Top of the pop-ups

Top of the pop-ups

Part of our job as journalists is to filter out blatant PR hype in order to bring you, our readers, genuine examples of best practice, inspiration and innovation. No, a beef patty filled with mushrooms and labelled ‘flexitarian’ isn’t new or news – it’s just a burger with some mushrooms. Next press release, please.

If we’ve done our job and managed to plant the seedling of an idea in your mind, then perhaps that idea will lead to a new menu item or strategic adjustment in your business, which you can work hard on marketing and we can then read all about in an adjective-riddled press release, which we might then edit down and report on, completing a rather confusing (but productive?) operational cycle. I wonder how many of you are now getting ready to add mushrooms to your burgers?

Last month, I thought I was looking at another overly-hyped script about a potential lead interviewee. I was being asked if I wanted to interview the guy people are calling ‘London’s Pop-Up King’ and ‘The London Pop-Up Master’ – who were these people, and why do they regard this person in such high esteem? Well, it turns out those quotes were from the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times, and they regard Jimmy Garcia in such esteem because of the multifaceted, bespoke/trademark, pop-up project business he has built for himself. Jimmy Garcia Catering Ltd is a creative, reactive and proactive hospitality business with a truly exciting variety of operations and revenue streams – it’s a foodservice business that Casual Dining Magazine readers should certainly pay attention to. That last sentence wasn’t in the press release, I promise.

Pop-up publicity

For me, the term ‘pop-up’ can be treated as warily as ‘street food’ or ‘veganism’ or, to be honest, ‘trend’. Each of these terms has their own credibility and value when used in the correct context, but as buzzwords and bandwagons, they can easily be lost in the ether of ill-considered and short-lived propositions. ‘Craze for street food vegan pop-ups delivers powerful new trend!’ You get me?

However, when I sat down with Jimmy Garcia just a short walk from his BBQ Club pop-up that’s residing on London’s Southbank this summer, my sceptical naivety when it comes to pop-up operations made for an enlightening interview with a very busy and very creative man.

Last winter, I was invited to experience ‘Jimmy’s Lodge’ – a ski chalet/restaurant also by the River Thames on the Southbank. Sat in a makeshift wooden chalet, surrounded by journalists, photographers, bloggers and blaggers, I feasted on beautiful game terrine, mulled wine-cured Gravlax salmon and mounds and mounds of fondue, mightily impressed with the set-up and confident that Garcia and his team would run a highly successful operation throughout the cold season. But that’s as far as my attention went. It wasn’t until I sat down with him last month that I really appreciated how many more facets to the business there were.

Garcia has come a long way since he borrowed some tables and chairs from a local church and opened a ‘restaurant’ in his front room in February 2011. At the time, he was a disgruntled and disenchanted stockbroker who would plan menus at his desk by day, then host strangers in his front room later that night, who would all end up dancing on those sacred tables. This was an enjoyable success for a time, but there was only so long that his housemates would put up with such a raucous routine.

So he headed to Courchevel, where he started up a chalet company with a close friend, before returning to London in 2012 to run a movie-themed pop-up restaurant in the Olympic Park. That was fully booked before it opened, and allowed Garcia to grow his network and spread the word about the type of offer he was creating. As the chalet company continued in France (he worked on that for six years in total), he began venturing into private catering through his first wedding contract, before setting up in the basement of Clapham wine shop Dvine Cellars for a series of meals that were matched to wine being sold upstairs.

“I didn’t realise it then, but that was a shop window for all of the events that we were doing,” says Garcia. “That’s what happened – we started to get enquiries for weddings or launches and I saw the direction of where this could go.

“It was also a chance for us to show people what could be done with a pop-up, to make them say ‘I can’t believe that just happened’. Pop-ups have to be good value, but it has to have that bit of magic and that element of surprise. You can’t buy that – it’s what restaurants can’t do.”

