Life After Pop-Up: Oakland's Lovely's and San Francisco's Chicáno Nuevo Seek Permanence

Lovely's fried chicken sandwiches with a side of skillet potatoes at the pop-up's brunch service at Eli's Mile High Club.  (Ruth Gebreyesus)

The line at Lovely’s stretched for two blocks, past other eateries, when the Oakland burger joint popped up at Tacos Oscar after a month-long hiatus this September. Those who decided to brave the wait wouldn’t get a bite for hours. “People are telling me, ‘Congratulations.’ And I hated that experience,” remembers Mikey Yoon, the chef behind Lovely’s. “I don't want people to wait three hours for a five-dollar burger.”

More pop-ups around the Bay

The scene may seem both exciting and daunting for any chef, but it’s especially challenging for pop-up chefs who cook in unfamiliar kitchens with limited storage and a modest staff (if any at all), while competing with their nomadic peers and established brick-and-mortar restaurants for the attention of patrons.

“To have a successful one-off pop-up, you have to knock it out of the park,” Yoon says. “There [are] so many things involved. There’s people that are helping me out that day. How much have they worked with me? How hard is the process? They’re also in a new setting.”

“For me, consistency is super key. You want to deliver the perfect product that you’ve been working on so hard,” Yoon adds. “To be honest, for the last couple pop-ups I’ve been pretty disappointed in myself or just the process of it.”

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Pop-up restaurants in the Bay Area have been on a steady rise over the last decade, intersecting with escalating rents and a volatile job market following the 2008 financial crisis. Creative, often self-taught chefs took to the street offering regionally specific and experimental dishes to patrons at affordable prices.

Though rents show no signs of ebbing, many pop-up owners still angle for some permanence, even if it’s in a less traditional space like a shipping container. Others take over kitchens at bars and restaurants with leases more like artist residencies than commercial tenancies. Stability benefits both chefs and their customers—one gains steady income, the other a more consistent product.

Surviving the Hype

Before the September pop-up at Tacos Oscar, Lovely’s built a dedicated fan base through its classic American diner fare at Piedmont Avenue bar The Lodge, where Yoon popped up consistently from June 2018 until July 2019. There, from the bar’s tiny kitchen, he churned out fried chicken sandwiches and his coveted “OG” burgers (American cheese topped smashed patty and all the fixings in a potato bun).

A drive thru burger and an OG burger from Oakland's Lovely's.
A drive thru burger and an OG burger from Lovely's. (Courtesy of Mikey Yoon)

The burger, along with Lovely’s entire menu, is an ode to the uncomplicated and reliable offerings from the lunch delis and diners that Yoon loved in his Midwest and East Coast days. In fact, his parents ran a few of those delis themselves in his home state of Maryland. “It definitely represented my parents,” he recalls. “Out there, it’s a cheeseburger, steak and cheese, chopped cheese, french fries from a bag. It was super affordable.”

The hype around Lovely’s coincided with Yoon’s announcement that he’d be leaving his year-long post at The Lodge to find a permanent spot of his own. With a single, stable location, Yoon can avoid the stress of Bay Area residents’ avid pursuit for the newest and most ephemeral food experiences—a chase that’s become gamified thanks to social feeds. “In a pop-up context it almost seems like it’s not even about the food. It’s about the process of it,” he says. “People want the experience of, I hate to say it, maybe waiting in line because everyone else is doing it.”

Lovely's chef Mikey Yoon along with Javi Palacios and Cameron Kauzer working a pop-up at Eli's Mile High Club.
Lovely's chef Mikey Yoon along with Javi Palacios and Cameron Kauzer working a pop-up at Eli's Mile High Club. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

To mitigate the wait time of his September pop-up, Yoon opted for weekend-long takeovers of the kitchen at Eli’s Mile High Club while securing a future home for Lovely’s. “The margins for restaurants aren’t high really, especially if I’m selling a five or six dollar burger,” Yoon explains. “I needed to find a situation to where I can keep my prices low and still have my goals intact.”

