November 8, 2018

The retail pop-up experience has historically offered brands the ability to surprise and delight consumers with unexpected brands and products in unexpected locations. Fostering deeper engagement and/or inviting brand reconsideration. But until now, that experience has been harder to realize in the world of services.

Now the pop-up experience has come to the world of restaurants, albeit in a somewhat virtual form. Bloomberg reported this month that Uber launched a virtual restaurant service in New York via its Uber Eats delivery app. Analytics showed a demand for gourmet burgers in a section of Brooklyn called Crown Heights. So Uber partnered with a local café and ice cream shop to produce the patties exclusively for online shoppers. Suddenly the operation was selling up to 75 burgers under the online name The Brooklyn Burger Factory — even though a real world version of the business did not exist.

Uber has created similar virtual restaurants in Miami — where “MIA Wings” is actually sourced from a local pizza lounge — and Montreal where “French Takos” is sourced from the kitchen of Turkish restaurant. The concept has proven so successful that today Uber is linked to 1,600 virtual restaurants around the word.

The phenomenon reflects the strength of the online food delivery business, which Bloomberg reports continues to have 20 percent year-over-year growth and is forecast to reach $76 billion by 2022. But the concept also shows the power of pop-up immediacy and how it can fill the consumer’s desire for both instant gratification and self-curation. Take Take In, the temporary pop-up dining experience that American Express created in Helsinki, Finland last year: There, diners entered a stylish space that only had a bar but no kitchen. They then used the food delivery app Wolt to order from 20 of the city’s leading restaurants.

Another example is a Tiny Café in New York City operated by Zagat, the restaurant guide. To promote the Zagat app, which curates and publishes snippets of user reviews, the restaurant offered miniature versions of food from some of its top-rated restaurants.

The trend of restaurants without kitchens, or least equipped only with mini-kitchens, is a hot one, enabled by the growth of food delivery apps and the normalizing of curated food service. They give consumers choice and also fill the gap of exotic food options that may not have been available in a certain neighborhood or region.

Brands can learn from this: In restless markets, consumers respond when they feel they are the ones in control. After all, pop-ups deliver the brands to them opposed to the other way around. Going further, if consumers feel they play an important role in shaping the experience or how they consume the product or service, then they will become enthusiasts.

Just as virtual restaurants are redefining the traditional norms of going out to eat —  as pop-up retail is doing for brick-and-mortar shopping — on-demand apps like Uber  and Lyft are redefining mobility services. In the hospitality industry there are platforms like Homestay and Onefinestay that allows users to eat local cuisine when traveling or get connected with insiders on the ground to have experiences that are off the beaten path — All experiences and features not available through conventional hotels.

As with virtual restaurants, these disruptions are attractive to consumers because it both puts them fully in control through providing them with endless options. Self-curation is appealing because it advances the ideas of independence and identity, two attributes that hold significant currency in these restless times. The more brands can do to empower their consumers, rather than dictate, the more they will form a bond with their loyalists that is more like a partnership.

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