co-owner Julya Shin. “The inspector was just doing his job. We know that. The word ‘pop-up’ isn’t even in the lexicon at the health department.”

Since then, Nokni — along with fellow pop-ups and restaurant owners — have spoken out about the importance of what are essentially mini-food incubators, arguing they provide a pathway for people who wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to open a restaurant straight out of the gate. Since then, the county has held meetings and Q-&-A sessions to hear concerns and learn more in an effort to, eventually, find a permitting process that both ensures food safety and allows them to operate. But that process, as of now, is still up in the air, as regulations are making their way to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for consideration and approval.

PHOTO BY ANDRIA LO

Tacos Oscar has grown its pop-up to a permanent brick-and-mortar outpost.

“The people at the department seem very earnest about better understanding what we do,” Shin said. “They recognize pop-ups aren’t going away and are a viable business sector, especially for people of color wanting to get into the food industry.”

For Nokni — whose owners are now considering opening a permanent restaurant — starting out as a pop-up allowed them to test if their form of Korean food, which uses fresh, seasonal produce to form more creative dishes rather than the more common bibimbap or hot pot. It also gave them a chance to take on all aspects of a food business without taking the plunge to restaurant ownership right away.

“It’s been highly informative. We have developed and tweaked our menu, learned food management skills, handled expenses and more — things restaurants do, but on a smaller, less-risky level,” Shin said. “It’s helped us conquer it in small bites that will help us one day be a healthier business and employer.”

That transition from pop-up to successful restaurant has happened with far more businesses than just Tacos Oscar — others include Chef Smellys, Nyum Bai, and FOB Kitchen; all started out as pop-ups.

FOB Kitchen opened in November in Juhu Beach Club’s old space in Temescal. Co-owners Brandi and Janice Dulce got their start in 2015 by doing pop-ups and kitchen takeovers, serving flavor-forward, authentic Filipino food. They credit much of their success to others giving them an opportunity and a space to cook, and they hope to do the same in the future by inviting pop-ups into their restaurant.

“We have endless support for pop-ups and what they’ve done for us,” said Brandi Dulce. “It truly helps homegrown businesses get a shot.”

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