On a Sunday morning last fall, an unusually large line wound around the corner of Robeson and Franklin Streets in downtown Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a smoky ambrosia filled the air.
Those waiting for a table and a full meal were allowed a head start. Some stood with barrel-aged Siberian Night imperial stouts by Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. or Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose mimosas in one hand and mini cardboard trays of candied bacon in the other, waiting and munching.
Apparently, a beer and brunch pop-up is all it takes to lure hungover collegiates from their beds, travelers from Durham, and the church crowd from its pews on a Sunday.
Food trucks have become a ubiquitous presence at local bars and breweries since drinking local and mobile eateries became simultaneous trends. But according to Jess Reiser, owner of Burial Beer Co. in Asheville, N.C., which houses the pop-up Salt and Smoke, pop-ups give bars and breweries a more specific, intimate cachet and appeal to customers.
“From a branding standpoint, if you have a permanent Salt and Smoke versus them coming to Burial one day of the week and then going to other breweries, it’s more of an integrated partnership,” Reiser said.
A pop-up restaurant is typically a transitory affair in which a chef, or non-chef, organizes to cook in a venue not normally his or hers, typically with a limited menu set only for that specific event.
“A lot of chefs don’t like doing brunch in their own restaurants, but a lot of those people enjoy this because it’s a one-off and they can do whatever they want to do,” said Jason Burrell, co-owner of The Long Room, a beer-centric tavern in Chicago. His bar houses a permanent pop-up venue, Sidecar, that Burrell also owns.
“I think we had really underestimated the power of having food in the building,” said Burrell. “It creates a destination.”
Sidecar started with a dinner pop-up called Beard & Belly; a lunch and breakfast pop-up called Biscuit Man, which does lunch and breakfast during the week; and a full coffee program. To address the wants of customers who came in on Sundays looking for food, Burrell added the Sunday brunch with rotating chefs that have included CJ Callahan and Brett Coolidge of Chicago’s Hopleaf. Some of the dishes that have been served: chicken and waffles Benedict, bagel-crusted smoked salmon croquettes and duck fat donuts.
“Building the coffee community and the morning breakfast and lunch scene is a slower process whereas inserting Beard & Belly into the evening has been easier because we already had an existing audience,” said Burrell. The Long Room had previously functioned as a drinks-only tavern since opening in 2000.
For Burial’s Salt and Smoke, which also does small plates services and a dinner during the week from its nomadic set-up of a grill, two gas burners and a tabletop fryer, brunch is the central event. Most brunches it serves over 120 tickets.
When Salt and Smoke served its biggest brunch hit, ribs and french toast made with hickory smoked pork ribs, local baguette and peach preserves, the line wound around the building.
“It was to the point where I was telling people, ‘I can get you the ribs and French toast but it’s going to take 40 minutes,’ and they still ordered it,” said Shannon McGaughey, who owns Salt and Smoke with her husband Josiah.
The McGaugheys moved to Asheville with the dream of opening their own restaurant after working in the industry in Chicago. Salt and Smoke is still working on opening that brick-and-mortar location, but in the meantime is collaborating with Burial to make the pop-up into a licensed permanent one.
“For us, it really has been the best venue to get our business up and started,” said McGaughey. “Building that clientele is priceless.”
Al Bowers, the owner of Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill, N.C., and one of the masterminds behind the beer and brunch pop-up from the beginning of this piece, said that the attention to quality, origin and innovation inherent to beer aficionados makes pop-ups that combine beer and local, quality-centric food a natural fit.
“The mantra that we have is ‘Good is good y’all,’” said Bowers, who partnered with his neighboring bar, Beer Study, and other local chefs for the pop-up. “Music, food, sports…it doesn’t matter what genre, what industry or what product.”
The compatibility of beers like Thirsty Dog’s rich and oaky bourbon barrel-aged Siberian Night and Burial’s roasty Skillet Donut breakfast stout with hearty brunch dishes such as Bower and company’s smoked pork chile verde with root vegetable hash, the quail and waffles at Sidecar, and Salt and Smoke’s fried chicken livers certainly helps that syncretism, though.
Bo McMillan is an editorial assistant for All About Beer Magazine.