Short-term retail lets are a regular feature of Britain’s high streets. Now eating places are appearing in some unexpected locations as Adam Wells discovered…

Art galleries in abandoned factories, retail stores on boats, and newsrooms in coffee shops, in recent times, pop-ups have been popping up everywhere.

The creation of a short-term sales space is one of the trendiest moves in the business. Whether a useful promotional tool, a way of testing products and interacting with customers, or of capturing footfall without the drawback of a long-term lease, it’s a move that has obvious benefits.

For Aly Fraser, it’s one that has enabled him to take his first steps into the world of professional cheffing, and one he wants to use to offer the people of Tunbridge Wells great food in a unique setting.

On Saturday, August 29, Aly debuted his new pop-up restaurant, Chaleybeate Food (ka-lee-bee-at), at Perk and Pearl in Tunbridge Wells. Surrounded by coffee beans and tea leaves, 18 lucky people enjoyed his incredible menu, not knowing this was the first time he had ever cooked professionally.

Despite having worked on and off in the industry for two decades, it wasn’t until the birth of his son, Lennox, that Aly took a real interest in food.

He says: “When I was 15 I started working as a pot and pan washer in a fish and chip shop in Aberdeen. Then five years ago I worked as a resort manager in Courcheval for a season.

“Before we moved to Tunbridge Wells two and a half years ago, me and my wife, Lisa, were running a B&B in Peckham in south London.

“Because of the restaurants that we could recommend to our customers, we started offering them dinner ourselves. Rather than send them out in to Peckham at 10pm on a Saturday night, we cooked for them at the house.

“We got good reviews on the back of that, and people started asking for dinner when they booked.

“After that I took a Guardian Masterclass on how to start a pop up restaurant. Then we moved to Tunbridge Wells, and the rest is history!

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but it was always just a means to an end. It wasn’t until Lennox was born that it became an interest. I’m a full time homemaker, and cooking allows me to work at something else while looking after Lennox.

“I can experiment with dishes while he plays away happily. And one of the great things about a pop-up is that it allows me to choose the times I work, so I can still look after my son. It allows me to pursue an interest and an income without the constraints of a contracted job.

“In February last year we went to the Last Word Suppers supper club at Velo House. Lisa said I should give it a go based on how good my food was. She had confidence in me.”

Aly started to grow his own fruit and vegetables – grapes, brassicas, alliums, potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli  – on a rented allotment in Hawkenbury. But even that freedom brought unexpected limitations.

He adds: “The only problem is that the Council’s terms of rent for the allotment state I’m not allowed to use the crops for commercial gain.  So I use it as a test centre, trying out dishes for the pop-up restaurant on my family using the vegetables I grow there.

“I grow chillies and herbs in our kitchen garden that I use for the pop-up restaurant, but I’d love to have somewhere, even if it’s just the corner of a farmer’s field, where I can produce everything I need.”

Aly has to buy his fruit and veg in for now, and while it might not be ideal, it’s inevitable that a new, small-scale operation such as this will initially be subject to financial limitations.

“I’ve had to invest so much money on up front costs”, he said. “I’ve had to buy all my catering equipment, and at every event I’m only going to make 200 pounds or so. It’s not a retirement fund, I just genuinely love cooking!”

“Fullers, the butchers, has kindly given me some cost price meat. They were delighted to help me, and even put up a poster for my restaurant in their shop. They were genuinely enthusiastic to support a local business.”

Somewhere else keen to support Aly is coffee shop Perk and Pearl. Owner Joe Lloyd is always looking to support other local businesses, and having previously hosted The Last Word Suppers himself, he was an obvious person to approach when the time came for Aly to find a venue.

“Knowing Joe had hosted one already made it easier to approach him”, said Aly. “He was very positive about the idea. I offered to cook him and his wife a meal at our house, and he was impressed with what I made for them.

“He’s got a good head for retail, and guided me through the whole process. Tickets sold out 2 weeks before the event, and everything went really well on the night. There were some challenges with having to set up the kitchen in the shop, but it was a  really fun night. Now I’ve done it, and cooked for that many people, it’s encouraged me to carry on. And having Lisa there helping me was great, she loved it. She’s not naturally a cook, but she loved the whole atmosphere and environment, and she’s really keen to make it work.”

The event was such a success that Aly and Joe have already confirmed a second event for later this month, with the menu for Saturday, September 26 already posted on the Chalybeate website. And while Perk and Pearl may well play host to Chalybeate again in future, Aly wants his restaurant to pop-up in other places too.

“Since moving to Tunbridge Wells I’ve been looking for places. My understanding of a pop-up restaurant is bringing food somewhere that doesn’t usually have it – providing a unique experience in a unique location – and I’d like to identify more places around town. Beautiful settings, like art galleries, that lend themselves to a theme based evening. Halls would be brilliant, but naked flames in a bookshop is a recipe for disaster!”

Wherever Aly’s restaurant pops-up, it seems like the people of Tunbridge Wells will be queuing up to fill it.

The perks of a pop-up

Though the tag pop-up is new, the idea of a temporary retail space is as old as the hills. They have become noticeably more prominent in recent years however, and the reasons for their growing popularity are many:

  • Affordability – temporary in nature, the cost of setting up is low compared to more permanent premises. This is particularly attractive for new businesses, that don’t yet have the funds necessary to set up in a permanent location.
  • Commitment – pop up shops are a short-term commitment. Rather than being locked into a long-term lease, the owner is only committed for a short period of time, allowing them to change their business model, location and strategies depending on the success of the initial pop-up. A pop-up also allows a business to target specific areas and seasons, such as Hallowe’en and Christmas.
  • Publicity – pop-ups are very good at generating a buzz around a brand or business. Something that has just ‘popped’ into existence that wasn’t there before is naturally attractive to people. Especially if the pop-up is unique in its appearance or environment, like a clothes shop on a boat, or a restaurant in a coffee shop.
  • Market research – the low cost and temporary nature of a pop-up shop gives brands and businesses the chance to test new products and gauge market demand for them without spending a lot of money.
  • Spontaneous shopping – the temporary nature of a pop-up can also create a sense of urgency amongst shoppers, who may feel they have to buy something now or miss out on it forever.