Raja Ratan, the owner of Dallas-based menswear company Rye 51, was in a quandary.
He had a very successful store in the ritzy River Oaks area of Houston and wanted to open another but couldn’t figure out where in the sprawling city – which is larger than the state of Rhode Island. He knew the Houston Heights northwest of downtown was a hot area, so he signed a six-month deal with a new retail space, Heights Mercantile, to open a pop-up shop this fall.
“So far, it’s been fantastic: great traffic, the conversion rate is great and people are being very receptive,” he said.
His business is among a slew of clothing stores, restaurants and even pharmacies popping up in temporary spaces in Houston and San Antonio, giving momentum to what some have estimated is a $10 billion industry nationally.
During the Super Bowl earlier this year, public relations specialist Sydney Dao – sister of winning “Project Runway” designer Chloe Dao – collaborated with Houston First Corp. to open Launch, a pop-up shop downtown near the George R. Brown Convention Center. It features products from 13 Houston-area designers, including game-ready dresses from her sister. “It is time to show the world that one can have a successful creative brand out of Houston,” she said at the time.
Houston retailer Manready Mercantile has hosted several one-day pop-ups at its Heights store this year, including one for Houston-based Side Project Skateboards in July. And Jawda and Jawda – the interior design firm of Houston sisters Sarah and Saba Jawda – hosts a holiday pop-up shop every year with unique products from Houston and beyond.
Some pop-ups, meanwhile, eventually become part of the landscape. Cheryl Schulke, the founder of Sealy-based leather goods maker Stash Co., turned what started as a holiday pop-up in the tony West Ave shopping center in Houston in 2013 into a permanent store. She still does pop-ups around the state, including one coming up in December at Hotel Emma’s Curio shop in San Antonio.
Pop-ups create excitement for consumers and help real estate developers fill empty spaces. But they do more for their launchers than just boost sales, according to local businesses. They allow them to experiment with new concepts and markets at a much lower cost than a brick-and-mortar store, strengthen their brand and learn more about their customers.
“It’s a good opportunity to bring your products to different parts of town, to share your product with the whole city,” said Sara Lauren Hinojosa of San Antonio catering company Honeysuckle Teatime, which she launched with her sister Olivia last year.
The two have done several pop-ups around town featuring their fanciful, pastry-topped milkshakes. The most popular treat has been the Unicorn, which is topped by a chocolate-covered strawberry and a mini cupcake with a horn protruding from it. “It’s fun to see people’s reactions,” she said.
Hinojosa – a nonfiction writing and filmmaking major at Sarah Lawrence who at one time managed events for Jean-Georges restaurant in New York – said the pop-ups have really helped her business. “It’s hard for catering companies to find clientele,” she said. “People know who we are now.”
Tenko Ramen, a pop-up restaurant developed by San Antonio chef Quealy Watson, was such a big hit last year that it led to the opening of a permanent space in the city’s first food hall, which opened this past summer in the Pearl district.
Pop-ups can also fill a pressing need in communities. After Hurricane Harvey hit this past summer, Canadian pharmaceutical giant CVS set up temporary pop-up pharmacies in emergency shelters across the state, including one outside NRG Stadium in Houston.
Walmart did the same inside the Dallas Convention Center, where evacuees could buy over-the-counter drugs and fill prescriptions. And supermarket chain H-E-B sent mobile units that included pharmacies to locations in need.
Established businesses and well-known retailers, meanwhile, have turned to pop-ups to give back to their communities. In early September, high-end Houston women’s wear store Tootsie’s opened a pop-up shop in the same West Ave shopping area as its main store, giving one free clothing item to a customer who suffered serious loss due to the floods from Hurricane Harvey.
Nationally renowned chef Monica Pope began doing pop-up dinners 10 years ago, including one that attracted around 200 people paying more than $200 each to dine in a field on the second-highest hill in Washington County northwest of Houston. Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook called it “the most beautiful restaurant in Texas – maybe the world.”
Pope said the dinner, which she cooked with other local chefs, was fulfilling for her on several different levels. “Everyone came together and sat at one long table in the place where the food is raised and grown, interacting with each other, laughing, drinking and joking,” Pope said. “It was an amazing experience."
Pop-ups are now a big part of her business after her restaurant closed last year, along with interactive cooking classes, catering special events and private dinners and advising on restaurant concepts. Several summers ago, she did seven Sunday pop-up dinners in her own backyard at $45 each. They sold out – and put $15,000 in her bank account.
More recently, last month she spent a week preparing lunch, coffee and afternoon tea at a pop-up in an air-conditioned double-decker bus in Round Top, about an hour’s drive from Houston. And this month, she is holding a pop-up dinner in Columbus at $100 a pop to benefit the Live Oak Art Center.
“I don’t want a traditional storefront with rent and employees inside bricks and sticks. I don’t want a traditional catering company,” she said. “I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. I need to see the light bulbs go off, and I’ve seen it in the field.”
Despite their popularity, pop-ups can be challenging. Pope said she’s had her fair share of negative experiences, from unreasonable customer complaints to not getting paid by her partners. So she’s considering making some changes, including having someone else set up the dining tables and chairs to getting paid upfront.
“It’s backbreaking work when you’re in the field,” she said, recalling a time in her backyard when she was stung by 40 bees. “But it’s not about the money. Anything I do going forward has to be fun and come from love.”
Given his pop-up store’s success in Houston, Rye 51’s Ratan is considering launching others in new markets around the country, from San Jose, Calif., to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Newberry Street in Boston. “We plan to do more, as it’s a good way to dip your toe into a market and make sure the people are receptive to the product,” he said.
Ratan is also strongly considering keeping the store in the Heights beyond the end of the lease in January. “If it continues the way we started,” he said, “it will turn into a permanent shop.”