Kevin the Oyster Man. Credit: Spencer Bartlett

Confession: Last night, I made a Manhattan from a premade, store-bought mix. To be fair, it was actually pretty darned good—which makes sense, because it was from a high-end whiskey distillery.

Still, it felt a little odd. My reasoning was: “Hey, what am I going to do, buy whiskey and vermouth for one or two drinks when I can get several premade drinks for $26?” There was more to it than that, though. Not so long ago, I would have bought the extra hooch just to make a couple of cocktails. The bartender in me would have said it was a better value—and whiskey is good for all sorts of things, after all. This, I suppose, is the second part of my journey of leaving the bartending life behind.

The journey has led me to start a food pop-up business—and I thought I’d share a few things about the experience.

First: Good luck hiding in the kitchen! On the days you have the energy, you’ll want to chat everyone up about your new passion project. On days when your capacity for socializing with humans is below average, they’ll ask for you to come chat. Of course, the days when you’re most “in the weeds” will be the days when all of your friends and biggest fans show up. On those days, you take a deep breath, maybe have a half-glass of wine or an energy drink, and count your blessings that you have those people. Sure, you don’t need to talk to every guest—but you want to build your business, don’t you? You want to show your passion, don’t you?

You’re going to get some burnout. You could take a day off, I suppose. You’re your own boss, after all. You may even start to make an Instagram story to apologize, perhaps making up a good excuse about the supply chain or something. Then you think about your perishable inventory: the beef you ground for burgers, the shrimp for the aguachile, the already-made dough for the bread. In our case, we have to consider the hundreds of dollars in oysters and clams that are coming in—on a ticking clock once they leave the water. You think about that, then ponder how it’s miraculous that you get shipments at all, and then you remember that time you didn’t get your shipment—and how you lost business that weekend. You think about the people who showed up and wonder how long it will be before those people add you to their limited rotation of eateries—if ever.

Then you put on your big-kid pants, and you make it happen. Don’t make the supply-chain gods angry.

Speaking of “the kitchen”: You’ll need to find one! While Riverside County does allow some home-kitchen-based businesses, many people will still benefit from a commercial kitchen or a free-standing outdoor setup. It’s actually not terribly difficult to find an establishment with an under-used kitchen; it’s never been easy to keep a well-staffed line, and it’s harder than ever right now. After a little asking around and legwork, you’ll probably find a small hotel or bar that will be happy to have you. We could have done that, but since my business partner already has a wine shop/bar, we are just adding as we go.

Oh, and about that labor shortage: You’ll need to decide if you can find the right people (or even enough warm bodies) to help you out. What if you succeed and get buried, or founder and still have to pay people?

Oh, and about that labor shortage: You’ll need to decide if you can find the right people (or even enough warm bodies) to help you out. What if you succeed and get buried, or founder and still have to pay people? Every situation will be different, of course, so you have to plan your growth around your own personal limitations. In our case: What do you think the odds are of finding an experienced oyster-shucker in the Coachella Valley? Every business will likely have some sort of built in temporary ceiling like that. What will your amazing food be served on? Are you comfortable with using disposable containers, and if not, who is washing your dishes? What do you do with your leftover product? Are you going to lowball and accept disappointing people who miss out, or are you going high and risking getting stuck with inventory you have to eat—figuratively and literally? When we were doing a once-a-week popup, we got burned often, either selling out or needing to have an impromptu oyster-gorging party—fun, sure, but not profitable. Realize that if you’re just “dipping your toes” in with occasional pop-ups, there will be losses.

So why do it? That’s something you have to decide on your own. It’s not a path to riches, but it is a path to owning a business. If you’re already a skilled chef, you’re going to have an easier time with the cooking and ordering, but you’ll have to learn service and hospitality, or find a partner who can do it. If you’re not a chef but have hospitality experience, you’re definitely going to run into roadblocks on the production side. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant but have passion, get ready for some reality checks! If you stick to it, you’ll learn a lot. Put everything you can into it, and when you see the regulars show up for that “thing you make,” it will start to click. Then maybe you see your little business show up in a “places to eat/things to do/whatever” section of a website or magazine next to the big boys in town—and you’ll try to not get ahead of yourself. Maybe you’ll never catch on, and none that will happen; your mileage will vary, as they say. Either way, most days, work won’t really feel like work … until it really feels like work. Who knows what the future holds—for any of us?

I’ll leave you with this exchange, between a guest and my business partner, Christine:

“I can’t afford to enjoy Champagne, oysters and caviar all the time.”

“Neither can we! That’s why we sell them!”

Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, everyone!

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...