When Emily Schildt was developing the concept for Pop Up Grocer—its current iteration open in Chicago's Wicker Park through May 30—she did so with an eye toward what people actually enjoy about going to a grocery store: first and foremost, discovering new brands and products that could become household go-tos.
It's a focus that has been on display, literally, since the first of Pop Up Grocer's traveling grocery stores debuted in New York in April 2019: "One day, we thought, what would our dream grocery store look like?" reads a wall sign near the Chicago store's entrance.
And so the model has been: a light, bright, urban storefront that is open for about a month and that features about 150 emerging food and beverage brands. The approximately 400 products in each store are weighted toward items that highlight trending ingredients, nutrition profiles and dietary preferences (e.g., lemonade with hemp extract, canned oat-milk lattes, grain-free tortilla chips and frozen pizza puffs made with a cauliflower crust).
What Pop Up Grocer isn't, by design, is a get-all-your-essentials-here destination. Shoppers can find cereals and oatmeal cups for breakfast, fresh apples and sandwich fixings for lunch, and dried pastas and frozen entrees for dinner, but they won't find their regular gallons of milk or big-name laundry detergent—items that, as consumer habits evolve, customers are more likely to be ordering online anyhow, Schildt said.
"Essentially what we do is complement the convenience of buying your pantry staples and household items on, say, Amazon with the joy, excitement and surprise and delight of discovery in our space," said Schildt, a former digital engagement manager for Chobani, in an interview. "You’re not scouring through 50,000 SKUs; you are just being presented with 400, and nothing's on a bottom shelf. ... Our staff is at the ready to bring context to the products, their ingredients, their founding story—all of that sort of bubbles up to a friendly, welcoming environment, which I don’t think most people would say about their grocery store."
Pop Up Grocer in Chicago has a partnership with Michelin-starred restaurant Elske, in the city's trendy West Loop restaurant district. Shoppers can buy fresh bread and other baked goods from Elske at Pop Up Grocer daily.
Pop Up Grocer doesn't focus specifically on sourcing product locally, but for each of the concept's six iterations so far, about 25% of the brands featured have had local roots, Schildt said. "For the brands, we’re giving them exposure in new markets, markets that they have recently entered and want to support, or markets that they’re looking to penetrate," said Schildt. Many of the brands carried have come from referrals from previous suppliers; prospective vendors also can fill out an interest form on Pop Up Grocer's website.
Fatso (nut butters), Girl Meets Dirt (preserves), Gruvi (non-alcohol beer) and Cloud & Joy (low-calorie ice cream) are among the 150 brands carried in Chicago. "We hear a lot of, 'These are all of the brands that advertise to me on Instagram and now I can actually buy them,' " Schildt said.
After debuting in New York, Pop Up Grocer traveled to Austin and Los Angeles before arriving in Chicago's Wicker Park. Next up, Schildt said, is another New York location later this year and three more temporary stores in 2022. Coming out of the pandemic, the commercial real-estate market is more hospitable to a company seeking short-term leases, Schildt noted.
"I think the pandemic accelerated a desire for an experience-first grocery store," Schildt said.
That means a store that's not overwhelming because it doesn't carry everything under the sun—or even everything you'd likely need, grocerywise, in a given week. With more big, traditional grocery retailers as well as smaller ghost grocers and other delivery services promising speedy (or automatic) delivery of staple items, in-store grocery shopping can be more about new-product discovery, especially as consumers increasingly are interested in mission-driven emerging brands.
Pop Up Grocer also offers a curated selection of brands featured in its stores in Pop Up Grocer Boxes, sold online at popupgrocer.co. Each $35 box (shipping is free) contains eight to 10 shelf-stable snacks and pantry items. Standard, vegan and gluten-free assortments are available.