The BBQ Club

Arguably Garcia’s most popular pop-up is the BBQ Club, which began in a garden in Clapham. Chefs and guests cook the food on Big Green Egg barbecues, which are placed on the centre of the dining tables. It was BYO, ticketed and a runaway success. Last year, in the summer of 2017, Garcia and his team took this pop-up brand and stepped it up a gear. The BBQ Club was transformed into a split-level restaurant alongside the Thames on London’s Southbank, and took Jimmy Garcia Catering Ltd to new heights. Previous pop-ups utilised secrecy and mystery to spread the word – plonking a great big barbecue restaurant in one of the most bustling tourist spots of London had refreshed marketing benefits. He now had a public interest made up of the combination of loyal mailing list contacts and organic footfall enquiries – an advantage most permanent restaurants have over the majority of pop-ups.

“BBQ Club was a massive risk for me,” says Garcia. “Every penny I made from the Olympic Park went into building the first BBQ lodge, and it went nuts. Last year we put the BBQ Club on the Southbank and that has changed the face of our business really. We’ve now also got a BBQ Bus, which got booked into a lot of places very quickly.”

For a pop-up business that’s themed around the seasons, the launch of Jimmy’s Lodge in the winter of 2017 made sense. He had previously run a similar operation in a couple of Clapham venues, but the template for the BBQ Club on the Southbank allowed Garcia to roll out the Lodge to a greater audience. What it also did was give him and his brands an impactful, near year-round presence in an area that’s dotted with permanent casual dining sites – he effectively became a peer/competitor to his new neighbours. Is that something that would tempt the pop-up king? Would he ever be tempted to operate one of his brands in a permanent venue?

“We’re not far off that point,” he reveals. “I love the catering side of things and it keeps me on my toes, but it was Southbank that made me realise what a big business the pop-up side of things has become. It shows what we can build. I would love to house the BBQ Club concept. I think another year would allow more people to get to know the brand and then we’ll look at slowly rolling things into different places.

“We’ve been offered the chance to put the BBQ Club permanently into a bowling alley in Liverpool. They’ve approached us to do the food after visiting the BBQ Club last year, so we’re looking at doing that as a concession. We’ll dip our toes in the water and see what happens. It’s meant to be happening in December.”

Respectful operation

Our interviewees often talk about the difficulties of operating in the casual dining market, with rents, rates, staffing and driving footfall regularly topping the chart of most tasking considerations. For those of you who might think that running a pop-up and catering company requires less stress, Garcia is here to tell you that pop-ups are no picnic. His head office team is made up of event planners, an operations director, an operations manager, interns, GMs, chefs and the rest. It’s what’s required to run a £2.5m turnover business. However, what with the closure news that has dominated the casual dining sector in 2018, would he not say that there’s less risk in doing what he’s doing, compared to permanent restaurants on the high street?

“Less risk?” he asks. “Less risk in spending close to £100,000 on putting a restaurant on the side of a pavement for five months? I don’t think so. The risk is at the owner’s discretion. How far do you want to go? Are you willing to put it all on the line? I don’t think many people realise what running this sort of business entails, and that’s my biggest driver and frustration. I like to prove people wrong and take things beyond what people think is possible. The scale of what we’re doing is hard – people don’t quite grasp what we can do.”

Should the BBQ Club expansion plan go ahead, it seems that it’s only a matter of time before people do grasp what this business can do. Garcia wants BBQ Club to be his established brand, which paves the way for popping up in permanent locations and, perhaps, standalone restaurants. Even if this were to happen, you can bet that the creative, bespoke and flexible elements of the business will also continue to grow.

The dynamism displayed through each and every instalment of Jimmy Garcia Catering Ltd means that future clients and customers will always be asking ‘what can you do for us that’s different?’ While restaurants are often encouraged to find their fixed style and nail it consistently, the world of pop-ups allows for a creative freedom and continual reinvigoration that many restaurant brands would love to have – if only it didn’t disrupt their brand loyalty. Garcia has achieved a rare trick in creating a loyalty for a multitude of brands and projects – customers know what they’re going to get, but they also often have no idea. That’s quite a USP. If he can continue on his current trajectory without diluting the unique experience his pop-ups have become known for, his venture into permanent sites could well be worth keeping an eye on.