Most pop-up chefs are quick to praise the flexibility and low-risk nature of the pop-up game. Then they inevitably complain about sporadic turnouts and ill-equipped kitchens, and gaze into the middle distance as they describe their brick-and-mortar dreams.
Here to help are the masterminds behind SF FoodLab, a commercial kitchen and restaurant dedicated to pop-ups of all forms. Founders Gabriel Cole, Mark Walker, and Matt Cohen hope that by providing chefs and small business owners with a clean, dependable commissary kitchen and event space, they can develop a collaborative environment where chefs can be creative while pursuing their culinary ambitions.
In FoodLab's 4,000-square-foot commercial kitchen, businesses can rent prep space by the hour or month — current tenants include food truck Southern Sandwich Company, coffee mixologists Mixte Coffee, and gluten-free baker Bread Srsly. The kitchen's also big enough to accommodate a rotating cast of pop-up chefs who have one-off or monthly rotations in the adjacent restaurant. (August lunch offerings include Onigilly's Japanese rice wraps, and pastrami sandwiches from Jablow's Meats.)
Running a restaurant for pop-ups can have its own challenges. "We've got a lot of amazing food here," says Cole, but adds that "being a successful pop-up isn't only about your impeccably sourced charcuterie or original twist on ethnic cuisine. Marketing is key." It's been hard to get the word out about some of the dinners, and despite successes with already popular restaurants like San Rafael's Sol Food, the slower events are just breaking even.
But FoodLab has fostered a community of its own. Onigilly is using its lunches as a beta run before opening its own restaurant in a few months. And Chris Kese of pop-up Lima Peruvian called the FoodLab "much more than a commissary kitchen" — it's been a forum for him to bounce ideas off other people and offer up taste-tests to see what works.