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Pop-Up Culture Temporary shops can have lasting effects, on more than just business owners.

By Stacy Cowley

When Tom Daguanno and Max Schmidt launched their custom menswear business last year, they expected it to remain a virtual one. Customers would visit the website—1701Bespoke.com—to book an appointment for a fitting at their home or office, and Daguanno and Schmidt would use the measurements to create a wardrobe of suits and fine garments for them. It was a truly minimalist venture: No inventory, no office space.

Until a client suggested that Detroit, where 1701 Bespoke is based, could really use a high-end menswear store. What if he helped the two find a vacant storefront where they could open up temporarily to test the market?

“He knew someone at a local real estate firm that had this amazing empty space right in the heart of downtown,” Schmidt recalls. “We opened on October 21, and within 24 hours we were booked solid for two weeks.”

The shop they had planned to run for six days instead lasted three months, and it changed the company’s trajectory. Daguanno and Schmidt began hunting for a permanent brick-and-mortar location—and in the process became part of a growing wave of business owners using short-lived “pop-up” ventures to test out new concepts. 

Such stores were once primarily a seasonal phenomenon. Christmas decoration shops and Halloween-costume merchants would rent space and vacate it after the holiday. Those kinds of operations still proliferate, but entrepreneurs in a wide variety of other industries are realizing how valuable limited-run shops can be. 

So are big brands. Walmart used a pair of pop-up stores to test potential locations in California, and makeup seller Sephora created temporary shops in New York City and Los Angeles to promote a new color line. Some retailers get especially creative: Shipping containers, Airstream trailers, and igloo-shaped tents have all been used to house transient endeavors.  

“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Megan Donadio, a retail strategist with Kurt Salmon, a consulting firm that specializes in consumer products. “It’s a low-overhead way for retailers to test a new product or geographic market, and it often generates marketing buzz.” Temporary ventures can also turn vacant real estate into something profitable that brings new traffic to areas in need of an economic boost. 

One of the biggest experiments with the “test new concepts and see what sticks” approach is happening in West Dallas, an economically struggling area that investors and city officials have long targeted for revitalization. Nearly a decade ago, Phil Romano,
the founder of Macaroni Grill, began buying up real estate there with the help of two business partners. In late 2012, he launched phase one of his plan for spurring development: a 15-acre restaurant park called Trinity Groves that is centered on what Romano calls a “restaurant concept incubator.”

For aspiring restaurateurs, Trinity Groves offers a unique opportunity: It funds ventures it deems to have the potential to expand nationally. In return, it owns a 50-percent stake in the business. 

LUCK (an acronym of “Local Urban Craft Kitchen”) is one of 10 restaurants Trinity Groves picked for its initial wave of openings. Run by a trio of first-time business owners, it pairs regional American comfort food with a rotating selection of craft beers, all sourced from breweries within 75 miles of the restaurant. 

“One of the reasons we named the restaurant LUCK is we fell into this out of dumb luck,” says chef and co-owner Daniel Pittman. He and his partners had long talked about opening their own place, but the financial and logistical obstacles seemed insurmountable. When one of them heard a radio story about Trinity Groves, the group scrambled to apply. One year later, in November 2013, LUCK poured its first pint. 

Trinity Groves gives its tenants a $500,000 build-out budget and handles all of the back-end processes like obtaining building permits, recruiting workers, and managing the accounting and payroll. It sounds like a dream setup for fledgling entrepreneurs, but there’s a Darwinian catch: “If you don’t do $1.5 million a year in sales, you’re out of there,” Romano says. “We have a profit matrix. If they take a swing and miss, we’ll put somebody else in there who should get a chance.”

So far, Trinity Groves is succeeding at its two major goals: Its restaurants are making money, and they’re sparking interest in a part of the city that has long been overlooked. On a typical Friday night, the eateries—ranging from Chino Chinatown, a Latin-Asian concept by Uno Immanivong, a past contestant on ABC’s The Taste, to Kitchen LTO, a “permanent” pop-up that features a new chef every four months—draw as many as 10,000 customers to the complex. 

