THE BAY CITIZEN A Few Temporary Stores or a Neighborhood

THE BAY CITIZEN-Nicole Lisi Buffett - New York Times

Jason Henry/The Bay Citizen
Jake Bagshaw and Nicole Buffett set up Piper and John General Goods, one of six pop-up stores opening in Oakland.
Published: December 2, 2011



To Alfonso Dominguez, calling his project to populate a mostly vacant stretch of downtown Oakland with locally minded retailers Popuphood is both literal (“The stores are popping up!”) and a bit of a tease.

Although the six stores, including a furniture company to be housed in a shipping container, will operate under a six-month arrangement of free rent, he hopes the shops will sign long-term leases.

“I know people have an idea that oh, it’s temporary and it leaves,” Mr. Dominguez said, referring to the pop-up concept. “But what we’re doing is making an incubator for the new economy, rethinking the way retail works as a way to survive.”

Mr. Dominguez’s experiment, which has been created with Sarah Filley, an urban planner, officially opens on Dec. 9. It is one of dozens of local iterations on the pop-up concept springing up during the holiday season. And like Popuphood, many of the newest entrants to the pop-up world are pushing the concept farther from its origins as a creative use of vacant storefront space.

These days, a pop-up experience can mean anything from a seasonal Toys “R” Us store to a $60 one-time-only meal prepared by a guest chef at a high-end restaurant to a makeshift art gallery in an alley. Some pop-ups mix big corporations with independent operations — like the SFMade pop-up of locally made goods currently ensconced in the Banana Republic flagship store in San Francisco.

Cultural institutions of all types have also adopted the concept: this week, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced that while its building is closed for expansion sometime in the next few years, it will host pop-up exhibits.

Even the pop-up’s temporary nature is open to interpretation. One high-profile project, Proxy, a two-block land parcel in Hayes Valley being developed as a pop-up by Envelope Architecture and Design, a local firm, plans to operate until 2015.

“It’s gotten hard to know what people are even talking about when they say ‘pop-up,’ ” said Daniel Patterson, the chef and restaurateur whose Coi in San Francisco and Plum in Oakland have recently played host to riffs on the genre.

For business owners, an uncertain economy has driven the form. Pop-ups frequently function as trial balloons for brick-and-mortar businesses, testing concepts with less financial risk.

Michael Mauschbaugh, an aspiring chef, “had a very clear vision” of the food he wanted to make but found the process for opening a traditional restaurant arduous. In March, he responded to an ad on Craigslist that offered the use of a tiny kitchen in the Sugarlump coffee shop. Soon enough, Sous Beurre Kitchen was popping up six nights a week, offering sweetbreads and mussels alongside Sugarlump’s lattes and scones.

Though Mr. Mauschbaugh’s bistro is a regular fixture at Sugarlump, he calls it a pop-up because it operates in someone else’s space, offering a completely different dining experience.

Pop-up “is kind of an umbrella term,” Mr. Mauschbaugh said. “It captures the weirdness of eating rustic French cuisine next to some punk with headphones surfing the Net.”

The large number of entrepreneurs who are looking for permitted locations for their businesses has created a kind of trickle-down pop-up economy — another reason for their persistent popularity.

A few blocks from Sugarlump is La Victoria, a 62-year-old Mexican bakery owned by Jaime Maldonado. For years, Mr. Maldonado has exchanged kitchen and dining space to pop-ups for a cut of their gross income, a strategy that helped save his business in 2008.

“The Mission has changed so much, I’d say 50 percent of the people who live here have no idea about my bakery,” Mr. Maldonado said. “Pop-ups bring me that young, skinny jeans-wearing crowd that would otherwise walk right by.”

Scott Cameron created a company in Oakland exclusively to provide venues for pop-ups. He opened Guest Chef in October, which rents out a fully equipped restaurant space for two-week stints.

Pop-ups are perfectly in sync with the current social and economic concerns, said Lizzie Wallack, project architect for Proxy, which will introduce its rotating cast of eight retail shops this spring.

“It’s the nature of our culture,” she said, “We’re interested in the immediate and the next thing.”

But pop-ups can’t rely only on novelty value, said Henry Mason, of, a Web site and research company that first used the term in a 2004 report. Toys “R” Us, for instance, cut down from last year’s record-setting 600 holiday pop-ups.

“Given the amazing success of the pop-up phenomenon, certainly the element of surprise and excitement is somewhat diminished,” Mr. Mason said, “So the challenge for any aspiring pop-up is now that ‘temporary’ on its own is not enough. What else can you offer people?”

For Sunde White, proprietor of Pie Fridays, the answer is baked into the product. She rolls a bright red hand-painted food cart out on weekend evenings.

“People love to bring their out-of-town parents to ‘that adorable little secret pie cart’ and get their picture taken with me for Facebook,” Ms. White said. “But that’s just the hook. If my pie wasn’t good, people wouldn’t keep coming back.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2011, on page A25A of the National edition with the headline: A Few Temporary Stores or a Neighborhood.

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