Temporary restaurants and are appearing in unexpected places across Leeds. But could the ‘pop-up’ help rejuvenate our ailing high streets? Rob Parsons reports.
Deep in the heart of post-industrial Leeds, a team of chefs are hard at work plating up delicate morsels of fresh mackerel, roast pumpkin brulee and miniature crab burgers.
The scene wouldn’t look out of place in a fine dining restaurant, except for the fact the temperature where the diners are eating at long trestle tables is cold enough for some to require coats.
Not only that, but there’s only one toilet and a hard hat is required for anyone hoping to venture to other parts of the building.
Unusual as it seems, it’s all part of the fun for the intrepid foodies trying out the latest ‘pop-up’ restaurant idea, this time at Temple Works, a former 19th century flax mill in Holbeck re-inventing itself as a creative art space.
The Grade I listed building has an Egyptian temple-style frontage and a remarkable history that includes several decades as the northern base for Kays Catalogue.
For two nights, part of the site part is taken over by The Noise of Strangers, a group from Leeds who specialise in laying on food and drink in unusual locations around the city.
The demands of the site mean the majority of the painstakingly-prepared food is served cold, but eating there, amid the peeling brickwork and with large examples of urban art looking down from the walls, is a dining experience unlike any other.
The next Noise of Strangers event in February will see a restaurant set up at Tall Boys bottle shop at Thornton’s Arcade in Leeds city centre and organisers plan to set up “a larger scale pop-up soon in one of Leeds’s most iconic buildings”.
Andy York, one of the founders of the group, said tickets for its events are “selling out in a matter of days”.
“Leeds has a lot of people with a lot of good ideas and starting a pop-up is a way of getting a place in the market without taking on many of the constraints of a permanent venue,” he said. “The most difficult part of hosting pop-up restaurants is finding venues. At the moment Leeds has, unfortunately, many empty properties in the city centre, most of which could be put to profitable use on a temporary basis for pop-ups.
“We have found many of the property landlords and property agencies unwilling to even hear us out but would rather let the building stand empty.
“We have met some very helpful and encouraging people, we just need more property owners and agencies to be willing to agree to something that is slightly away from the ordinary.
“We think the pop-up phenomenon will continue as it offers so much flexibility, fewer constraints and allows people to be very imaginative and experimental.”
Across Leeds, the pop-up concept is booming. Temporary shops are opening at the Corn Exchange, Thornton’s Arcade and Queens Arcade, while talented designers have their products sold at Lambert’s Yard creative event space.
Pop-up supper clubs are hosted by the likes of caterers The Grub & Grog Shop at The Northern Monk Refectory in Holbeck, The Greedy Pig and monthly pop-up group Trestle.
Guy Lincoln, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, has a unique perspective on the concept. As well as running his own, Beasty Boys, a ‘nose-to-tail’ dining experience featuring meat from rare breed animals where every edible bit is consumed, he and his colleagues have looked into the pop-up on a more academic basis, even going so far as to break the different types down into five distinct categories.
In March, they will present a paper at the Future High Street Summit in Nottingham on the role of Street Food in the regeneration of the town centre.
Among the topics will be the status of street food in the UK and finding ways for temporary food and drinks stalls to have a bigger economic impact. “The focus of town centres has tended to be retail and retail leisure activities, clearly there is another option,” he said. You can make certain parts of town centres attractive as places to go and experience this kind of dining.
“When you had the Street Food Awards in Leeds, it was a little foodie village for the weekend. You can sort something like that where people know this kind of stuff is happening. If you do that, it is one thing that could help bring people back into town centres.
“For me street food is a grass roots thing, you can sort an environment where you enable people to do this kind of stuff. It is not about spending loads of money to bring these people in. The beauty of street food is that people want to do it.
“It only works when it is organic, it develops from the bottom up but can be nurtured, fed and watered by people and organisations with a real passion for it.”
Anna Dyson, 36, who runs a pop-up community cafe Toast Love Coffee (TLC) at a community centre in Harehills, Leeds, every Wednesday from 10am to midday, hopes to one day open something permanent in the area.
Originally from London, she has lived in Leeds for 12 years and has a background in community development and youth work.
The project started in Christmas 2012 when she volunteered in a hostel and met an asylum-seeker who was staying there.
“We bonded in my kitchen over drinking good coffee together, baking cooking and eating together,” she said. “This year we have set about creating a space in the city where more people have the opportunity to meet who otherwise wouldn’t, over coffee and cake.
“We joined the ‘real junk food network’ so our food and drink is intercepted and donated and there is no pricing on the menu, just a donations pot. Anyone can walk in, enjoy the space, have a coffee and meet new people, as equals.
“Pop-up is definitely stage one of the plan. It was the easiest way to actually get going with the idea; minimal start up costs and we can build the cafe slowly and organically with the people who come.”
She said: “I think pop up is great for individuals to test their enterprise ideas, and also great for the city as it keeps things fresh and innovative. The only downside is that there is s lot more hard labour to pop up than meets the eye.
“By 1pm all the tables and chairs are squirrelled away, the coffee machine and toaster boxed up and in my car, posters and decorations taken down, everything washed up and put away and it is as if we were never there, then we unpack it all again the following Wednesday.
“No Wednesday is the same in the cafe and it’s given me a really good opportunity to create TLC in a very grassroots and organic way.”
Though numbers of what he describes as “traditional pop-ups” are staying steady, Guy Lincoln says casual dining, like the monthly street food events at Belgrave Music Hall, is on the rise.
“Part of the growth is linked to the increased interest in food in general, with people fancying having a go at being chefs without giving the commitment or taking the risk that doing it full on involves”, he said.
“[Leeds Beckett] are looking at further positioning ourselves as the leading university for indie hospitality and street food, the idea is that we can find ways to provide support for those smaller traders. with an upcoming launch of a Street/Indie Food Academy.
“The growth option [for street food businesses] seems to be moving into premises which is disappointing, it sort of defeats the object.
“I would absolutely love to see a really cool independent street food or pop-up brand, the apotheosis of this would be a street food franchise.”
According to Guy Lincoln of Leeds Beckett University, there are five different types of pop-up, classified by their motivations and their approach.
- The ‘weekend warrior’, doing it for fun, with money not important.
- Amateurs who want to make some money, but not enough to make a living from it.
- Professional caterers setting up pop-ups as a way to make a living, with an extra focus on costs and margins.
- Existing businesses, usually with a physical base, offering their service in a different setting, such as Strano pop-up restaurant in Headingley, Leeds.
- Big chains like Frankie & Benny’s hosting pop-up stalls as food festivals to bolster their brand.