Food startups make a play for face time at Pop Up Grocer

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For food or beverage startups, there is nothing more valuable than the moment someone gives their product a chance. Getting that opportunity can require some hustle and a little bit of luck — especially during the pandemic, when so many consumer interactions have been restricted. 

Emily Schildt was very familiar with this issue. As a brand marketing consultant, she had been helping startups prepare for launch. Many were direct-to-consumer only, and lacked a physical platform for their products. This dynamic sparked the idea for Pop Up Grocer, a traveling grocery store that could provide a stage for promising young brands, and the opportunity to make an impression.

“The impetus for creating it was really my observation that there wasn’t a discovery space dedicated to all of these new and exciting, innovative products,” Founder and CEO Schildt said. 

Pop Up Grocer launched in 2019 in New York, offering a limited-time-only, curated selection of about 400 SKUs from around 150 small CPG brands. The first event lasted 10 days, but that time frame has since stretched to 30. Over the past two years, it has visited Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and most recently, Chicago.   

To participate, brands can fill out an inquiry form at Pop Up Grocer’s site, although the retail concept also gets referrals and does its own scouting. The Pop Up Grocer team judges each brand based on two criteria: It needs to be new in terms of its approach, product format or ingredients, or have a compelling founding story. 

“We have put a lot of emphasis on selecting brands from founders who are under-resourced or under-represented,” Schildt said. 

For food and beverage products, Pop Up Grocer scrutinizes nutrition and looks for responsibly sourced ingredients. Finally, packaging is important — it needs to be visually pleasing to complement the Pop Up Grocer aesthetic. 

A visit by Food Dive to the Chicago site in May revealed this carefully curated shopper experience. The 1,000-square-foot site, located in the hip Wicker Park neighborhood, presented its wares on simple shelving and fixtures, with a black-and-white checkered floor and primary colored walls. 


“The impetus for creating it was really my observation that there wasn’t a discovery space dedicated to all of these new and exciting, innovative products.”

beverage

Emily Schildt

Founder, Pop Up Grocer


Sections with names such as sweets and treats, bites and chews, and crunch and puffs included a range of edible grocery pantry items, snacks and confections. Three refrigerated cases — an open-air cooler for perishables, a two-door cooler for packaged beverages and a freezer case for frozen offers — flank the store. Other sections offer breakfast items, beverage mixes and health supplements and beauty items. At the counter, fresh baked goods from a local boutique bakery are available for purchase, although these items tend to sell out quickly each morning, according to store employees.

Employees mill about the store floor to talk about products, offer suggestions and hand out pamphlets containing information about all of the participating brands. Each product is priced separately — there are no shelf tags or price signage in the store.

All about the exposure

Some brands that participate in Pop Up Grocer are relatively well known and already sold at national grocery chains, including allergen-free Partake Foods and better-for-you breakfast brand Kodiak Cakes (which has since been acquired by private-equity firm L Catterton). Some are only available online, such as HumanCo’s frozen snack brand, Snow Days. The majority are small startups with products that tap a mix of current food trends, including clean label, plant based, gluten free, high protein and low sugar, upcycling, and keto and paleo diet friendly. About 20% to 25% of the brands are local.

One of the participants for Chicago was Hooray Foods, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in plant-based bacon. The product, manufactured from coconut oil, rice flour, tapioca starch and seasonings, is packaged just like conventional bacon in plastic sleeves, with the aim to convince flexitarians to make the switch from animal-based meat. The company recently closed a $2 million seed financing round, which it is using to improve its plant-based bacon and develop other products.

At the Chicago site, Hooray’s bacon was merchandised in an open-air cooler along with products such as Tia Lupita grain-free tortillas, Harmless Harvest coconut-based yogurts and Picnik keto-friendly creamers.  

RED BULL

Pop Up Grocer’s Chicago site this past May featured about 400 SKUs. 

Courtesy of Pop Up Grocer

 

Hooray Foods Founder Sri Artham said his product is already sold at about 300 Whole Foods Markets and some health food stores, but COVID-19 restrictions over the previous year had eliminated one powerful tool to encourage greater product trial: sampling. 

“The pandemic’s been really hard to do that — we can’t really demo our product in grocery stores, for example, or give out samples on the street as easily,” Artham said. Pop Up Grocer has served as a means to physically get Hooray Foods’ bacon into consumers’ hands.

“We’re just excited about the opportunity to have a physical manifestation … where people could learn about it, see it, buy it, try it and get excited,” he said. Within the first week of the Chicago Pop Up Grocer, Hooray Foods had sold out of its initial shipment of product. 

Pan’s Mushroom Jerky has participated in all five of Pop-Up Grocer’s events. The Portland, Oregon-based startup launched its shiitake mushroom-based jerky in 2018, offering a vegan, gluten-free snack that also is said to be a good source of fiber and vitamin D. It received a recent boost after appearing on Shark Tank and launching its product on Amazon Prime. The jerky is also available in about 900 stores nationwide. But Pop Up Grocer has offered its own unique outlet for brand exposure.   

“Our brand definitely doesn’t feel like it gets drowned out or lost in the noise,” said Shannon Lehotsky, head of sales and marketing for Pan’s. “It seems like it’s a very curated experience … We can get in front of a lot of people. I also think that there’s not that many opportunities to really transform grocery shopping and to have a fun experience, and I think it reinvigorates consumers’ enthusiasm and excitement about discovering snacks.” 

Lehotsky was initially leery about participating in a pop-up concept. Sometimes the execution is lacking, and brands are not represented accurately.

I’ve worked with pop-ups before where they’re like, ‘Yeah we’re going to represent your brand,’ and sometimes they don’t quite nail it,” she said, noting that they sometimes mischaracterize products to the end user. Pop Up Grocer uses brand descriptions from the CPGs themselves in making its event pamphlets. “That’s our language, our voice,” Lehotsky said.  

There are costs, however, associated in working with Pop Up Grocer, she noted, “so there is that barrier to entry that is the risk.” 


“Our brand definitely doesn’t feel like it gets drowned out or lost in the noise. It seems like it’s a very curated experience … We can get in front of a lot of people. I also think that there’s not that many opportunities to really transform grocery shopping and to have a fun experience, and I think it reinvigorates consumers’ enthusiasm and excitement about discovering snacks.”

beverage

Shannon Lehotsky

Head of sales and marketing, Pan’s Mushroom Jerky


Because Pop Up Grocer considers itself more of a marketing vehicle than a grocery store, it charges each brand a showcase fee, which Schildt declined to specify. “The brand makes the overwhelmingly large majority of the share of revenue from the sales of their product in store,” she noted.

Thus far, Pan’s has not only been able to sell jerky but it has also gotten exposure on multiple fronts, including in consumer publications such as Food & Wine.



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