The Story of the Popup
I received an email in October of 2013 from Gwendolyn Wright - one of the amazing people I have met recently. I have grown to become very fond of Gwen and her working style ever since I met her. She informed me that the SF HUB (where she is a member) hosted popup lunches every Monday for promoting any local beginner food/beverage entities. She inquired if I'd like to show case any wine pairings with food that I like. 2013 was a crazy year for me, I was working a full time job, studying for my Sommelier exam and working part time at a wine bar. So I politely refused. But we kept in touch and contacted each other on and off.
What is a popup?
I personally believe that popups are a brilliant concept. Whoever came up with the idea is a genius! The reason I say this is because, popups are like the 'lean startup' equivalent of the high tech world for the food and beverage industry.
How so? To organize or participate in a popup, there is no need for an actual brick and mortar location; or any of the miscellaneous investments to set shop in order to actually try out a food or beverage concept. Popups, also like lean startups offer the advantage of receiving instant feedback on the product(s) from a real target market and this can go on iteratively until the products/ideas are honed well. One of my favorite food spots called the Juhu Beach Club located in Oakland, California used to be a popup in San Francisco.
I digress. Back to my popup story, so early 2014, Gwen and I got back in touch again and we were both convinced that I should try out the HUB lunch opportunity. And so it was finalized that my first popup would be at the San Francisco HUB on March 31st, 2014. The popup was going to happen during lunchtime for HUB members and employees.
What Indian street foods should I serve at the popup?
The answer to this question depended on the following:
- It was important to choose food items that can be transported from my home to the city (SF) safely.
- Also, the food choice must ensure that it will stand well with time and stay fresh even when served a few hours after preparation.
Luckily for me, Indian street food perfectly fits both these criterion. Because, a big chunk of the work is completed while preparing all the ingredients (the chutneys, chopped vegetables etc.) and the rest is about assembling the various ingredients together. Okay, so which street foods will make the final cut?
My initial thoughts were to serve my favorite snack Sundal, followed by Dahi Puri and finally the Bhel Puri (Or should I finish with a dessert?). Decisions Decisions!
After much thought, trial & error and accounting for the transportation constraints, I decided to go with the following 3 courses:
1) For the first course, the champion of south Indian street foods and breakfast: The Idli.
2) For round 2, the goodness of yogurt, chutney, spice blends and semolina puffs: The Dahi Puri.
3) For the last course, I decided to finish with the crunchy, most popular street food of (North) India: The Bhel Puri.
Now that the food lineup was finalized, the most exciting part of the preparation began for me. What wines to choose for each of the dishes?
Yes, I realized it is going to be a Monday and it is going to be in the middle of the day. But, then I thought, what’s wrong with lightening up a Monday for hard working folks at the HUB with some food and wine at noon o’clock, right? :)
So I got right to it. I did have some wine pairings for these dishes that I had experimented with in the past and documented here in my blog. But, I wanted to ensure the wines chosen not only paired well with the food but was also lined up appropriately when sipped one after the other.
My ideal solution would be to start with a dry white wine (lighter intensity), then move on to a light-medium bodied wine like a rose for the 2nd course and finish off with a slightly heavier bodied red (or an off-dry wine).
But after many vino geek out sessions with Gary at Beltramos and several trial wine pairings at home…the wine lineup was finalized!
The TASTING NOTES
1) The first wine chosen to pair with the Idlis was a French Viognier. I had paired a Semillon for Idlis in one of my earlier blogs, but then I realized the Viognier with its aromatic floral notes would stand up to the Idlis very well. And more importantly, the Viognier would be a nice segue to the 2nd wine in the lineup.
2) The second wine choice was easy. It was magical how the Beaujolais paired with the Dahi Puris. It was unbelievable how the red fruits and acidity danced like a perfect partner with the yogurt and chutney spices in the Dahi Puri. And it was a gradual progression from a medium bodied red to the third and last wine
3) I will be honest, choosing the last wine was the most time consuming. The reason being, I have paired and had success with the Bhel and sangria pairing. However, I chose not to do this for the popup because, I would serve this as the last wine and the sangria did not seem like the appropriate wine right after a sip of the Gamay Beaujolais. So, I tried a few pairings of the Bhel with a Spanish Monastrell (aka Mourvedre), a Spanish Garnacha and so on. But finally, with some more persistence and time, I found the winner. A Bardolino! I can hear some folks asking, of all the northern Italian wines, a Bardolino? But, believe me, this Bardolino from Verona was just the right wine with the Bhel. I was able to retain what I liked about the Sangria i.e. the teeny bit of residual sweetness in this wine. And the wine had just enough balance and body after the 'medium-light' bodied Beaujolais. Just a very clean wine to pair with the crunchy, gooey goodness of Bhel!
It was all finally decided, done and I was excited!
The preparation was key for an event like this; especially because everything about Indian street food is tied to a well-planned list of ingredients. So I planned every single thing to buy, cook and transport almost 2 weeks before the actual date. The weekend just before the D-day was packed with chutney making, roasting peanuts and cumin seeds, chopping a TON of onions, tomatoes, cilantro, lemons, boiling potatoes, allocating air tight containers to transport all the wet and dry ingredients and so on.
What consumed most time was the fact that I had to scale everything I have been used to preparing so far (for just 2-3 people) to about 25 people - because that’s how many people Gwen said will most likely show up.
I will admit, I was exhausted – but I felt great!
