I stand on Kettner Boulevard experiencing a tinge of regret that I’m already married.
Not because my eyes feast on some hunk of fine-ass man but because I’m witnessing the wedding I kinda wish I’d had. I love every detail, from the green vintage Sportsman van decked out with red-and-white gingham curtains and fancy window soap designs that read “Let’s Runaway” to the belini bar and chalkboard menu announcing grilled-cheese sandwiches and short-rib sliders. The whole thing has that hippie-chic handcrafted vibe that photographs so well for Instagram. It’s so...today.
Don’t get me wrong — my wedding at the Prado was beautiful. But this? This is cool and unusual. Cool because it’s unusual, and unlike the Prado, which sees 100-plus marriage ceremonies per year, the Runaway Pop-Up Wedding is available for only five couples and will never be done exactly this way again. Hence, the term pop-up.
Between August 2010 and the time of this writing, 55 “pop-up” events made their way into the Reader’s events listings. The idea isn’t a new one; temporary pumpkin patches and crafty bazaars have been “popping up” since who knows when. And the now-global annual “Diner en Blanc” (a pop-up picnic where the location is revealed at the last minute and everyone wears white) started in Paris in 1988. The past few years have seen the pop-up concept explode. Pop-up art shows/galleries, pop-up restaurants, pop-up boutiques, pop-up plays, and so on litter events pages everywhere. Today, a quick Google search reveals a handful of websites dedicated to finding and marketing pop-up events.
Even so, the pop-up wedding is a new one on me.
Runaway is the brainchild of Jamie Street and Michelle Pullman of Rad + In Love Photography, and Tori Hendrix, of Sitting in a Tree Design, whose blogs and websites have the power to make hours disappear from my life. This particular event turns the idea of a traditional wedding on its head.
Street likens Runaway to an affordable medium between a courthouse wedding and a fancy soiree.
“It’s for people who want a smaller, more intimate wedding or elopement but don’t want to sacrifice a lot of the fun, pretty details that you see in a lot of contemporary weddings today,” she will tell me over the phone when the event is over.
At the moment, she’s on the clock, standing on the sidewalk between Casa Artelexia and the vintage van. She’s in a long green summery dress and photographing one wedding party while Pullman snaps photos of a separate wedding ceremony taking place inside.
Yes, plural weddings, back-to-back, each with an hour-and-a-half time slot. I didn’t quite get the concept or see the appeal until I arrived. But, up close, I see that it’s as inspired as other great pop-up experiences, the best of which are usually collaborations between creative people of various mediums.
The idea for Runaway began with a discussion about how to collaborate Hendrix’s styling with Street’s photography without creating a typical staged set void of human emotion. Eventually, they decided on the one-day wedding opportunity for multiple couples that would take the details off the bride and groom’s shoulders and put it in the hands of Hendrix and Street’s creative friends.
“It gave all of us a chance to collaborate and work together and share our skills and work on a vision that was our own,” Street says. “So, instead of customizing or catering to the client, we showed them our vision, and if it appealed to them, they could sign up.”
And five couples believed in the vision enough to shell out $1200 each for their time slots, which includes marriage-certificate keepsakes and announcements by Pitbulls and Posies; a bouquet or floral crown by Bloem Hill; celebratory drinks and food by A MIHO Experience prior to the ceremony (for up to 30 guests, an additional $20 per food-and-drink ticket) in a private waiting-room-styled (earthy chic — i.e. lots of ferns, a hint of tie-dye, and blue velvet pillows) by Sitting in a Tree; acoustic-guitar music by Bart Davenport; photographic coverage of the ceremony plus a 30-minute portrait session for the bride and groom by Rad + In Love; and the ceremony performed by Lara, a blonde officiant in a turquoise maxi dress.
“You know that other couples are having the same experience, and you have to be okay with that,” says Hendrix, who takes a moment to chat and show me around. Unlike Street, whose work takes place during and after, Hendrix has done the bulk of her work in the days leading up to now.
Later, Street will add, “That’s part of what made it affordable, was doing the same design for each client rather than customizing it for each one.”
