Chris Hassaan Francke slapped a fat sprig of mint between his palms to awaken its aroma, then plopped the twig in the icy pink drink and placed it atop a prim green napkin in front of the woman who ordered it.
“One rivas julep,” he announced, raising his eyebrows in anticipation. She took a long draw on her straw and declared it to be quite refreshing. He gave her a thumbs-up and pointed to his next patron. “Order, please?”
A World Bank consultant by day, Francke runs the Green Zone at night, serving up Middle Eastern-inspired libations such as the rivas julep, which gets its name from the Persian word for rhubarb. Don’t call him a bartender, though, at least not yet.
“Because I don’t have an actual bar,” he chuckled.
In the past year, Francke’s nomadic pub has set up shop in a string of borrowed spaces around the District for a night or two at a time. But last week, it began its longest stint yet at EatsPlace, a rowhouse one block south of the Petworth Metro station that’s been renovated into an incubator for “pop-up” bars and restaurants, each one more niche and unorthodox than the last.
In June, it was Kalye, a pop-up Filipino street-food stand that whipped up such dishes as fertilized duck eggs and grilled pork blood. Before that, it was Chinese braised meat and steamed buns at Baba’s Brazen. Now, Francke’s Arab drinks commingle twice a week with Kafta Burgers, a Middle Eastern grill whose pop-up residence on EatsPlace’s front porch will last through mid-July.
“We try to figure out if it’s something the community wants” when selecting which new restaurant and bar concepts to host, said EatsPlace owner Katy Chang. Some pop-ups stay for several months, run by aspiring restaurateurs trying to learn the ropes of the business; others are brought in for only a few days by established chefs looking for a place to try out new flavors.
Opening a new restaurant requires “a lot of bureaucracy and red tape,” Chang explained — not to mention the thousands of dollars it takes to land a decent lease in the District. There’s none of that for the newbies who cycle through Chang’s brown brick walk-up on Georgia Avenue NW in the Park View neighborhood, but there is seating for 40, a commercial kitchen and bar — and small-business training that can help separate the serious entrepreneurs from the dreamers.
“It’s about the business of it,” Chang said, “or else it’s just a hobby.”
Although pop-ups allow fledgling brands to test-drive the market, it’s definitely not the easiest way to earn a buck. Organizers have to bring in their own equipment, labor and branding. Plus, they have to share profits or pay for a space — typically inside an established restaurant or bar. But hosts have warmed to the concept of pop-ups, which can bring in extra cash on slow days and create fresh buzz for their own brand by aligning themselves with an inventive, fun concept.
“It’s all about the FOMO experience,” said Jeremy Baras, chief executive of marketing company PopUp Republic — fear of missing out. It’s akin to the way Apple releases a shiny new iPhone every year or so: “Customers love the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ exclusivity that pop-ups provide,” he said.
Many among the after-work drinks crowd who stumbled in from the rain at EatsPlace on the Green Zone’s opening night were like magpies homing in on something shiny and new. Janée Walsh and her fiance, Oscar Lai, sampled a strong gin cocktail and a yerba mate martini. They said having EatsPlace nearby is comparable to having another trendy dining spot open in their neighborhood every few months.
Fresh off a flight from Los Angeles, Walsh’s mother, Sherry, said the pair was excited to take her to dinner at EatsPlace but couldn’t tell her what to expect. “I asked what’s good, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. It’s always different.’ ”
Waiting across the bar for his boozy punch, James O’Leary, an executive at the nonprofit Genetic Alliance, mused that it must be tough to attract a following with food. “There’s so many places,” he said of the overwhelming D.C. food scene. “I hate to go to the same place twice.”
Pop-up hosts get to beat that monotony. Some have even expanded beyond food — Union Market in NoMa has hosted fashion and home-goods pop-ups, while kittens came to the Rock & Roll Hotel lounge for a pop-up cat cafe.
Al Goldberg, who founded the Edgewood culinary incubator Mess Hall, compared the concept to his college years, when people would line up at Tower Records to score the latest album release. “All of a sudden, everything in D.C. revolves around food,” he said of the social scene. People want “to be the first to try this or that chef.”
Despite the short attention spans of local eaters, most pop-ups still dream of being brick-and-mortar some day. Some have even accomplished the task. One of the first pop-ups to pass through EatsPlace, DC Born and Raised, is building a permanent restaurant. Chaia, which won the StartUp Kitchen pop-up contest from Nurish and Think Local First DC in 2012, will start serving its locally sourced tacos at its own place in Georgetown this summer.
Francke wants to get out of consulting and make the Green Zone his full-time gig. And now that he’s building up a humble fan base through social media (more than 640 likes on Facebook), he thinks he has a decent shot. He estimated that roughly half of the people now coming to his pop-ups have had his cocktails at least once before.
Joan Hanna, a community relations associate at the Arab American Institute, has been to several of Francke’s pop-ups. “I have promoted it shamelessly,” she said of her favorite cocktail, the Lebanese No. 1, which boasts “cognac and exotic stuff.”
One day, Francke hopes, people can find his exotic drinks whenever they pop into their neighborhood bar. Into his bar.
An earlier version of this story described EatsPlace’s neighborhood as Petworth. It is a block south of Petworth in the Park View community.