Bite Club House:

George Street, Paddington NSW

Underground, flash, guerilla and pop-up are hot dining concepts right now, but only the cool people need know, and even they should be kept guessing at least half the time…
The ‘Pop-up’ is an onomatopoeic concept. It does exactly what it sounds like it should do. It pops-up, surprisingly, Jack in the Box style and is then gone again. The pop-up concept and its variations — underground, flash and guerrilla — in dining, shopping, bars, galleries and cinemas, is thought to be a relatively new one. In fact, it, has echoes of everything from the restaurants traditionally run in peoples’ homes in Cuba (Casa de Cuba) to the London-based shop that artists Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin opened for six months in 1993 (making and selling mugs and ashtrays), to John Polson’s first Tropfest at the Tropicana Café in Sydney, that same year.


LA-based company Vacant, claims to have pioneered the broader commercialisation of the concept in retail in 1999, after a business trip to Tokyo, where the directors were intrigued by how consumers would queue to purchase limited edition products from niche retailers. Once the products were sold out, usually within a matter of hours, the store would be closed until the owner received more products and would then reopen the store. This led Vacant to think about closing a store permanently after the merchandise has been sold and moving it to another targeted destination, since consumers were travelling long distances to these niche retailers to purchase desirable products. Since then the pop-up trend has evolved, turning into a useful tool for real estate companies and landlords looking to lease short term real estate in a down turned economy, and has bred the house-swap phenomenon and companies like Air B&B, where people rent out their own properties styled for travellers as an alternative to hotels. The concept has even extended to resorts, with the first pop-up resort at Papaya Playa in Tulum Mexico launched recently, with another on Mykonos in Greece, and more planned including the re-incarnation of Papaya Playa as a pop-up Ashram next year.


The concept can, quite literally, ‘pop up’ anywhere, defined by an element of surprise, instilling a sense of urgency in normally passive consumers or shoppers — who now must have whatever that venue is offering because it is available for a limited time only. By opening a shop for instance, for a few weeks, companies get a brief glimpse of how the consumers in that area will receive a brand or product. They can try out a new store location to see if the kind of people they want to attract will start flocking there before investing in a permanent site or they can try out new services, deliver them direct to the customer, promote a new brand, or re-invigorate an older brand. Thanks (or otherwise) to the GFC I, and then II, shop space has become more affordable and readily available. It’s now relatively easy to grab somewhere that has high footfall at a reasonable cost for a short period of time. Especially given that in places like the UK it’s estimated that 13 percent of all shops are currently empty — and that one in five of those may never be used again. Pop-ups can make more intensive use of urban space for social events and impromptu gatherings, bringing life to under-used spaces and can also aid consumerism, where brands create a stage setting, adding colour and texture to create a festival like atmosphere.


While pop-ups were once a way for artists to subvert empty urban space, they’re now just as likely to be part of a corporate marketing strategy. Transparency is essential however. Nothing turns people off more than feeling duped by faux grass-roots activities that are actually marketing ploys. UK artist, Dan Thompson, set up his first pop-up gallery with friends in a bakery in Worthing in 2001; he now runs The Empty Shops Network where he advises artists who hope to start projects in one of the country’s many disused high-street stores. He said, “I love the fact that such a daft idea, started by artists, has taken over. I went to a pop-up Gucci put on. It was fantastic. It’s like Quentin Crisp said: ‘Don’t keep up with the Joneses, drag them down to your level.’ We’ve completely subverted all these great brands, who are now having to think differently, more creatively, and that has to be good for our town centres.” Where artists go, corporations follow. And so does gentrification, as previously neglected areas blossom, flourish and improve — and rents subsequently head skywards. To maintain the diversity and vibrancy that attracted people in the first place, subsidised housing and creative space is essential in retaining the character of a place and the talent that created it. The City of Sydney’s Space for Creativity is one project that attempts to do just that. The pop-up concept still has more mileage in it yet, we suspect.


Underground dining is another variation on the theme, and the success of Sydney’s Bite Club (now known as Bite Club House) illustrates this well. Australian Debra Cronin came back to Sydney after a decade in London and discovered she’d have to take a huge backwards step in her career if she wanted to work here. The industry just wasn’t big enough to support the calibre of career she’d had as a makeup artist in London and all her contacts were overseas. Cronin decided to segue into interior design, so undertook a degree. Having renovated places in London and Bondi, she set out to find a place she could establish as a ‘location house’ for magazine shoots to help fund the property and as a way of networking with the local design industry — clever, lateral thinking type that she is.


She eventually came across the perfect place on George St in Sydney’s Paddington, on the edge of Woollahra — that’s if ‘perfect’ means completely uninhabitable and not actually for sale. Built in 1885, the large Victorian terraced house was originally home to a Mr and Mrs Cooper, a wildly eccentric couple who owned around 400 other properties in the area. Cronin said, “Upon Mr Cooper’s death in the house in 1924, Mrs Cooper immediately moved out, boarding up the property and using it only for storing building materials from that day on. The property began to gradually fall into disrepair over the coming decades through lack of use and neglect.   “In the aftermath of her husband’s death, the widow Cooper lost 50 per cent of their combined estate to the Crown when it transpired that her marriage to Mr Cooper had not been legally binding. So to protect her remaining share Mrs Cooper founded a medical foundation to leave her properties to.”


