Changing the Restaurant Game
The restaurant business is notoriously tough—not just as far as turning a profit, but in terms of the lifestyle. To be a chef, a sommelier or a general manager typically means working long hours and late nights, six or seven days a week, while being tied down to the same kitchen, the same ingredients and the same menu.
That’s all changing however, as a new wave of women entrepreneurs shows us that running a restaurant can in fact make room for freedom, expression and fun. Enter the Paris Popup, an innovative dining concept that allows its team to travel the world, bringing unforgettable dining experiences to their connected global following.
I met co-founder and sommelier Laura Vidal while in Provence this summer, where her jet setting team has just opened up their first official headquarters in Arles. The fabulous new space is designed to host chefs from around the world, and close up for the winter so the Popup can hit the road.
Naturally, I was curious to find out just how Laura and her team were pulling off this amazing freedom-based business, in an industry that’s not exactly known for its flexibility. Divine Living spoke with Laura and co-founder Julia Mitton to get the full story behind the Paris Popup and remind us that anything is possible.
Tell us about your career journey, what brought you to food and how you began the Paris Popup.
LAURA: I am from Montreal, Canada where I was working in finance and had previously held jobs in restaurants and loved it. When I got tired of sitting behind a desk day in and day out, getting fat and feeling like excel and coffee were my only friends, I quit on a whim, went back to working on the floor and met some inspirational sommeliers that gave me the passion for wine. I studied it at school in Montreal and then worked as a sommelier before leaving to France to get closer to the European vineyards and the “old-world,” to learn in a more hands-on kind of way. I met some key winemakers and restaurateurs who took me under their wings, namely Catherine Breton, a winemaker in Loire, and Gregory Marchand, the chef behind Frenchie. I worked at Frenchie for three years as a sommelier and general manager and that’s where I met my now-partner Harry Cummins, who was head chef there for two and a half years. We decided together in 2012 to do some popup dinners in restaurants around Paris on their closing nights. It was a way to express our vision for food and wine and also to have a good time creating our own energy and space. We did this for about a year and then took the show on the road. Julia joined us shortly thereafter and we have been the terrible trio ever since.
JULIA: I am from Halifax, Canada, and moved to France when I was 20 years old to do a year abroad for the final year of my undergraduate dual-degree in French and Business. I had never been to France before setting foot in Nancy (a city in the north-east), but growing up I had always dreamed of moving here, so after the school year was up I stayed! I got into the restaurant world in Paris, where, through school connections, I got on board a fast-growing startup that is credited with launching the cocktail scene in Paris in 2007 (Experimental Group). We opened 13 places in the span of five years, in four different countries, and the company grew from 12 to 200 employees in this short time. I was responsible for HR in all four countries, handled communications, general operations, opening phases, development pitches, creating the back-office structure, and managing the two-year merger with a major player in the wine industry in France. It was a very intense training but gave me the desire to own my own company—which is where the partnership with Laura and Harry came in. Having witnessed it first-hand, I knew my future business partners were going to become my best friends and my second family, because when you are a passionate entrepreneur, you spend a lot of time on your business. Laura, Harry and I took our time forming our partnership, and when the moment was ripe, we ventured out together. They made space in their business model for me, which is not always easy to do but is part of the growth curve of any company, and we’ve since developed the Paris Popup into what it is today: multiple projects operating simultaneously and complimentarily, with many more in the pipeline!
How did the idea of building a business model around your desire to travel first come up? Did you meet any resistance—people saying “there’s no way you can do that?”
LAURA: After working in Paris for a couple of years and doing the popups, we wanted to take a year off and travel so we packed our bags and Harry packed his knives. We had already planned our trip but everywhere we went, friend restaurateurs and chefs offered up the possibility of doing events and dinners, etc. So it really happened quite naturally and it’s a circuit. Once you meet a couple of people who are up for hosting you in their space, they usually know others who want to do the same.
JULIA: People are generally curious about how this business model works. Our lives are legitimately traveling and dining in fabulous places—but there is a lot of legwork that goes into enabling that! We get a lot of questions about the equipment (I’ve definitely taken a seven hour train ride with multiple switches lugging a BBQ before), about staff (we have loyal Paris Popuppers that can join us with some notice—it’s fun for them as well to get to travel to places like Italy, Andalusia, Morocco and be part of the experience), about the financial model (every popup is financially viable and allows us to sustain ourselves between popups). Some people think we’re crazy with all the logistics for an event that can sometimes be a two-night affair—but in a good way! Resistance or rather curiosity gives way to encouragement and a desire to keep in touch so followers can meet us again hundreds of kilometers away!
How difficult is it to start a restaurant in France?
LAURA: Pretty difficult! The bureaucracy is very heavy. Thankfully, Julia is a pro and has opened many restaurants before so she was equipped to lead the effort and it wasn’t as hard as I thought. The main issue is to be able to anticipate problems.
JULIA: You just have to keep heart and push through. The rumors are true—France is definitely not geared towards enabling entrepreneurs. From securing a bank loan to obtaining the various permits to navigating the ever-changing legislation—it can be a very dizzying procedure. It’s definitely necessary to have good partners—you can lean on each other through the harrowing moments of paperwork and red tape, and then celebrate together when you finally get to opening day and say, “we’re here”!
