DC's chefs are an experimental bunch. As soon as a space and concept are locked down for a restaurant, they're suddenly mixing it up and doing something different. To get that desire for change out of their systems (however temporarily), chefs may do a weekend pop-up in an underused space or take over another chef's kitchen for an evening. Or as Union Kitchen and Blind Dog Cafe's Jonas Singer likes to call it, chefs may "plop-in" a shared space for months at a time.
D.C.'s dining scene is no stranger to pop-up events, a phrase that usually refers to temporary menus or guest dinners within an existing restaurant or retail space (the term often gets used pretty loosely at this point, now that the phrase has become ubiquitous). Chef restaurant takeovers and longer-term, shared space partnerships have grown out of that trend. Baltimore's Artifact Coffee, owned by Woodberry Kitchen chef Spike Gjerde for example, has become a particular hub for restaurant takeovers. Chefs like Erik Bruner-Yang, Tiffany MacIsaac and Kyle Bailey have collaborated with Gjerde on "takeover" events there. Places such as Toki Underground and Richmond's Rappahannock Restaurant have also been recent sites for "takeover" events. Takeovers tend to showcase the work of another chef in an established restaurant space, or present the opportunity for two chefs to collaborate on a single menu. The "plop-in" phenomenon Singer describes is more of a short-term, shared space partnership between two entities.
There are benefits and drawbacks to the idea. When sharing a space with another business, chefs and business owners need to look at the numbers involved and see if it makes sense to pursue it, says Singer. Using an unfamiliar space is something that's in Singer's comfort zone. The man behind D.C.'s food incubator Union Kitchen also launched the pop-up Blind Dog Cafe at Darnell's. During the day, it's a neighborhood coffee shop; at night, it's a neighborhood bar. "Taking over Darnell's works for us. In the beginning, there were those nuts and bolts lessons, such as who cleans what when...But in the bigger picture, there's a benefit financially. It allows us grow our customer network and prevents us from being myopic about the business."
A similar partnership takes place at D.C.'s Hogo, which has hosted Vigilante Coffee during the day. In Petworth, meanwhile, Ed Cornell and Patrick Griffith are the guys behind the Milk Cult, another Union Kitchen graduate which has a relationship with Park View Patio. The pair didn't set out to share a space with a bar. Cornell, concerned about business slowing down during the colder months, wanted to find a less-mobile method of getting Milk Cult products to the public. "We were doing a really good mobile business, but we knew business would be dead as fall and winter rolled around, so we tried to find opportunities in the D.C. area." They heard about the space from Vigilante Coffee's Chris Vigilante.
Converting a shared space into a successful venue requires the visiting chef to make the vibe his own. This may be one of the reasons Baltimore's Artifact Coffee has hosted more than one D.C. chef. Hannah Ragan, Director of Service Training and Outreach for Artifact Coffee, Woodberry Kitchen, and other Spike Gjerde establishments, believes Artifact is a successful takeover spot because "the space we work with is so beautiful, welcoming and warm. You don't want to leave because it's full of energy and people are just happy when they are there." Every chef that comes can do their own thing.
Both Toki Underground's Erik Bruner-Yang and Neighborhood Restaurant Group's Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac have done stints at Artifact (along with Baltimore's own Jonah Kim of Pabu). MacIsaac is a fan of Gjerde and Baltimore, so having the opportunity to do a takeover for a few days was well-received by both parties.
"We love Spike and we love Woodberry Kitchen. And it's always great to work in a new kitchen. For Artifact in particular, it was very much in-line with GBD." In three weeks, the concept went from an idea to implementation.
Because chefs aren't throwing down as much money as they would buying a space, there's more freedom to experiment with dishes, layouts, and formats. Hula Girl's Mikala Brennan parked her truck and temporarily moved into what was once Pulpo's Cleveland Park space for five weeks. "Taking over the Pulpo space happened pretty quickly. I had three days to pull this whole thing together. I was taking what we offered on the truck and offering most of that to customers. But as I got more comfortable, I was able to try some new things." Going from a truck to a shared space also allowed her to serve alcohol, which tends to be a good pairing with Hawaiian food.
Taking over the space also helped Brennan figure out some of her wants for a future restaurant. "One of the biggest benefits was that I was about to zero in on realistic square footage." She figured out that for Hula Girl, that was between 2,500 to 3,000 square feet.
And there's also the surprise of finding out a traditionally quiet neighborhood can be receptive to the cuisine. She was a bit worried about being in Cleveland Park since the neighborhood's not known for lively nightlife crowds and can be "dead as a doorknob after 9 p.m.," as she put it. However, the location proved that customers were willing to travel for her food.
Of course, taking over someone else's space can mean design limitations. "When you're doing a pop-up, you're limited to how much you can actually cook," says Griffith. Milk Cult's space in Petworth still doesn't have a full kitchen, so they make do with induction burners and sous vide machines for the time being. Prep work may have to be done elsewhere. "But it forces you to look at the efficiency of your operations." Darnell's has limited storage space which translates to limited offerings for customers. Despite these issues, Singer believes, "You can take a little bit more risks. And customers are a bit more forgiving. It challenges you to get more strategic about your operations."
The experiments aren't necessarily big-time moneymakers. Toki hosted Paul Qui's East Side King for a sold-out takeover event in January. "You're doubling your staff, you're buying a bunch of food that you never need again, and then you have to re-purpose [the ingredients] for a few days," explained Bruner-Yang. Singer believes that longer the event runs, the more likely it'll be financially successful. But regardless of the obstacles, chefs tend to go for it, even if the result has more to do with buzz than bucks.
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