The D-DAY: Day of the Popup
I woke up early (at 5AM) on the day of the popup to start making about 50 idlis (2 per person). Once the idlis were done, I started taking all the stuff made during the weekend that was stored inside the refrigerator and put them in boxes.
At around 9 AM I was all set, food and wine in the car ready to go! I was nervous - definitely!
I arrived at the HUB at 10AM sharp, like I had told Gwen earlier. And guess what? Gwen being Gwen waits right on time at the unloading area for me exactly when I turn around the corner of the street.
We both give each other knowing smiles about our obsession with being punctual and start to carry the boxes of food and wine to the HUB kitchen/lunch area.
I tried my best to organize the food in the order in which it will be served, so the process would be faster. So, the idlis and chutneys were placed first in the sequence of ingredients.
Then I start making the base for the Dahi Puris (filling the semolina puffs with mashed potatoes and a tiny bit of chopped onions) because I realized this would be immensely helpful to get the Dahi Puris to folks before they become too soggy with the chutney and yogurt toppings.
I also placed all the Dahi Puri ingredients in the order in which they will be used.
Lastly I had to leave the Bhel ingredients in the boxes due to the lack of space.
There were 2 tables that I could use, so I used one for food and I ask my friend and wine expert - Erica Kane to help pour wines with each course (only 2 oz per person!). I only had wines @2oz per person for about 20-some people. So, I definitely required expert monitoring. And, I was planning to hand out surveys after the event to collect feedback – No point in asking my target audience to provide an honest feedback when inebriated, right? ;)
I am all set and waiting with baited breath for people to show up.
Around noon, gradually people trickled in. I started plating the idlis and chutneys and explained the food and its ingredients: "Steamed rice cakes that are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free to be dipped in spicy tomato and cilantro chutneys". Slowly the details kept waning out, as more and more people showed up. And in a few minutes, almost 60 idlis I had made had disappeared!
I looked over at Erica's table to see how the Viognier pairing was going and the people definitely looked happy! Since the idlis were gone, I signaled Erica to stop with the first wine and to start opening the Beaujolais bottles.
I got ready to assemble the Dahi Puris. This is when I the reality of it struck me! I absolutely cannot assemble 50 Dahi Puris (2 per person) for about 25 people all by myself, especially when serving busy people waiting to get back to their jobs (I made a mental note to myself to hire more help if I chose to serve a dish like this next time).
But somehow I manage to finish it. And people come for seconds and thirds and I was beaming :)
Finally, it was time to serve the last and final course - The Bhel Puri. It felt a lot easier assembling the Bhel compared to the Dahi Puris because the Bhel Puri base can be mixed in larger quantities. Erica opened the Bardolino and I start plating the Bhel Puris. From what I saw, people had the best things to say about this course. I was a little surprised, because I thought the Dahi Puris would win the most laurels, but I am not complaining. I love them all equally!
Towards the end, while I was still fervently assembling and plating the Bhel, I saw people lining up for it. It was so gratifying to watch people line up to try the food, in spite their busy schedules, excitedly comparing notes about their tastings and wine pairings. I realized then, how rewarding this felt even if it meant slogging for many hours to make an event like this happen.
- I could not have done any of the food assembly and plating without my dear friend Courtney Cummins. She was by my side the entire time and helped in every possible way she could. She is about to launch her own vintage clothes online website for women (prints and patterns focused). Check her out at Rilla.
- My other dear friend Belinda Quintanilla (owner of Belinda Chocolates) also showed up and rose to the occasion. I was amazed at how she just watched me assemble the Bhel once, and took over like she's been doing this for a living! Thanks to both of them, I was still breathing at the end of all this.
- Erica Kane - my friend and wine enthusiast took over the wine department and delivered so gracefully, responsibly and explained all the wines so expertly!
- Last but definitely not the least - I could not have done any of this without Gwendolyn Wright. Gwen was always cheering, motivating and literally clapping her hands when she saw people enjoying their lunches and giving their approving nods. She helped move boxes, make copies of surveys and so much more. Thanks Gwen!
The LESSONS LEARNED
After all the adrenaline died down, I packed all my boxes and carried them (much lighter this time :)) back to the loading area. Then while driving back, I was reminiscing every minute of the event, clearly some aspects worked well and some definitely had room for improvement, like:
- As my highest priority, I HAVE to create a methodical assembly line that would help food assembly, plating and delivery in an efficient manner. To make this happen, I have to start recruiting help when I organize my next popup.
- People were constantly running out of utensils and a lot of time was lost just getting the utensils to people. I have to better plan the plates, cups and utensils situation next time. For this, I will have to double up on the utensils count next time.
- While the wine pairings were clean and were received well for the most part, I also received feedback that there can be more intricate, complex wines included next time. For instance, I saw one feedback that said it would be interesting to include wines with more earthy qualities (though may be challenging) to pair with Indian food.
I finally stopped at a taqueria to eat my late lunch around 4 PM. While munching on my tacos and washing it down with soda, I was ruminating about my first popup and its outcome.
Firstly, I was so thankful that Gwen approached me with this opportunity, because it was a great experience. Regarding the outcome, overall I thought my first popup was a success. I felt great to be there right at that moment, reminiscing about the adrenaline filled day. But, quickly I realized I was only going to require more and more preparation and meticulous planning if I wanted to organize more popups this year - which I do.
This is clearly not the end I thought, but a beginning for more such adventures, exciting opportunities, meeting amazing people and above all, the pursuit of my passion!