How pop-up restaurants can help you expand

How pop-up restaurants can help you expand

The wildly successful Mercadito Hospitality finds a strategic angle to the limited-run restaurant phenomenon.

Pop-up restaurants are usually the province of chefs idling between gigs or wannabe owners trying out their dream concept before signing a lease. Most have an edgy feel, but new Chicago pop-up PT at the Talbott is anything but edgy. Instead, it’s a big-league operation that’s the brainchild of multiconcept operator Mercadito Hospitality, proprietors of two of Chicago’s hottest restaurants, Mercadito and Tavernita.

Why is an operator of this stature doing a pop-up? Mercadito Hospitality will open a full-blown restaurant at the Talbott Hotel this fall, but the rush of business at its two big Chicago concepts (Mercadito and the recently opened Tavernita) and its five other operations are keeping the company busy. Mercadito Hospitality has opened restaurants in other markets around the country (New York City and Miami) and has shown it can move quickly on multiple occasions. But even these seasoned operators couldn’t come up with a new concept, menu and chef overnight.

Given the challenging timeline of this deal, most operators would have reluctantly declined to participate. But Mercadito couldn’t pass on a location like the Talbott. It’s a boutique hotel property that sits in a prime spot on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In particular, it seemed like a crime to let the hotel’s spacious sidewalk patio go empty for the summer season.

Needing time to fine-tune its new concept and remodel the space, Mercadito chose to give the pop-up approach a try. The result: PT at the Talbott, which opened on May 7 with 50 indoor seats and 100 more outside. It will exist until the company’s new concept is ready to open in September. Indoor seating is limited to what had been the lounge area of the hotel’s previous restaurant tenant, Bice. The rest of the space is undergoing renovation.

PT features the creative American cuisine of chef Patricio Sandoval, culinary director of Mercadito Hospitality. Beverages—cocktails, beer, wine and sangria— come from the Tippling Brothers, who also handle the extensive beverage program at the company’s red-hot Tavernita. PT at the Talbott serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We can see several plusses to this preopening pop-up strategy. Sure, Mercadito Hospitality will enjoy immediate cash flow. Given PT’s 150-person capacity, vast outdoor seating area and imaginative beverage program, it could be significant. But PT also allows the company to field-test the new concept’s food and drink items on paying customers while also building buzz about its brand, whatever that turns out to be. Another benefit: Future staff can be selected and trained at the pop-up, then swing into the new restaurant when it opens.

To us, it seems like a genius use of the pop-up concept, at least from a business perspective. We’re betting other operators who plan to expand into existing restaurant spaces will look at PT at the Talbott as a model to follow.