What do you know now that you wish someone had told you at the beginning?
LAURA: Electricity and plumbing are the number one priority! Forget making the place look nice if the foundations are dodgy. We learned this by seeing how crappy they were in the space we just bought in Arles. So we had to rip everything out and start from scratch. It’s the details like this you don’t realize are going to cost you but if they keep breaking over time, it just has to be fixed over and over.
JULIA: If you can afford it, get a designer for your space. There are so many details, so many materials, and unless you are a seasoned veteran of interior design, you can quickly get lost in these details, which might not be at the core of your skill-set. The job of an interior designer is an important one—even if you want your restaurant to be bare-boned and simple. Don’t be afraid to barter either if budget is tight! Trade dinners!
What advice do you have for our readers who have a dream of opening a restaurant?
LAURA: Just do it! Don’t be scared of failing. Be ready for a lot of hoop-jumping, never take no for an answer, don’t let people scare you into buying things and most importantly, double check and get second opinions about everything. JULIA: You will succeed if you are organized, if you research your market carefully, if you provide excellent customer service, if you believe in yourself and your project, and if you are able to adapt and be flexible to whatever curveball comes your way without changing your values or philosophy.
Now a few years into the project, we imagine you have a global following and email list you can count on to fill up your dinners and events. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to grow that following and get the word out?
LAURA: Social media played a huge part in getting the word out there. I personally really love Instagram, which is a great tool for discovering the small jewels in any town or city— it’s the way I now find hidden restaurant gems everywhere. The visual aspect and the fact you can just get the word out through a picture appealed to me. We were lucky to work at Frenchie where the media attention was focused for a long time and to be surrounded with a lot of interesting people who helped with word of mouth. It’s important to sell yourself but to be very inclusive with customers, staff and suppliers. The key is to showcase the talent and not greedily keep it all to yourself.
JULIA: This is absolutely Laura’s one-woman show of communications and PR management. She is a powerhouse in terms of networking, staying on top of communications trends and branding. The Paris Popup had a bona-fide website, logo and brand identity from Day 1. I remember distinctly seeing the artichoke somewhere in Paris, before I got on board, and thinking, “I know that logo…”—turns out it was the Paris Popup.
You describe the culinary concept for the Paris Popup as “bistronomy.” Can you tell us a bit about what that is?
LAURA: Bistronomy is owed to people like Yves Camdeborde who really went out of his way to “de-snob” the restaurant experience by putting as much effort as you would in a Michelin-starred kitchen, but relaxing the atmosphere in the restaurant. He was the shepherd and we are the happy sheep! The movement was also pushed forward by people like Inaki Aipitarte and Greg Marchand in Paris who really shook up the “restaurant codes” to make accessible, delicious and well-prepared food from amazing products and ingredients. We arrived in Paris at the helm of this movement and were thrilled to be able to carry this philosophy no matter where we went in the world: use of great products, transformed just enough but without denaturalizing them, and served in a relaxed, but professional and festive environment.
What makes this concept unique to Paris?
LAURA: The popup was a big trend in London or even New York and in the realms of fashion and art galleries. Popup restaurants hadn’t really hit the Parisian scene and we were happy to have been at the forefront of the movement. The fact that we started it in Paris was why we called it the Paris Popup, as a reminder of where it was born and of the atmosphere and creativity that was at its peak in Paris when we started it.
What’s next for the Paris Popup?
LAURA: We have settled down a little bit in the city of Arles, in the South of France between Provence and the Camargue, by opening our own little “host-restaurant” called Chardon (meaning thistle in English). It’s a way of answering our philosophy by having our own space to host cooks, bartenders or sommeliers and giving them free reign to make their own food using local produce. It’s what we would have loved to find on our travels and we combined so many elements from different restaurants we’ve visited to create this welcoming space of exchange. In terms of the Paris Popup, we want to continue to travel and do events during the calmer months here in Arles: it’s quite seasonal so it’s nice to be able to pick up and leave and not worry that you’re losing money by closing the restaurant. The fact we can have other chefs operate the space also buys us a great deal of freedom to organize events, travel and work on other projects. Whatever we do is always guided by ideals of freedom, traveling, creativity, exchange and giving people love.
JULIA: Freedom is definitely a big theme for the Paris Popup that you find in everything that we do. When Laura and Harry did their first popup dinner at Verjus for 26 people in December of 2012, they were making a statement about freedom and liberty – they were two passionate and talented people who didn’t own a restaurant but who found a way to express themselves, to cook and break bread, to look beyond normal perimeters, to be free-wheeling merchants of happiness and nourishment. The next step was taking their restaurant on the road, worldwide– a novel and creative way of re-thinking cooking, re-thinking dining, re-thinking the life of a chef and a somm. Harry packed his knives, Laura packed her computer, and into a plane they hopped to go explore and bring joy to diners’ lives and to their own! In one way or another, our decisions are always based on keeping that freedom possible. We fell in love with Arles, and buying a restaurant here to turn into a chefs-in-residency program ensured room to create, travel, and exchange, as opposed to buying a restaurant in Paris for example, where financial and logistical pressures are much heavier. It’s fantastic, though, to have some roots, a place to call home and a mailbox. Coming up are more projects that promote this freedom, exchange and travel!
For more from the Paris Popup visit: theparispopup