Fast forward to March 2009 when Cronin discovered this grand old revival in her search for a home for her interior design business cum location house.  Though derelict and abandoned, she realised the house had perfect bones and saw enormous potential to restore the property whilst retaining its beautiful crumbling appearance, and transform it into a home and office. “I pursued the landlord (from Mrs Cooper’s medical foundation), and found that as a protected property it could not be bought, but I arranged to let the property provided I be allowed free rein to renovate the house as I wished, in return for a gentle rent and a generously long lease.” While Cronin’s friends advised against such a mad scheme she pushed ahead with demolition, rebuilding and decorating, patronising auction houses in the hunt for obscure decorative treasures and oversized pieces of furniture.  Within four short months she had breathed fresh life into the house and restored it to glory in an eclectic fashion.


In the meantime, she also acquired two large shaggy dogs, Rose and Ted, who look like Wolfhounds but are in fact Groodles, and in the process of walking them struck up a friendship with fellow dog lover and chef, David Speck. David had been working as a chef in New York before moving to Sydney’s Otto on Woolloomooloo Wharf. He’d become disenchanted with the hours and lack of a social life and gone into selling commercial kitchens instead. Cronin needed a freestanding kitchen for the property and while discussing this, along with their shared passions for food and design, not to mention dogs, they hit upon the idea of creating an underground dining club. Within months they had co-founded Sydney’s now not-so-secret underground dining experience: Bite Club. As word has spread, Bite Club has grown into a successful venue for private dining at the rambling, inspired location. Pitching the venue as offering delectable food within an Alice in Wonderland meets the Addams Family environment has clearly struck a chord with consumers.


Now, over three years later, the house has been used for countless magazine shoots and campaigns, has hosted over one hundred dinners, cocktail parties, singles nights and a number of fashion, beauty and interiors media launches and also accommodates the office of Debra Cronin Design. One of the biggest attractions of the Club is Cronin herself. A great raconteur and storyteller, she’s someone you immediately want to spend time with. Not that you’ll get much opportunity these days, as the three facets of the business: the dining club, the location house, and the interior designs consultancy, feed into each other so serendipitously and successfully that she has less time to host the Club. She does however still make time to walk the dogs, because she knows that time investment really does have the capacity to change her life.


Along with the underground dining experience offered by places like the Bite Club, Sydney’s pop-up dining scene is flourishing. Operatives like Table Nosh, Transient Dinner, Minus 8, Secret Supper Society, Secret Foodies and Table Sessions all offer different pop-up and guerilla dining experiences. Minus 8 for instance specialises in Japanese food offered in secret locations for 12 or so guests in places that have included car-parks and warehouses. Different styles of Japanese cuisine such as Izakayi or Yatai determine the menu, which might also take inspiration for instance from autumn in the mountains, with six dishes from mountain regions across Japan featuring wild ingredients sourced from Minus 8’s Japanese kitchen garden on offer. Secrecy and surprise are crucial to the pop-up experience. Secret Supper Society only reveals its location on the day of the event. Secret Foodies, for instance, reveal the concept for the event beforehand but only release the location via text on the day.


Some operations are so secret, the people behind them aren’t prepared to reveal details to the media and will only speak off-the-record. Industry young guns are even staging events in established venues when they would normally be closed on Sundays, and relying on word of mouth and email bookings to fill tables. If you hear names like Hamish Ingham, O Tama Carey, Hugh Wennerbom or Michael Fantuz, or those of civilians like Bernard Macleod, listen closely. Suffice it to say the pop-up phenomenon is providing a different perspective on private dining, with many ‘above-ground’ operators looking at ways they might incorporate it into their own business models.


Given the pop-up phenomenon allows operators to tap patrons they wouldn’t normally be able to access, while simultaneously reinvigorating or expanding a brand, there’s good reason to do so. It’s kind of like an inexpensive ‘Off-Broadway’ style opportunity to experiment, test the market or present a concept that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the established business model. Opening a high-end eatery can require as much as a million dollars or more ‘on the table’ whereas some pop-up restaurant options may only involve an investment of a few thousand dollars. Low overheads, no fixed costs and variable set-up options make it a really attractive option for independent investors.


The marketing hype for this sort of venture is often created by consumers themselves, as much as by the proprietor’s PR machine. A little bit of viral marketing can go a long way via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, word-of-mouth partnerships and the generally adventurous foodie culture that exists across the globe now. A wide range of different types of patrons also adds to the diversity of people and conversation at play on the night. The key driver fuelling the appeal of this pop-up restaurant phenomenon is the expectation and delivery of a truly unique dining experience. Substantial creative freedom can be afforded to the chefs involved. The oddball atmospherics and unusual venues combine to make the whole thing seem innovative and privileged in a very cool, one-of, ‘you really had to be there’ sort of way. It’s this ‘in the know’ element that is key to the success of the movement. Keeping it fresh is integral and thankfully we don’t think we’ve seen the end of this intriguing trend just yet.

Story: Heather Barton

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