The idea of a quick in-and-out wedding and limited input on the design may not appeal to every couple, but going by dresses alone, it’s clear that the brides here today aren’t run-of-the-mill. One wears a simple off-white shift dress with large black polka dots. Another wears a floor-length number with a combination of crocheted lace cutouts and embroidered chiffon overlay. One wears an ivory-white dress adorned with coppery sequin stripes. Another wears orange.
As with most other pop-up events, Runaway seems to speak to the creative, or those who seek the creative. Although having the same wedding (style-wise) as all the other couples sounds about as factory-like and same-samey as a Vegas chapel, Runaway feels fresh, new, and intimate. Hendrix suggests that the temporary, one-day-only venue provides a blank canvas that prospective couples and/or their wedding planners won’t find at a typical San Diego hotel wedding.
“Hotels have rules,” Hendrix says. “You have to use their caterer, and it’s hard to take a carpeted ballroom and transform that without millions of dollars in uplighting. People right now are so interested in personalizing their weddings. They want to be able to have fish tacos instead of a chicken dish.”
It’s this same rule-breaking that inspires pop-ups of all kinds, including those one-night-only dining experiences presented by chef Chad White of Plancha Baja Med.
“What’s really fun about a pop-up is there are no rules,” says White, a former Navy cook whose résumé includes stints at the Hotel Del Coronado, Doubletree Golf Resort, Roseville, Gabardine, and the recently closed Sea Rocket (where he was also part owner). “[Pop-up guests] are having food that they probably never would eat. I’m serving things like chicken hearts and putting pig brains inside of a tortilla instead of lard to make it fatty feeling with a suckling pig taco. So, I’ve really challenged people, and I’m challenging myself at the same time.”
Pop-ups are not all White does. He recently opened La Justina Gastrobar in Tijuana; he still runs his catering company, Ego Culinary Trends, which he started in 2010; he’s in the midst of opening two food-court businesses (Craft Pizza; and IP Grill, a pan-Asian/Hawaiian barbeque joint); and he’s on the brink of opening his own restaurant (though he’s hush-hush about when). Oh, and he acts as consultant on other people’s restaurant projects.
So, it’s not for lack of something to do that White organizes pop-up dinners. Instead, it’s about the playing with his food.
On Halloween, his black-and-white event at Frauds and Swindlers featured two all-white and two all-black courses. One of the all-whites included oyster coconut cream soup, cauliflower, anchovy, pearl onion, and lardo; one of the all-blacks consisted of Fernet pana cotta black sesame gelato, candied black fennel, charcoal meringue, and molita-Hawaiian black sea salt.
For White, it was an evening of artistic expression that he might not be able (or want) to pull off on a restaurant menu. It was also, he says, a chance to make people rethink their assumptions about the way food looks.
“What’s pretty isn’t always delicious,” he says.
And while the opportunity for no-holds-barred artistry may be a motive for White’s pop-ups, Street speculates that the desire to be a part of something is likely the attraction for most pop-ups, including Runaway. “Everyone’s ceremony was quite separate,” she says, “but still they were a part of something a little bit bigger than their individual ceremony.”
I’d go so far as to say that the draw for some guests has more than a little to do with bragging rights; kind of like being able to say, “I was in the MTV Unplugged audience when Nirvana performed in 1993,” or “I was at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when Boise State went for two and won with the Statue of Liberty play.” It’s an educated guess I make when White mentions the black-and-white party (after it happened) and I find myself struck with envy for those in attendance.
And so it is with a certain feeling of...inclusion...that on a Monday evening in November, I traipse down to Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro for the La Plancha pop-up dinner and tequila tasting. There’s something about knowing I have a ticket to a one-time-only event that provides the I-was-there feather for my hat even before they’ve opened the doors to let all 150 of us in and out of the cold.
We stream in from the parking lot and line up to receive our welcome drink from chef Marcela Valladolid of Food Network’s Mexican Made Easy, whose Hacienda de la Flor line of tequilas will accompany each of the dishes. Once we’ve received this opening number served warm in carved-out pears and accompanied by a cinnamon stick, we make our way to pre-assigned tables.
