Nailing down the tricky definition of “pop up” with Joe Ricchio

Warning: Joe Ricchio language ahead.

Joe Ricchio (with whom—for the uninitiated—I worked on Food Coma TV) recently wrote Pop Up Blocker, a blog post in which he illustrates the preciousness of the pop up trend in the modern food scene. The piece was pretty well received by those I am connected with in the Portland food community. Ricchio’s post begins:

I believe that the pop-up restaurant craze may have run its course…

This is the conclusion that I arrive at while trying to drown out the asinine conversation taking place across the table from me by my random, newly met dining companions. They appear to be completely beside themselves with excitement after being granted the privilege to be part of the “underground dining movement,” going on and on about “how CREATIVE these dishes are!” I bite my tongue and refrain from making a sarcastic reference to Fight Club or Where the Streets Have No Name, opting instead to try, in futility, to seek out a “server” who will fill my long since empty vintage wine goblet.

And he goes on to illustrate a number of absurd, though not unbelievable scenes that will resonate to anyone familiar with this trend in particular.

In some of the discourse I have seen occur in comments sections of websites that have run the piece and on Facebook, I have noticed some confusion regarding what Ricchio classifies as a “pop-up.” This confusion is fair considering his intimacy with the Pocket Brunch crew and events. We had the following email exchange with the understanding it would be printed in this blog. Enjoy.

I wrote:

Dear Joe,

I very much appreciated your recent (and very cleverly-titled) post about pop-ups, and I found it to be one of the best employments of your voice and characteristic annoyance with novelty-over-substance to date.

Those who know you intimately are familiar with your frustration with what you would label preciousness, and your illustrations of such were beautiful and spot-on. The asinine conversations, the pretentious banter, the highway robbery. The picture you painted was at once hilarious and bleak.

From what I have seen in some comments from readers on Facebook and various websites, I think there exists some confusion about what it is, exactly, you are frustrated with and consequently attacking. As I mentioned above, I think those who know you are able to identify what annoys you as these frustrations are baked into your personality and daily discourse. This said, it is at confusing at first glance when one of the biggest cheerleaders of Pocket Brunch, one of the most successful recurring pop-up series, expresses his disdain for the phenomenon.

In a comment on Eater, you pointed out that you don’t consider Pocket Brunch a pop-up, but your assessment of the event doesn’t stop if from, whether you or the proprietors like it or not, being considered as such (see: The Phoenix, Food and Wine, Edible Obsession, and Eater). Knowing you, and knowing what grates at your nerves, I assume that I know what it is that drives you crazy about the phenomena. I don’t know that it is the classifications of the event themselves, but the sort of preciousness they can attract that pokes at you. Of course one thing we both enjoy about Josh, Katie, Nathaniel, Joel and the other folks at Pocket Brunch is that they are a group that shuns pretension, and so it strikes me as unlikely that the sort of annoyances you detailed in your piece taking place at one of their events. This said, perhaps the event does not create for you this experience, but it is also an event frequented by your peers, and so these faults are not likely to be overt to someone familiar with the scene and players involved.

I suppose I inquire because there are elements of the pop-up phenomenon that are unarguably good things when they are not fetishized or prioritized over quality of food, experience and service. The opportunities that are created by elimination of the overhead that comes with maintaining a brick and mortar establishment come to mind, particularly those that facilitate and encourage the sort of experimentation that the folks at Pocket Brunch are able to pull off. And so it strikes me that it is not the phenomenon itself that is bad, but the self-obsession that is known to accompany it. I feel similarly about other terminologies you have expressed disdain for in the past, particularly food trucks and farm-to-table. I hate a 45 word, heavily hyphenated menu description that would just-as-easily be described as “pulled pork from a farm two towns over” as much as anyone in their right mind should, but the concept of supporting under-represented economies is undeniably good. Eating carefully raised meat is good. Avoiding the structures that make more likely mass-food-born illness is good, no? And people who see their monthly endeavors as more noble than the daily toil that comes with working at a brick-and-mortar establishment should be slapped, of course, but there isn’t something inherently bad about alternatives.

