The Food Wise Pop-Up Economy

And so it begins (photo: eren {sea+prairie} / Flickr)

Have you ever shopped at a pop-up market? They’re hip, and they showcase amazing-quality food and real entrepreneurial spirit. But a viable business model for vendors, they’re not.

Alex Loud, Chapter President of Slow Food Boston, describes below his view of the pop-up market phenomenon, and what we consumers can do to keep demand for high-quality food — and food craftsmanship — alive.

Alex Loud
Slow Food Boston

I recently attended my first “pop-up market” which, I have to say, was pretty cool. I came home with three pounds of pork belly, a whole pâté, four Meyer lemon donuts and an insanely good chocolate whiskey cake. It was a haul I’d be proud to bring home from the finest snooty store, much less a venue that basically amounted to a foodie flea market.

If you haven’t heard of the concept of a pop-up market, it’s pretty simple: gather some friends who have things to sell, find a venue, use social media to popularize it and, bang, you have a market for a day. This one in particular was organized by Vadim Akimenko, a young man you might characterize as a pop-up butcher. Despite having trained at the Culinary Institute of America and having experience in a variety of commercial butcher shops, Vadim has been unable to raise funds to open his own locally-focused butcher shop anywhere in greater Boston. As such, he works out of a culinary incubator, consults, teaches classes and organizes the occasional market.

It occurred to me afterwards that Vadim and his market are broadly representative of two trends in this country — one hopeful and one decidedly less so. First, the young people who generally made up both the vendors and the majority of the shoppers at the market were not trifling around with this stuff. The food was flat out ass-kicking. Vadim’s country pâté was this lovely little bacon-wrapped football, faintly pink inside and with a bright pork flavor not overwhelmed by seasonings, but in no way bland either. I would have been comfortable plunking down twice what I paid for it.

Likewise, the donuts from City Chicks and the cake from Happy Homemade were fantastic and so perfectly professional (in the best sense of the word). This, I feel, cannot be anything but hopeful. It’s the very essence of American entrepreneurship: young people doggedly pursuing not only their business dreams but also an intense level of craft.

However, the past 50 years in this country have been nothing if not unkind to food. We’ve substituted pink slime for beef, molded pig guts into pork “ribs” and generally extruded, extracted, canned or processed any ingredient that can be…well…extruded, extracted, canned or processed. But here we have these entrepreneurs who are well-versed in the “new economy” of virtual shops and viral media outreach but yet are pursuing trades that haven’t been popular since the 1940s. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. If we are to ever re-fashion a food system based on the notions of local, seasonal and “real” food, these are undoubtedly some of the people who will lead us there. And it will be yummy.

Of course, the flip side of the pop-up market is the fact that it is a not really a viable business model. The reality is that in order for these people to remain in these professions, they will eventually have to make enough money to build a business and a life concurrently. But if the economy was ever friendly to these sorts of anachronistic endeavors, it most certainly is not now. There may be money to pay banker bonuses and there may be money to launch the latest social media app, but so far at least we haven’t seen a lot of venture capital flowing into the tattooed baker market.

And that, I guess, is where we come in.

Consumer demand is really the key here — not only for the donuts and pâtés, but for the food system and the neighborhoods that we want. Think about Harvard Square for a moment. Just going through the neighborhood in my head I count eight banks within a couple blocks of the T station. That’s thousands of square feet of office-ish spaces that are completely empty after 6PM and through most of the weekend. I mean, even if you’re a hardcore vegetarian, wouldn’t you rather see Vadim’s butcher shop substituted for just one of those banks? You’d still have seven options for cashing a check but there’d be that much more vibrancy to the neighborhood (albeit a vibrancy that’s carrying a couple pounds of steak).

The problem, of course, is that bank branches make for very profitable tenants. Small butcher shops selling grass-fed beef and local lamb, not so much — yet. But what if we all made a commitment to contribute something? What if we all said, ‘This year I’m going to try to buy 25% of my meat locally’? Or, ‘I’m going to visit one farmers market a week for the whole summer’? Or, ‘I’m going to ask my supermarket to carry more locally produced baked goods’?

Last week marked an interesting turn in the pink slime debate when AFA Foods was forced into bankruptcy after all the major fast food chains pulled the product from their foods. This is undoubtedly a victory for healthier food (and social media) but more than 800 people may now lose their jobs as a result — a fact which raises a very important point: if we’re going to reject industrial food we need to support a viable alternative.

Another way of saying this is that the changes we want see must be constructive. They have to hold the promise of not only better food but better lives as well. Finding ways to support those people on the forefront of the locally-focused economy seems to me to be exactly that kind of constructive change. Pop-up markets are cool, and the folks selling their stuff in them are brave and talented and everything you would want an entrepreneur to be. But until real, credible demand exists for their wares, they are going to be hard pressed to be anything more than pop-up producers — and they certainly aren’t going to be creating 800 replacement jobs anytime soon.