courtesy mouthfeel

A meal from the food pop up, MouthFeel. (Courtesy/Esther Kim)

In recent months, the food service industry has become unrecognizable. In the face of COVID-19 restaurants have had to change their operations, shifting to takeout or temporarily shutting down. But these impacts aren’t the only sign of a changing culinary world.

Enter: the pop-up food seller. It’s a new phenomenon in the industry. Sometimes they’re called food stands or plate sales, but they’re all based on a similar model; local chefs and bartenders taking their passion projects to the public in a spontaneous way.

Instead of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, many local chefs have chosen pop-ups and limited menus to serve their communities. They build relationships with local businesses that can host their pop-up menus and meals, like Little Kings Shuffle Club and Hendershot’s here in Athens.

Nik Partridge and Esther Kim co-founded MouthFeel as a side project. The two work full time at Creature Comforts in downtown Athens but host pop-ups on the weekends. The duo sets up makeshift kitchens at the businesses they partner with and offer to-go options.

The Side Hustle, co-founded by five local chefs and bartenders, has been around for about three years. As a group, they’ve been able to do more sit-down meals and plated dinners, hosted by farms and restaurants in Athens and other cities.

These food sellers all have a community focus. The Side Hustle donates 20% of its profits from pop-ups to local organizations, the co-founders said. MouthFeel formed over the summer to help Athens during difficult times. Meanwhile, projects like The Plate Sale say on its website that the goal of the project is to build a collective of people contributing to the community.

Ally Smith of The Side Hustle says that’s what makes these projects different.

“Basing your entire project and business plan off of that structure is just inherently going to be different than any restaurant because you're doing what you want to do,” Smith said about pop-ups. “And you're donating, you're helping, it’s coming from a place of mutual aid.”

The business plan of a food seller is dependent on community participation. It’s also a lot more flexible than a restaurant. The founders of MouthFeel and The Side Hustle said that an additional benefit to the pop-up structure is that there aren't as many costs involved. It’s easier to set up a makeshift kitchen than it is to take the risk of opening a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Seth Hendershot, who hosts local food project The Plate Sale at Hendershot’s, sees this as beneficial for both the restaurant hosts and the pop-ups. Hendershot has watched customers of all kinds come and try the food from The Plate Sale. He said the business is like an “open-mic night for food.”

Pop-up chefs can focus on building an audience and selling good food. Pete Amadhanirundr of The Side Hustle said their pop-ups have long lines and sell out in no more than two hours.

Other chefs see the pop-ups as a cultural event themselves. Partridge said they’ve taken the place of other events affected by COVID-19 safety restrictions.

“Well, there's no shows going on right now. But you can kind of go see MouthFeel pop up at Little Kings on Friday,” Partridge said.

Even though they’ve had to mostly remain take-out only, food sellers have still seen the space they can occupy in the community. MouthFeel is taking it day by day, and Partridge and Kim said they hope to get to a point where their business model is actually profitable. The Side Hustle plans to travel more to other communities and host sit down meals.

The focus will always be on the freedom and creativity food selling provides. Pop-ups started as an adaptation to what was possible but have become something entirely new.

“You know, I don't think that you have to wait to create something that you want to do,” Smith said.

The restaurant industry may look different now, but these food sellers are simply making the food they want to eat and watching their customers come.