Tonight is the first in a weeklong series of food events hosted around town as part of the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival.
“[Festival organizers] contacted me and said, ‘Are you going to do it this year?’ as far as the festival, cooking. And I was, like, ‘I don’t know.’ They said, ‘Would you at least do a pop-up? We’ll advertise it for you and everything,’” White says. “I’m, like, ‘We can make it even better. Let’s do it with Javi [Javier Plascencia]. We can do it at Romesco because it’s closed on Mondays. Let’s bring in Jason Knibb and Marcela Valladolid.”
The three featured chefs prepare two dishes each, and all six come with generous shots of Valladolid’s tequilas (all but the first served in votives-turned-shot-glasses purchased earlier this afternoon at Michael’s craft store).
The evening turns out to be unexpectedly fun. While I know to expect good food and giggles, I discover that much fun can be had while dining when one doesn’t have to do anything. We don’t have to look at a menu, decide what we’re going to eat, hail the the waiters to take our order, or even pretend to be any more sophisticated than we are. Laughter rings out from all corners of the restaurant, including the kitchen.
“We got our asses kicked, and it was hard work, but we laughed the entire time through it because we’re all buddies,” White will say when it’s all over. And then, explaining why he chose to invite his comrades and split the profit four ways rather than do the event himself, he’ll add, “I want it to be fun for me, too. More than just making a bunch of dough, I want to have a good time. Otherwise I’m not going to do it.”
Speaking of dough
White calculates that he “probably could have made 12 grand” on the pop-up dinner at Romesco had he not chosen to invite the other chefs to share the profit. Pop-ups, he says, can bring in nice, healthy sums or break the bank.
“You can either do really well or you could do really bad,” he says. “If you’re not getting your reservations in or you’re not taking cards in advance, you could cripple yourself. I’ve lost money on three or four that made me go, ‘Holy crap, I need to get a job.’ And I’ve made a lot of money on others.”
One of the elements that made the Romesco dinner a success, besides heavy advertisement by the festival organizers, was that he chose to have it on a night the restaurant is normally closed. If White were to hold an event on a night a restaurant is normally open, he might have to buy the restaurant out, a gamble that has to be made prior to the sale of tickets.
“If you don’t sell out, you’re screwed,” he says. “One in every three doesn’t turn out very well. It could be that there’s too many other events going on in San Diego or I may have not promoted it in enough time. Those kinds of things.”
Although insisting on pre-payment doesn’t change the risks or guarantee a sell-out, White says it’s a must. “People in San Diego are very last-minute. If they didn’t pre-pay, they won’t show,” he says. “I would say 40 percent won’t show. They usually wait until three days prior. We sold 70 tickets in [the last] four days, which is insane. And then probably another 30 percent was three days before that.”
Since December 2012, when he held his first Plancha pop-up, he’s done 13 others. And through trial and error, he’s learned how to best go about them so that he ends up having the most fun and making the most profit.
The Runaway Pop-Up Wedding crew, on the other hand, has yet to experience any financial success with their venture.
“Most of us just contributed our time. It was more about the collaboration and doing a special project to see what would happen. So, mostly the fees just covered our expenses,” Street says.
As to whether they’ll do a 2014 Runaway, Street responds, “If we were to do it again, we’d have to do it two or three days in a row and make sure that we have enough clients to book all three days in order to make it cost-effective. Everybody’s willing to get together to work on something like that and donate their time once. But we’re not all going to do it again unless we get paid.”
Vanessa Johnson of Vixen Productions does not want to talk about money. At least not in specific terms. “I’d kind of like to keep all my financial stuff private. I don’t want to give my competitors too many ideas,” she says. But what she will say is that money was a major motivation behind starting her pop-up event company, Vixen Productions.
We’re standing in the Vixen Pop-Up Boutique, a temporary retail space Johnson created for the 2013 holiday season out of a vacant storefront on the ground floor of the Flower Hill Promenade in Del Mar. It’s a rainy Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and not many shoppers are out. Johnson, the single mother of three children, bounces a seven-month-old baby on her right hip and explains how Vixen came to be.