Much of the overt preciousness that appears to be at the root of what you are ultimately frustrated with is baked into and born out of some of the things innate to what we hold dear about food and related experiences. The feeling of exclusivity that comes with coveted, limited ticket events breeds in some people attitudes that are best beaten out of those who hold them. The feeling of exclusivity that coincides with financial barriers to entry we put up with, in particular expensive meals and even more expensive bottles of wine, goes hand-in-hand with a very particular sort of so-called hipster prickishness that I find as off-putting as you do.

And so in this sense I agree that Pocket Brunch is not a pop-up in the sense of attitude, or that your Deathmatch parties, which preexisted the trend, is a pop-up in this sense either, or the harvest dinner event you cooked at for me a couple of years ago at Krista’s in Cornish was a precious pop-up, but they are all functionally pop-ups, aren’t they? (The latter being a dinner built in part around a harvest, making it effectively a twofer of concepts that you hate). And so without writing them off as dinner parties as opposed to pop-ups, can you explain what it is exactly that you find detestable each of these phenomena, and how we as members of a community that loves and appreciates food and related experiences and events fosters the creation of more Death Matches and Pocket Brunches than we do the awful alternatives?

Many thanks, and I look forward to your response,
Alex

To which Joe responded:

Dear Alex,

I hope this finds you well. I have been busy all morning cleaning myself in my pop-up waterpark, but am now feeling fresh, vibrant, and ready to respond to your thoughtful email.

Okay, I think that the most important thing here is what you define as a pop-up restaurant. By saying that both Deathmatch and the Harvest Dinner that we hosted at Krista’s were pop-ups, you would effectively be declaring that ANY catered event outside of an actual restaurant is a pop-up, from weddings to bake sales to ice cream socials. Where exactly is the line?

To me, pop-up restaurants started as a reasonable idea for young or relatively unknown cooks to garner exposure from potential investors without having to take a lot of financial risk. Eventually, as the trend took hold, this prompted the “anyone can do this” mentality because the risk of failure and financial devastation associated with opening an actual restaurant had been taken out of the equation. Next thing you knew, everyone was a “pop-up restaurateur,” and little by little the general public began buying into this line of bullshit. This, of course, comes as a result of everyone’s desperation to be “in the know” and their desire to be intimately involved with chefs who may be the “TV rockstar personalities of tomorrow.” The piece that I wrote is a somewhat exaggerated critique of this ridiculousness.

So you’ve got these events, and some of them are good, and some are idiotic. I will eat good food anytime and anywhere, and I attend Pocket Brunch because it’s an awesome fucking time and very good friends of mine host it. Never are you made to feel like you are attending any kind of “sacred” or, as you know I like to say, “precious” happening. It’s just a themed event that revolves around food that you buy tickets for. Done.

Another problem I have with pop-ups is that they aren’t necessarily inexpensive, as some fetch ticket prices of up to $150 not including booze and tip. For that kind of money you can expect flawless service and a pretty outstanding dining experience overall at restaurants owned by chefs like Barbara Lynch, for Christ’s sake. I understand that hosting these events cost money, and it can be quite difficult to turn a profit on them but – them’s the breaks. I simply do not think that a pop-up can deliver at that level.

In conclusion, I do not think that pop-ups are any kind of “phenomenon” at all, but rather just a really irritating way of classify dining events that have been going on forever, and effectively raising their demand in the process. To refer to them as the “future of dining,” which many do, just furthers my point.

By the way, the fact that Food and Wine referred to the PB crew as “American Artisans” makes me want to have red-hot frying oil poured into my eyes while someone saws my hands off.

Sincerely,
Joe

Many thanks to Joe for taking the time to weigh in.

Note: For more on Joe’s frustrations with “preciousness,” check out this interview we did with Nick Schroeder over at the Portland Phoenix back in January of 2012. Joe said: “My biggest dislikes are people who make food too precious when it’s completely unnecessary to do so. People who put their own food on a pedestal and make the dining experience something that it doesn’t need to be by any means. That’s my biggest thing, besides food that just tastes like shit.

PHOTO CREDIT: The great Brian Fitzgerald [from his Inspire Portland series].

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.