Pop-up restaurants finally make their way to Seoul

Pop-up restaurants finally make their way to Seoul

Fish, meet water. Trendy short-lived foodie joints are erupting in this SNS-obsessed city
Linus Kim's pop-up pulled-pork barbecue has a cult following in the world of Seoul social media.

In recent years, the ever-changing Seoul restaurant landscape has seen more foreign food enter the formerly homogeneous Korean culinary scene -- and the latest international import may bring more opportunities than ever. 

Pop-up restaurants are finally pushing their way into Seoul, and it's no wonder, in a city that thrives on quick-changing trends, social media sites and well -- food.

Global context

The pop-up concept -- setting up shop in a location for a limited time, usually less than a day, before shutting down and moving somewhere new -- has become a major trend in certain cities overseas.

London, especially, has embraced the pop-up culture, meaning the city once renowned for its lack of a covetable culinary experience has become a trailblazer. Chefs now can display their talent at multiple spaces, and groups like Free Company -- a collaborative of chefs -- have made a business out of popping up in various locations with unique menus.

And as the novelty has settled down and become more of a staple, it’s also given rise to quirkier events, such as Hot Tub Cinema, where guests head to any given location, hop into a hot tub and watch a Facebook-voted film.

And while Los Angeles is still overrun with food trucks, the city has made enough room for the burgeoning ppop-up trend. One of the most well-known is LudoBites, which has won accolades from food critic Jonathan Gold.

Run by Chef Ludo Lefebvre, LudoBites usually settles in one place for around a month, but also pops up in other locations outside the city (it'll next be in New York on October 9).

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Seoul trends

pop-up ZenKimchi paired up with Seoul in the City's Sarah Lee in Apri 2012 to launch what they called "Seoul's First Pop Up."
Joe McPherson of popular food blog ZenKimchi paired up with Seoul in the City's Sarah Lee back in April of 2012 to launch what they called "Seoul's First Pop-Up."

Going with the concept of "Re-interpretation of Korean," the two food bloggers put together "Back Kitchen Seoul," a pop-up featuring extremely experimental Korea food via a five-course meal.

"It's so risky opening a restaurant in Seoul anyway, so it was a good way of experimenting with concepts to see what would work or what wouldn't work," says McPherson.

This particular pop-up only offered 40 seats in Anguk-dong's Café Gondry, for the suggested donation of ₩30,000 (US$27). It sold out almost immediately.

Not only did the temporary restaurateurs make a profit, so did Café Gondry, which took all drink orders in lieu of a rental fee.

It's a model that has become popular, as pop-ups tend to borrow existing spaces in an effort to collaborate with an existing community.

Linus Kim, 38, of Linus' Bama Style Barbecue is rolling with the same concept.

Since officially beginning his brand, the Alabama native has become the first true pop-up restaurateur in Seoul, choosing to eschew restaurants and trucks in favor of hand-selecting cafés and bars to serve as the home for his barbecue.

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pop-up Where the pop-up goes, the party follows.
"The beautiful thing about pop-ups is they are the future," says Kim, who also worked with Lee of Seoul in the City as a restaurant consultant. "I don't have a lot of capital. There's a lot of people here who have great ideas, they have a lot of good skills, but they just don't have the money."

This is particularly true given the requirements for hefty deposits in the Korean real estate world, with as much as 30 million demanded for even a tiny patch.

Eric Ehler, the chef behind Seoul Patch, a Korean-inspired pop-up restaurant in San Francisco, believes in the entrepreneurial power of the pop-up as well.  

“Pop-ups are an awesome thing," says Ehler. "They come in so many shapes and forms; be it a food truck/stand/cart, guest chef night, or selling something in an interesting location. They are a fantastic first step for budding entrepreneurs."

In the world's most wired city, advertising costs are also nil, thanks to social media.

"I originally just sent it out to friends only on Facebook, but then it got picked up by friends of friends and some bloggers," says Kim, about how he advertised his first pop-up.

This inspired him to create an official Facebook page announcing where the events are being held next.

"We are rambling men (and women) sailing port to port like filthy sailors," is the official response to queries about a fixed location.

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Cool spaces

Given his expertise as a restaurant consultant, Kim is well equipped to successfully run a “real business," but he prefers to collaborate with existing spaces.

Most recently, he held a pop-up at the Ways of Seeing Café in Hannam-dong, which is owned and operated by artists, who were initially skeptical of Kim's pop-up proposal. As soon as it happened, however, they were already asking Kim when they could have the next one. 

Approximately 200 people showed up, and with the food selling out, customers were buying plenty of drinks.

"It's such a win-win situation," says Kim, adding that the "soul of the pop-up" is the collaboration with the restauranteur and a really cool space. 

"You come to a place like this, I sell food, they can sell their alcohol, and everyone wins." 

Cult followings

While it seems as though it would be easier to create a regular fan base with a standing restaurant where customers can find you at all times, the pop-up style evidently creates more of a following, with patrons leaping at the chance to get the food while it’s available.  

"I think knowing I couldn't have it whenever I wanted made it taste even better," says Nancy Lee, a guest at the Ways of Seeing pop-up. 

"They didn't think it was possible, but now they see it can possibly work and because of that, we're seeing a lot more experimentation going on," says McPherson, who plans to open one in the future. 

"I think pop-ups are so appealing, because people are tired of conventional restaurants" says Ehler.

He says that the attraction has to do with the fact that it is a more interesting dining experience. 

"It's kind of an irresistible idea. Everyone is a foodie now, and what's cooler than an underground chef, making rogue food, in different locations? Nothing!" 

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Los Angeles-born Elizabeth Eun is a journalist who currently works at CJ E&M.  She lives on the Internet and in cafés.

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