In 2008, as an assistant fashion editor with Fine Magazine, Johnson began producing events for the magazine and found out that she was good at it and enjoyed it. But the work was missing the creative edge that was expressive of her personality and her generation.
“[At the magazine], I was creating fashion shows for Baby Boomers. I’m not a Baby Boomer, and I don’t care if you have a Beemer or if you don’t,” she says. “I wanted to do a fashion show of, maybe, models that could wear black lipstick, crazy makeup, and be a little risky if that’s what I wanted to do.”
In 2011, Johnson left Fine and began to offer event-planning services to businesses but found that no one was willing to spend the kind of money it would require to pull off the events they envisioned.
“Nobody had a budget. They wanted to do these elaborate events but they didn’t want to spend on it, so I went to plan B,” she says. “I decided I’ll do something that brings a lot of people together, and there’s more power in numbers than there is to doing it solo.”
She gathered up her artist friends, designers, and other art and fashion industry contacts, and so began Vixen Productions.
Bamboo Club pop-up event walkthrough
A first-person POV walkthrough of a pop-up fashion event held at the Bamboo Lounge in Hillcrest, San Diego, California.
“The formula is that, at all of our shows, you’ll always see vendors for shopping. There will always be art, some kind of art exhibit; there’s always live artists, there’s always music, and there’s always a fashion show,” she says.
Vixen’s first event took place in July 2012 at El Papagayo restaurant in Encinitas, and then she went on to do 13 more in the next 12 months, at downtown venues such as Basic and Quality Social. Each event follows the same basic formula but with a different theme and a different set of vendors, artists, and designers.
“I think in San Diego, we have a big following for people who like indie merchandise. They want to be different. They don’t want to wear the same thing everyone else is wearing,” she says. “And it’s kind of fun. It’s like a hunt. It’s the hunt to find that cool item that you’re not going to find everywhere else.”
For the final quarter of 2013, Johnson decided to try something different. In addition to hosting her monthly events, she negotiated a short-term lease in this vacant storefront to give her vendors the opportunity to sell their designs during the holiday season.
Again tight-lipped about money, she won’t say how much she paid for the lease or whether, for the mobile events, she typically pays the venues or whether they pay her. She won’t say who pays for the models or the hair and makeup, or even whether they’re paid at all. But she does say that the vendors have to fork over a fee to participate and that the fee to sell their designs out of this particular pop-up boutique is a bit larger than for her regular, monthly shows.
“The traveling pop-up is only for four hours, so the cost is going to be significantly different compared to something that’s for 30-plus days,” she says.
Also on the list of things she won’t say is how long the boutique will remain in this location, but she promises to give about two-weeks’ notice before she packs everything up.
“We don’t want the exact date announced to the public. We want to just announce, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be leaving shortly,’ because we want [patrons] to think they need to get in here and get it because it will be gone.”
I hate to say it, but this not knowing tempts me to pull out my credit card to purchase a gold octopus tentacle cuff bracelet and a long-horned Kudu ring by Skova, because this might be my only chance.
“[The pop-up boutique] has been good because it’s helped grow some of the small businesses that I work with. Now I’m looking at Vixen as almost like a training ground,” she says. “This is a great way [for designers] to test the market and try out some new experiences with us and not have to take on some of the commitments that can make or break you.”
So, why not open a permanent store, I ask, something like Make Good?
“I’m a gypsy,” she says. “I don’t want a store to come to every day. I feel like that’s boring and people will get bored of it.”
In mid-January, Johnson announces to me (but not yet to the public) that she will be leaving the Flower Hill location at the end of the month and that she’s in negotiations for a new (also temporary) lease in North Park.
“We’re so close that we might even be in on February 1,” she says, adding, “It’s hard to negotiate these temporary leases. In other cities that are not San Diego, that are more metropolitan, they have realtors specifically for pop-ups. [But here] everybody wants you to sign your life away.”
Johnson refuses, however, to commit to any lease longer than a year.
“I don’t know where I’m going to be in a year. I don’t want to be committed to even living in the same place for five years. That’s so boring,” she says. “And the pop-up concept is supposed to be temporary.”