Everybody loves a food popup, but just how does one go about creating a popup? Since the completion of our Nutella popup in September we’ve had a lot of people ask us about how we came up with the concept and how was it was executed. When we tell most people the story behind it they are shocked to find out how we made it work. The reality of a popup is it’s incredibly hard work and we learnt a lot of very valuable lessons.
The first lesson is that no matter how prepared you think you are, you’ll never be prepared enough.
The idea of a popup arose in April this year when a group of our friends/contributors came over to The City Lane headquarters for a production meeting. As the evening progressed, ideas for The City Lane became grander and wilder, which may or may not have been due to the free flowing supply of alcohol! Gradually, the idea of a popup event was suggested which was followed by a mass “that would be so awesome”. From that point onwards we started to brainstorm potential themes, some of which were completely ridiculous and impractical given our lack of a multi million dollar budget. As we started narrowing down the suggestions to things that were a bit more realistic, we came up with the idea of a Nutella popup. Everyone in the room loved Nutella (except me with my severe nut allergy) and people in Melbourne were just starting to get into it as much as we always had (little did we know that the Nutella craze was going to blow up in the way it did). In typical City Lane style we decided “why not, let’s just give it a go”.
Over the next week I came up with a potential list of menu items – Nutella brioche with a maple whiskey glaze, Nutella peanut butter slice, peanut butter and Nutella S’mores and a few other options. Out of the 25 original ideas we reduced the list down to 7 and I started to create recipes to trial.
Creating any sort of menu is challenging in itself, let alone when you can’t taste what you are making. When I was 19 I developed a severe nut allergy. So severe in fact that if ingest a nut I have difficulty breathing and if a nut comes into contact with my skin I develop a rash. Prior to the age of 19 I could eat nuts without a problem but now, at the age of 29, it’s been so long that I cannot remember what nuts taste like. I had to place all my trust on the palettes of close friends and City Lane contributors. I have to say they were quite happy beings my guinea pigs – it was a tough job however someone had to do it.
To make the recipe creation easier I drew on my background in science (I am a pharmacist by trade) and used the scientific method to alter my base recipes. For the science geeks out there we created our hypothesis, changed one variable at a time, reported our findings then altered our hypothesis according. This continued over and over again until we were happy with the end product. Basically it was trial and error and oh were there errors! I accidentally turned cream into butter trying to make a salted caramel and Nutella mousse, burnt several batches of brioche dough, undercooked a few more and there were a few things that didn’t even get trailed but instead headed straight into the bin.
By July we thought we have finalised the items which were going to be part of our bento box which included; a peanut butter and Nutella S’more, a salted caramel and Nutella mousse and a Nutella brioche with a maple whiskey glaze. This all changed as soon as I started to look into permits and venues. There is a wonderful website called Streatrader which helps you figure out what permits you will need based on your location and the items you intend to sell. I naively thought it was going to be easy, that we would apply for a permit and everything would be fine. Unfortunately this is not quite how it works. I found out that food products have different classifications based on how risky the food it considered. The use of cream/egg whites placed the products in a class that required a food safety supervisor which was problematic as no one at the time had completed the food safety supervisor course. Oh the joys of bureaucracy! To down schedule our bento box we went back to the drawing board and decided to swap out the problematic mousse for a salted caramel and Nutella truffle.
Once we had finalized the product it was time to decide on a venue. We were fortunate that Alex, owner of The Alehouse Project kindly agreed to letting us take over his bar’s side room, with its convenient large window that opens out onto Lygon Street. Once the venue was sorted the hard work really began. It was time to advertise the popup to try and predict the demand. To start the process off, one evening after work (yes Paul and I were still working full time day jobs at this stage) I whipped up a batch of treats so to photograph. What you can not tell from the great food photos was it was not smooth sailing. The truffles wouldn’t stop melting under our hot studio photography lights and the marshmallow hadn’t completely set so it wouldn’t stop oozing. We them came up with the approach of holding the s’more so that anything that hadn’t set would drip from the base and we would be able to hide it in a photo. After the photos where taken Paul performed his post production magic to get the promotional images looking just right, and we printed out posters for some “on the street” marketing.
The following morning we posted the images and information about the event on The City Lane’s social media platforms and the response was incredible. We knew that a Nutella popup would be popular however we did not anticipate that we would receive as much attention as we did. As more and more media outlets started reporting on the event, a feeling of dread kicked in. Demand was so much greater than what we would be able to cope with. We up-scaled our original plan of producing 400 bento boxes to 650. We read comments from some cynical people on Facebook that we were purposely restricting supply in order to increase hype but this was not the case. We would have loved to have made enough to fully satisfy demand but it just wasn’t practical. We just had to make as many as we could without a professional chef, in between working our full time jobs. How were we going to make even 650 of these? The solution was to hire a commercial kitchen during the “graveyard shift” and forgo sleep.
For the entire week before the pop up we were operating on 3 to 4 hours sleep per night. On the night before the popup, we literally didn’t sleep. Things got even crazier when we realised mid way through the week that we didn’t have enough Nutella. As soon as possible I was on the phone to our supplier trying to buy more, however they had run out. This felt like the end of the world – there was a legitimate Nutella shortage! How were we going to have a Nutella pop up without Nutella? I frantically started calling every food wholesaler possible to find an alternative supplier. After a few hours and sleep deprived tears I found a company that could guarantee delivery two days before the popup. After this point things could only get better.
On the day of the popup, when we stared to set up the venue for selling, there was already a line forming, 2 hours before the thing was due to open! By the time we opened, the line was going down the street and snaking around the corner. It was on! Everything ran smoothly during the event and despite have to restrict people to 1 bento box per person, we still sold out within 4 hours. Seeing the happy looks on people’s faces as they enjoyed their treats made everything worth it. Let’s not avoid another truth here either – it was very nice to turn a profit too!
From my standpoint it was a definite achievement that we had managed to make 650 truffles, 1200 biscuits, 20kg of marshmallow, 650 tart shells and 6L of meringue – all from scratch. After the event we vowed never to do it again, however this didn’t last for long. We started planning the next popup a few weeks later. I can tell you for certain that we will be taking on board a lot of what we learned from the Nutella popup. We will sleep, we have ample amounts of donuts and ice-cream and we are taking time off work this time round. You can find out more about our Ice-Cream Donut Sandwich popup here.