Why pop-up shops are an inventive way to test your business idea: small business profile

Sometimes the simplest idea can turn into a business opportunity. For Amrita Singh, co-founder of pop-up shop TOAST, a vacation to San Francisco inspired her and her business partners Lindsay Agnew and Jo Lusted to test out a business about toast (yes, really!).

A set of hands holds a coffee and reaches for a piece of toast.

(Fresh roasted coffee beans supplied by Social Coffee & Tea. Toast combo pictured: Hummus 2.0 on Pumpkin Seed Rye.)

An idea popped up

The vacation took them on a tastebud adventure. Singh noticed a unique food trend in California: toast cafes featuring thick slices of bread with simple toppings and spreads. “It seemed so pretentious,” said Singh. “Taking something as pedestrian as toast and turning it into a five dollar thing.” But they tried it and it was delicious.

The friends began to fantasize about creating a pop-up shop for toast when they got back home. “Pick a bread, pick a spread.” Agnew designed it, Singh produced it, and Lusted created the flavours. Friends and family were also supportive. “It’s a ridiculously simple concept but it made people smile.”

Could it make a profit?

When the three did the math for their toast venture, startup expenses ate into any potential profit. Rent on its own would be prohibitive.

But then Singh’s brother stepped in, offering the waiting room of his dermatology clinic — a sprawling and light-filled space in Toronto’s historic Distillery District — as a pop-up venue on weekends. Rent-free.

Image of the space TOAST pop-up shop is located at in Toronto's distillery district.

A rapid launch

“We kicked into high gear to make it happen. That was the month of March and by the start of May (Mother’s Day weekend) TOAST was open.”

With backgrounds in TV production, the three owners know how to push quickly from idea to execution. With each stakeholder also juggling busy freelance careers, planning had to be kept short.

With any trend, it’s important strike quickly, she adds. “The trend of toast reached its peak in 2015 in the States. So the sooner we did it here the more relevant it would feel.”

Startup costs

“We estimated it would cost us $5,000 to start up in a way that we could all feel proud. We hit the number almost on the nose.”

The three main factors that were considered: 

  • Set-up fees: registering the business, decor, point of sales (POS) solutions, etc.
  • Restaurant supplies
  • Food prices 

“We wanted the spreads to cost us 50 cents per serving. We’re coming in higher than that with most of our spreads so we now have to really shop the sales well.”

Social Media

Without a marketing budget, social media can be an entrepreneur’s best friend. According to TOAST’s owners, they use Facebook to directly connect with customers, and on Instagram they post drool-worthy photos to attract local foodies.

 

Checking out the #416Toast pop-up in the #distillerydistrict @416toast - �� @lioraipsum

A photo posted by blogTO (@blogto) on

“One weekend in May it felt like winter. There was hail even! That Sunday, Liora from blogTO stopped by despite the horrific weather. She posted a pic of TOAST on the blogTO instagram feed. Within hours we had a full house! That’s the power of social media.”

The pros and cons of pop-ups

Pros:

  • Feels like producing an event more than managing a restaurant.
  • Great opportunity to test the market, improve on the fly.

Cons:

  • Physical challenge of set-up and tear-down each weekend.
  • Marketing and creating buzz is a constant struggle when on a budget.
  • Anticipating food needs. There is no typical pattern to customer volume so it’s hard to order the right amount. And a smaller venture means fewer bulk discounts from suppliers.

Pop-up advice

Every pop-up shop is different, but keeping in mind fundamentals for business success are important.

  • Create cash flow
  • Value the customer experience
  • Be in the right market at the right time
  • Assemble an amazing team

Three pieces of advice you wish you had when starting out

  1. How to predict sales accurately
  2. Proof of maximum sale price that the market will support
  3. More unique (and free) advertising methods

 

Related read: How hometown love gave this Canadian small business a grand slam»