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Friday, July 15, 2011

Underground Pop-up Restaurants Thrive, But Risks Remain

Diners at the JBF LTD pop-up restaurant in New York.  For chefs, pop-ups are a way to test new dishes, let off some creative steam, expand their brand to new neighborhoods and otherwise take risks without the investment required for a traditional restaurant.   (AP)

Diners at the JBF LTD pop-up restaurant in New York. For chefs, pop-ups are a way to test new dishes, let off some creative steam, expand their brand to new neighborhoods and otherwise take risks without the investment required for a traditional restaurant. (AP)

Every Thursday is secret pizza night, if you know where to go. In one southern city, people flock to a run-down neighborhood, push a panel on a backyard fence, and emerge into a makeshift pizzeria, with rickety tables, homemade cocktails, a full-sized pizza oven, and performances by brass and folk bands.

It’s all part of an underground food movement which includes illicit food trucks, clandestine night markets, and so-called “pop-up” restaurants, which exist for a few nights in a dining room or warehouse before fading just as quickly.

Underground food establishments have been in the news recently. A frenzy of bloggers covered a pop-up restaurant in a New York subway car, celebrated chef Wil Gilson created a restaurant in a Boston chocolate factory, and a secret San Francisco night market is now threatened with closure due to its dramatic growth in popularity after it was featured in The New York Times.

Although the movement is denounced by health departments as dangerous, former pop-up restaurateur Ben Hunter says this new food movement has a strong audience and plays a special, adventurous role in the world of food.

Ben Hunter and his brother Jonny ran a pop-up venture that served everything from wild foraged ferns to pork the two raised and slaughtered themselves. Ben told Here & Now‘s Robin Young, “There’s not a lot of people who would really be comfortable with that, but then there are a few people who demand that. And I think that’s where you find the connection of people to these dinners.”

Ben and Jonny Hunter have since moved on from pop-up restaurants– they recently opened a brick and mortar restaurant, the Underground Kitchen, in Madison, Wisconsin.

But in June, a catastrophic fire engulfed the eatery, turning their story of hard work into a cautionary tale of the risks inherent in the restaurant industry.

“I told my partner…’We’re almost there…’all that hard work you’ve done supporting me all these years, we’re almost there.’ And then now it’s like, ‘Oh man, what do we do now?” Jonny Hunter said.

Article by Here & Now’s Alissa Greenberg

Guests:

  • Jonny Hunter, former pop-up restaurant runner and co-owner of the temporarily-defunct Underground Kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin
  • Ben Hunter, former pop-up restaurant runner and co-owner of  Underground Kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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