Jeff Herrington, communications director for the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce, says the crowds at Trinity Groves are catalyzing a fresh wave of residential and commercial development interest. They’re also generating employment opportunities: “This is an area that needs jobs, and Trinity Groves creates them,” he says. “It hasn’t just been, ‘Here, come be a server at minimum wage.’ They’ve involved people in the neighborhood in midlevel management jobs.” 

Herrington’s is just one of many organizations nationwide that are paying greater attention to the role pop-ups can play in strengthening neighborhoods. The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, a collaboration between the city government and local partners, offers fledgling designers a yearlong residency with mentors and the chance to sell their collections at pop-up events. In New York City’s Lower East Side, the Storefront Transformer project, established by a group of real estate– and design-minded citizens, provides artists and entrepreneurs with a six-by-six cube filled with supplies needed to transform empty and underused spaces into temporary businesses. And in Oakland, California, Popuphood, which matches new merchants with vacant storefronts, has become an important part of the city’s economic development strategy. 

Out of a storefront in downtown Detroit, the nonprofit D:Hive runs a year-round business incubator featuring a rotating cast of establishments. Each gets two months of free rent, marketing support, and a $1,000 build-out budget. 

“People have this romantic idea of what it’s like to have a store, but they don’t have the experience of running it 24/7,” says April Boyle, D:Hive’s director of small business initiatives. “Pop-up is the trend of the moment, but it’s really as old as retail itself when you think about things like mall kiosks and art fairs. It’s a lower-overhead way of testing your idea, building your brand, and getting real-time customer feedback while actually making money.”

Revolve Detroit, another development program, commissions artists to transform vacant spaces. It then finds innovative retailers for the redesigned spaces and stages events meant to bring crowds to districts that have the infrastructure and density to support new businesses long-term.  

It can be a tricky transition. Detroit Fiber Works opened this past fall as one of a dozen businesses selected for Revolve’s revitalization project on Livernois Avenue, once one of America’s premier luxury-shopping districts. Devastated by the 1967 riots that tore Detroit apart, Livernois had became a stretch of boarded-up storefronts broken up by the occasional hair salon. 

Artists Mandisa Smith and Najma Wilson initially envisioned their store as a cooperative: a place where local designers, painters, jewelry makers, and other artisans could sell their wares. 

That approach didn’t work. “We couldn’t find enough artists that were interested in paying a fee and working in the gallery,” Smith says. 

So, like many pop-up operators, they tossed out their original plan and made a new one, turning Detroit Fiber Works into a boutique and gallery stocked with handmade products, supplemented by a schedule of fiber-arts classes and special events that bring in guest speakers and artists. In December, when the Revolve installation ended, Smith and Wilson negotiated a three-year lease and turned their temporary store into a permanent one.

A brutal winter made their first few months tough, but there have also been serendipitous surprises. The artist chosen by Revolve had created an eclectic space nothing like the minimalist, all-white shop Wilson and Smith had imagined. It turned out to be a stroke of genius: The setting has become an attraction of its own. Whimsical painted squiggles and embellish-ments adorn the walls, while lacquered-down brown paper bags cover the floor—a twist on the idea of fiber arts. A giant chandelier filled with charms, tassels, vintage knickknacks, and glass globes is the centerpiece. “People come in, and they’re just mesmerized by the chandelier,” Smith says. “We’ll never get rid of it.”

As the snow thawed, foot traffic picked up again, and Detroit Fiber Works acquired one of the best boosts a new store can get: neighbors. The street’s recent arrivals include an organic pastry shop, a children’s apparel retailer, and an eco-friendly housewares store. 

While Smith and her partner focus on reviving their block, Pittman and his team at LUCK in Dallas are already thinking about how to scale up the business they began as an experiment into a brand that can spread across America. “Our concept lends itself to anywhere there’s craft beer,” he says. “Opening more is definitely something we’re interested in.”

The notion of establishing structured programs to foster retail experiments is also poised to go national. Trinity Groves’ restaurant incubator is unique for now, but it might not stay that way much longer: “We’re giving talented young people the opportunity to own their own businesses, and we’re creating jobs,” Phil Romano says. “We have people from all over the country coming to look at this, saying, ‘We want to understand how you’re doing it.’” 

Stacy Cowley is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @StacyCowley.

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