Dinners that pop: Pop-up events like Diner en Blanc appeal to diners and chefs alike

Kimberly Shorter remembers the dreamlike moment she looked up from her crab cake to see thousands of other white-clad diners enjoying a seemingly spontaneous picnic in Battery Park. After sitting on the wait list for the ultra-exclusive Diner en Blanc, the Woodlawn resident attended her first with a friend who scored tickets to the New York event.

They were too enamored by their surroundings to finish their food.

“We didn’t eat the whole crab cakes,” said Shorter, a federal government employee. “We probably could have split one. We were so excited about everything going on around us that the food became secondary.”

Diner en Blanc has been growing since the pop-up picnic’s inception in France in 1988. And this weekend, it will make its Baltimore debut as up to 2,500 attendees gather to dine and dance in a location that won’t be revealed until they arrive.

Diner en Blanc’s Baltimore debut is one example of the widespread popularity of pop-up dinners in Charm City and beyond. From massive events like the forthcoming all-white picnic to casual chef take-overs at corner taverns, the concept appeals to diners who want an escape from the ordinary, as well as chefs who want to offer dishes that stray from their standard menus.

“People are looking for spontaneity, people are looking for something that’s different and something that has the element of the art of surprise,” said Candice Denise Owens, one of three hosts for Diner en Blanc Baltimore.

Jim Glick, the owner of SoBo Market, which recently hosted a “Led Lobster” pop-up that paired lobster rolls with the tunes of Led Zeppelin, agreed.

“What’s exciting for them I think it is a familiar place but it’s an unfamiliar dining experience,” Glick said. “It’s new, fresh, exciting.”

That’s part of what drew wife and husband Michelle Li and Michael Lors to Led Lobster. Li said she regularly attends pop-up dining and retail events, and they’re appealing because of their limited nature.

“I think it’s like the limited amount of time that you’re working with and having access that you wouldn’t normally have on a day-to-day basis,” Li, a Federal Hill resident and government contractor, said. “It’s hard to find a good lobster roll in the area.”

Eventbrite, an online ticket sales platform, saw an 82 percent increase in pop-up dinners in 2014, according to a recent report from the company. Collin Morstein, who recently launched a series of pop-ups under the name Haenyo, doesn’t see that demand diminishing.

“Those who are sort of invested in their concept now have a lot to learn and have a lot of potential for success if they’re able to figure out the formula because there’s clearly a demand,” Morstein said.

Morstein and Haenyo co-founder Irvin Seo are spending the summer hosting small pop-ups across Baltimore featuring Korean street food to gauge whether the concept could become a full-time enterprise. Their first two events were held at Holy Crepe Cafe and Cafe Andamiro.

“We were sort of surprised at how well received the idea was and how well attended the first event was without the public really knowing what to expect,” Morstein said. “People sort of took a leap of faith on us and on a cuisine that they weren’t necessarily familiar with, which we were sort of blown away by, and I think it instilled a lot of confidence in us moving forward.”

Seo said pop-ups provide a safe way to test out a business plan.

“The whole pop-up model, there’s not as much risk involved,” Seo said. “At the end we’re not going to be stuck with a building.”

“And tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” Morstein added. “Guys like us who have really no resources to speak of could bankroll and create a restaurant-like experience with a theme that we’ve sort of made on our own because we have really great partners that allow us to take full advantage of their space.”

Some large-scale event companies are making the pop-up model work. Underground Kitchen, which hosts pop-up dinners in secret, unconventional locations, is among the pop-up companies expanding into new markets. The Virginia-based group held its first Baltimore events earlier this year.

Others haven’t been so successful. New Orleans-based Dinner Lab, another national pop-up supper club, folded in 2016 after three years in business and more than $10 million in venture capital.

While some Baltimore entrepreneurs and chefs are looking to scale their pop-up concepts, others are hosting one-off events without plans to expand. At SoBo Market, a group of regular customers and Federal Hill residents, including Bryan Seward and Tim Moorhead, dreamed up the “Led Lobster” idea with Glick, who brought it to fruition. The SoBo Market staff cooked the lobster rolls, which were made for those who purchased tickets in advance, and kept its regular menu available for the night for walk-ins.

“It’s kind of cool to throw our culinary weight around without having culinary experience,” Seward said.

They already have an idea for their next pop-up: “Guns N’ Rosé.”

“These guys are just nothing but idea generators,” Glick said. “They have ideas about everything.”

Just as Seward and his friends turned a pop-up idea into reality, so too did Diner en Blanc’s Baltimore hosts. Courtney Bryant previously attended the event in D.C., and she wanted to bring it to Baltimore. She recruited Owens and Hanna Cohen, and the three began planning the event last August.

The inaugural Baltimore event sold out. As with other Diner en Blanc events, tickets were first made available to Diner en Blanc members who have attended other events in the past. A second wave of tickets went out to invitees “sponsored” by those in phase one. And those on the wait list are last to receive access to tickets. Tickets were $49 per person, which goes toward covering the cost of the event, Cohen said.

“What sets Diner en Blanc apart from other pop-up parties is that it’s kind of a closed registration,” Bryant said.

Guests, who must dress in all-white, bring everything they need for the chic picnic: tables, chairs, decorations and food. Alternatively, they can opt to rent tables and chairs and have their food catered by Diner en Blanc. And although they are given meeting points for their night of the event, they don’t know where they will be dining until they follow their table leaders to the location.

“It’s food, it’s friends and it’s really about having a chic pop-up picnic that happens kind of out of the blue,” Bryant said.

She thinks it’s natural that pop-ups in Baltimore are growing alongside the city’s food scene.

“I really feel like you see pop-ups where you have amazing food and you have an amazing food culture because it’s a way for people to share in that culture and eat these new foods and try these new things out in kind of a controlled environment,” she said.

Smaller events and chef take-overs held at local restaurants can have a mutual benefit for the pop-up hosts and the venue.

“It’s a great exposure opportunity,” Morstein said. “You’re getting people into your space, they’re not eating your food necessarily, but there’s still a lot of information that you can convey just by having it there.”

Chris Nazelrod, an Upper Fells Point resident who attended Led Lobster, said the uniqueness of pop-ups is appealing to customers. People like being able to say they attended an event, he said, especially if it’s the first of its kind.

“On top of that I think it’s just like weird Baltimore,” Nazelrod, web development director for Ainsley & Co., said. “We like to kind of support those things that it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a crazy idea. Let’s go to that.’”

Pop-ups also provide a way to build community.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to do this was because these guys live on Ostend Street, it’s a couple blocks away and they chose us to represent a meeting place for the neighborhood,” Glick said. “It’s just a way to share with the neighbors.”

That’s part of what Ivori Lipscomb-Warren loves about Diner en Blanc. The Edgewood resident has attended the past two Diner en Blanc events in D.C. and will serve as a group leader, overseeing about 300 attendees, for the Baltimore event.

“I loved the fact that it’s international and how it brings people together,” she said. “Some of us may know each other but actually a lot of us are strangers, so getting together, meeting new people, not knowing where the location is, it being secretive is always a plus.”

An event planner by trade, Lipscomb-Warren encourages first-time Diner en Blanc attendees to keep it simple in terms of dress, decor and dinner.

Shorter said she went all out for her first Diner en Blanc last year. But this time around she’s considering following that advice.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to has said there’s a moment where you stop eating and look up and look around and it’s so surreal,” Shorter said. “I’m thinking about packing as simply as possible … so I can have that moment again.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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