Food pop ups gave street-side eating a new meaning, when gourmet chefs saw it as an opportunity to test out menus, and brands found it a good space to preview ingredients or new foods. Home cooks are now finding it a way of giving people a taste of their culture, of the authentic, as they engage with like-minded people.
Years ago, when I shifted to Delhi, I could barely stomach butter chicken and kaali dal, and I know it sounds clichéd, but I yearned for my mother’s cooking. It pushed me towards the kitchen, and slowly, that part of the house became the most inhabited. Hosting friends became a part of my ritual, and after one such dinner, someone suggested I host a pop up. Despite the nervousness and uncertainty, I took the plunge to host 10 strangers at my place. Now, having done 15 such pop ups, I have learnt the ins and outs. Here, my tips to host a successful pop up.
Know your core strength
You want to be known for one thing. Bengali food is what I do best, so I stick to it. You can make it profitable only if you’re clear about what you’re selling. Not sure what your strength is, or have many? Ask friends who know food to give you an honest opinion.
You’re never really sure what will please another palate, and when you’ve never met people, it’s all the more difficult. Announcing the menu solves this problem. It also gives people a clear idea of vegetarian/non-vegetarian options, allergy-related foods (like prawns) and foods one simply may not like. There’s always a showstopper, so if you don’t like koshamangsho (mutton curry), you may choose not to come. This ensures there are no disappointments. I vary the menu, but keep a few things that people look forward to constant, like coconut laddoo. You can even throw in a surprise sweet or something small that people may appreciate.
Greet every single guest
A home pulls a group of strangers together, as no other space can. You share stories at a very personal level. Warmth and personalisation are what people are looking for. From your first guest to the last one, be there to welcome them. When they leave, spread hugs, handshakes and thank yous. By the end of the meal, they should not be guests anymore, but become your friends.
Open the kitchen
I do, so guests can come and take a quick sneak-peek as I fry those fritters. The more friendly ones will take a bite right here — it’s all part of creating an extended food experience. As the table is set, I make sure that the guests are introduced to the dishes and what has gone into the making. I have noticed that rice is not generally consumed as much, but the meat and fish always are. Part of the experience of hosting people is figuring out how much will be consumed, and I usually keep one kg of meat or fish for four people.
Create a look and feel
It’s not just about the food. Last year, during the monsoons, I did a Hilsa special. You getHilsa only during the monsoon, and I made sure the music and the mood suited the menu. In fact, you hear only soothing Rabindra Sangeet or Baul music at home, and I make an effort to keep the house looking and feeling like one in Bengal. It’s best to serve people on proper crockery and not disposable plates.
Tie up with other startups
CommeatandEat With India helped me find my niche and make a mark in the market. These pioneers have gathered homecooks under their online roofs so people can get a taste of hidden, lost or lesser-known cuisines and dishes. I can hand over responsibilities such as payment and advertising to them, for a 15-20% fee. They even send a photographer.
Create the right brand image
Since I do Bengali food, I dress only in a sari. When you announce it to the world, you want the visual element to stay in people’s minds. Word-of-mouth always helps and social media can create magic. Every mention makes a difference. Bloggers may approach you to come in for a tasting; use your judgement about doling out freebies. Generally, good food gets good press on its own merit.
Track your spending, as it makes it possible for you to do the stuff you want in life and in business. So if I do a Hilsa table and know I must put out five varieties, then I will raise the cost of the table to up to ₹1,800. People in the know will still come because they know the value of it.
Go out of home, sometimes
Once your pop up becomes popular, consider an opportunity wherever it comes up — just make sure it is an intimate setting. Also examine logistics. Set the number of guests, depending on the space you have. Make sure your guests always feel comfortable.
- Shirin Dhoondia, in Mumbai, does the Bohri Thaal. With their roots in Yemen, the cuisine has evolved over the years in India. Try the mutton curry-rice, the DCP (dal chawal palidu — the last is drumstick), smoked mince or moong dal samosa. ₹1,000 for vegetarian; ₹1,200 for non-vegetarian
- Shruti Yash, in Bengaluru, does North Indian street food. Try the coin pizzas, kachori aloo, and gajar ka halwa. ₹1,000
- Suman Sood, in Delhi, does Himachali Dham, food prepared during a wedding. Try madra (a yoghurt-based gravy dish), teliyamaah (a dry preparation of whole dal cooked in lots of oil), khatta meat which is not a part of the Dham but a part of wedding celebrations, lungdoo (fiddlehead ferm) and sheera (a fermented wheat-based dessert). ₹1,200