Viral restaurant trends enable a community of would-be entrepreneurs to rebel against the standard formula of food.
There's math in your food. You can't see it, but the waiter who delivered your plate, the maître-d' who strategically placed you at table 12 and the chef who carefully crafted your meal are familiar with the equation. It's one part food, one part service, and two parts what works.
"Fine dining is so restrictive," says Amanda Stymeist over coffee in New York City's Lower East Side.
She's voicing a common complaint for someone young and trying to make a place for themselves inside a brutally competitive restaurant world. Diners collect Michelin starred meals like passport stamps, but earning even one star requires an incredible consistency and choreography of experience. And as restaurants struggle to fill tables in a still-soft economy, Stymeist says, dining out has become more about formulaic repetition than food or authentic experience: "I think when you're in the food world you see through the gimmick."
Stymeist, 28, spent years working as a server after moving to New York eight years ago, only recently deciding to strike out on her own as a full-time event planner. She's not ungrateful to the restaurant industry: it provided a job, a good one, during a time when nearly 10 percent of the American labor force was unemployed. And it provided connections. She was working at Nobu, a Japanese mainstay in New York, when she first met a young chef named Jason Greenberg. They bonded over late-night grilled cheese and big ideas.
To customers, these small eateries mean variety. For would-be food entrepreneurs, they're the ultimate dress rehearsal.
"We just wanted to strip down the fanciness of the dining experience and just have a great environment that wasn't pretentious, wasn't analytical," Stymeist says.
Now, the duo are co-founders of Epic Eats, an underground supper club held once a month in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. He cooks; she creates the club's elaborately themed decor, including the 20-foot argyle mural for a Secret Garden party that took three weeks to complete. (You can take a look at the rest of Epic Eats' detailed ambiance on its Facebook page, which serves as a pseudo-portfolio for the club's monthly dinners.)
This isn't just a New York phenomenon. Fleets of food trucks line urban streets in cities around the world. We can pop into pop-ups that set up shop for the night inside an already established venue. For San Francisco, even the top-rated restaurant on Yelp is the exclusive underground Lazy Bear. To customers, these small eateries mean variety. For would-be food entrepreneurs, they're the ultimate dress rehearsal. But even in the underground, businesses still depend on their customer base, even if it's to a lesser degree than their long-established counterparts. This is where irregularity is key.
Customers are enticed by the immediacy of the experiences provided by these roaming canteens, establishing a "come and get it" micro-economy which spurs the viral process that drives the phenomenon.
On a trip to Botswana, Anchorage's Kait Reiley woke from a nap and told her husband, "When we get home I'm going to make popsicles and sell them on a bike." It was a joke, or a delirious product of the African heat - for a while.
After she returned home, a friend was getting rid of a custom welded bike with a sidecar. Reiley took it as a sign. She founded PopCycle and began selling her homemade "coldtreats" in downtown Anchorage this summer, selling out of her first batch in 20 minutes. "My grandma laughed that I've learned to sell ice cubes to Eskimos," she says.
"There are so many people, especially younger kids, like high school and junior high kids who would love to start something but the barrier of entry is so high."
Her flavors are inspired by local produce like rhubarb, or by herbs and spices she's collected while traveling. "I wanted to try to be as green as possible so most of my ingredients are never moved by anything but a bike once they come into contact with me," she says. "I bike to make them, bike to sell them, and I really like that."
Because she's always moving, Reiley posts her daily route and her flavor selection to the PopCycle Facebook page. "I always have rhubarb, but I change my other flavors and so if they want to find out what I have that week or get in touch, then that's how I do it," she says.
Reiley pedaled her popsicles during Alaska's short summer and broke a profit in less than four weeks. But she knows this isn't a typical experience. Adequate and affordable commercial kitchen space is almost impossible to come by, so during Anchorage's frigid winter, she wants to find ways to fix the problem. "There are so many people, especially younger kids, like high school and junior high kids who would love to start something but the barrier of entry is so high," she says. "I don't think there's a better opportunity for kids to learn to be financially responsible on their own."
Feeling a little trapped by your own restaurant's identity isn't just something that's frustrating the emerging generation of young chefs. Cameron Irons took over Nieuport 17 , an aging steakhouse just outside of LA, about three years ago. It's well known in Orange County, the type of place that everyone has heard of but no one's been to in years. Irons' job is to bring it back, but he discovered quickly there were only so many tweaks the steakhouse's small but loyal cadre of regulars could take.
"Our kitchen has been making the same things for 30 years and every Thursday, they're learning new dishes."
To experiment more freely, he created Aviation, a weekly pop-up restaurant held on Thursdays inside one of the Nieuport 17 private rooms. "It's kind of my lab, where I try new things out on the customers," he says. "And it's exposed Nieuport 17 to a lot of new people, which was the goal."
With a rotating body of mostly young chefs, Aviation has become something of a culinary school. "Our kitchen has been making the same things for 30 years and every Thursday, they're learning new dishes," Irons says. "They've developed their own clientele. We're also developing our own Aviation clientele through Facebook, people who go to one chef and then they enjoy it so they go to another."
If they're lucky, chefs can leverage underground or mobile success into an established, stationary restaurant of their own, as investors are attracted by the vitality of young, motivated chefs. "You have to bring more than food to get investors," Stymeist says. "Supper clubs offer a sneak peek."
Chiefly, she's hoping the ingenuity of the trend scares the establishment just enough to take a few risks of its own. "We want people to do this," she says. "We'll give them all our secrets. This does not have to be an elitist environment. It's about the food experience, not the snobbery." Or, the math.