SF Pop-ups: Economic Fizz or Flat?


Eskender grilling lamb and apricots for couscous. Photo credit: Emme Levine
Eskender grilling lamb and apricots for couscous. Photo credit: Emme Levine

Recently, major news outlets have compared pop-up restaurants to just another flash-in-the-pan fad. But a look at the local San Francisco food scene shows a sparkling diversity of pop-up models—all thriving amidst the glowing embers of our latest recession.   Just like toppings on thin-crust pizza, there are many kinds of pop-ups—mostly defined by their route to popup-dom. Ethiopian-born Eskender Aseged of Radio Africa moved his pop-up around for years before settling lightly at Boogaloos (dinners are hosted there every Friday). But this nomadic model lost its appeal, and a more permanent arrangement is in the works. Located in the Bayview district, the new site for his brick-and-mortar “was presented to” him by local City government, and is opening Fall 2011. They recognized his contribution to the community and saw his involvement as one way to revitalize the neighborhood. Eskender also runs a community garden across the street from his proposed restaurant. He teaches classes to local teens about proper nutrition and food alternatives. When he offers them a taste of some veggies and they exclaim, “Oh that’s so good” his response is, “I grew this two blocks from your house.” Education to the community is one component in his pop-up transition plan. He doesn’t do foie gras, or what he calls “bling-bling” food. His cooking style is a blend of influences, where “Arabian meets the Mediterranean Sea.”

Fresh strawberry scoop from Smitten. Photo by: Nicole Grant from The Bold Italic

Robyn Sue Goldman of Smitten Ice Cream literally started her pop-up odyssey from the back of a Radio Flyer red wagon. While attending Stanford, she created a prototype freezing machine she calls “Kelvin”  “in my backyard out of duct tape and parts off of craigslist.” Two years after she graduated, it was mid-recession and she had used up her life savings to build the machine. So, faced with the decision to “take a real job or continue along the who-knows-what road” she decided to give it one last shot. With the help of her “amazing fiancée,” she “rigged up a radio flyer wagon and just started putting Kelvin on the wagon and pulling it around making ice cream for people in the parks.” Robyn now operates out of a tricked-out shipping container in Hayes Valley, part of the Proxy Project. Smitten gets fresh organic dairy mix from Berretta Family Dairy in Santa Rosa : “We went up there, met the family, met our cows.” She offers two seasonal flavors, plus the more traditional vanilla and chocolate. Kelvin imparts an extra creamy, smooth texture since “liquid nitrogen makes the smallest ice crystals.”

Photo courtesy Emme Levine
Photo courtesy Emme Levine

At Three Babes Bakeshop, long-time friends Lenore, Anna, and Katrina hand-roll all the crusts for their 100% organic fruit pies. The bakers-to-be ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised $10K. Within a mere two months, their pop-up was born (their soft-launch was Memorial Day weekend!), and is made from a recycled shipping container as well—you can find it next to The Stable Café on Folsom Street in San Francisco.  Growing up in California’s Central Valley afforded them the opportunity to forge direct relationships with old family friends who are now their source growers—walnuts come from Old Dog Ranch, apples and cherries from Hidden Star Orchards. Pies like Cherry Rhubarb Custard rotate with the seasons. Savory pies like the Fromage Blanc with Green Garlic uses cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, Everything Under the Sun Farm‘s green garlic, local honey, and fresh thyme. Their pie-in-a-jar allows customers to reuse or return the glass container. “Babe” Anna said being a baker is, “…the closest thing I’m ever going to be to an artist. I would consider our pies works of art. (Having a pop-up), we have the flexibility to change things we ourselves are super-excited about. Then I feel like it’s just going to show.” Read more about San Francisco’s local food culture on The Local Dish: Top Favorites from Bay Area Cheesemongers SF Locavores Get Cookin’ with CUESA Local Gone Wild: Urban Foraging

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