To that end, he’s hoping to finalize a deal with a brewery set to open in Oakland’s Pill Hill neighborhood next summer. “On the financial end, it works wonders for me because they’re kind of doing the heavy lifting. They’re building the kitchen. I don’t have to put all of this investment down,” he says. He’ll keep mum on other details until the deal is inked.

Drinking Buddies

On the other side of the bridge in San Francisco, chef Abraham Nunez is also searching for a permanent spot for his Chicáno Nuevo pop-up. In 2015, Nunez started selling tamales and fish tacos at the original Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack location after the eatery moved down the street. Soon enough, the owner asked him to take over the kitchen; Nunez ran his pop-up for a year until the building sold.

Originally from San Diego and Tijuana, Nunez was excited to offer the regionally specific Mexican food he grew up eating, like the Baja-style fish tacos he serves with a salmon caldo. Besides his specialized menu, Nunez also sees the value of his pop-up for bars and breweries who sell liquor under a 47 license, which requires a facility be a “bona fide eating place” with over half its sales coming from food.

“Some new bar owners that don’t have experience to run a kitchen are looking to people like me who have a following of people and already a brand, a central dish, a focal point and a strategy,” he says. “The pop-up as a service is highly desirable because you come in and you run their kitchen. They don’t have to go out and hire and train and work out their recipes.”

The former musician compares running a pop-up to being in a band, playing shows in a different venue every weekend. “It feels almost exactly the same,” Nunez says. “Rehearse, get the band together, perform a show. Prep, get the food and ingredients and equipment together and go perform, do a pop-up. Then you pack up your gear at the end of the night and you go home.”

Currently, Nunez is touring Chicáno Nuevo at Old Devil Moon, El Rio and Casements. Starting next year, he’s hoping to be in a permanent spot on 16th and Mission Streets. The chef is in the final stages of negotiations for a commercial space through the Mission Housing Development Corporation, a community-based organization dedicated to creating and preserving high-quality affordable housing for Mission residents.

Better Together

Gay 4 U is Reborn and Aburaya is on Check, Please!

When Terry Sok-Wolfson, along with her wife and business partner Julia Sok-Wolfson, bought downtown Oakland lunch institution Garden House in 2014, a pop-up helped them survive their first year as business owners. Adachi Hiroyuki launched dinner service at the lunch-only restaurant with Aburaya, a punk rock-influenced Japanese fried chicken spot with a cult following. With Hiroyuki splitting the rent with them, the Sok-Wolfsons were able to keep afloat as new business owners. “I knew in my heart that it’d become increasingly difficult to run a business in downtown Oakland,” Terry says. “[The pop-up] is what ultimately gave us an opportunity to succeed and grow as much as we have.”

After Aburaya spun out to their own location, with the Sok-Wolfsons staying on as business partners, Garden House’s building sold in 2017. The couple renovated the restaurant and negotiated a new lease with pop-ups in mind. “Aburaya has turned into something that none of us could’ve imagined,” Terry explains. “If we’re able to give someone else an opportunity to grow as much as Aburaya has, someone that is a part of the community, doing things for the community, then that’s definitely something we want to [do].”

This October, Sofi Espice’s colorful vegan pop-up, Gay 4 U, moved into Garden House for dinner and brunch service after losing their semi-permanent spot at Classic Cars West. Now that they’re on more solid financial footing at Garden House, the Sok-Wolfsons are offering Espice a more flexible lease option, including marginally increasing rent that can take the pressure off of the pop-up in the first few months. “I think it’s impossible to run a pop-up without a venue that supports you. And it’s also almost impossible to just run a simple small family restaurant,” Terry says.

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“I’m very committed to Oakland in as many ways as I can be. Allowing pop-ups and trying to help incubate folks was my way of trying to ensure that Oakland's culinary creative scene stays around.”