Darling shifts from pop-up to stay-up

· The Pulse

After testing their idea with a pop-up at Take Care Café in 2021, the owners of Darling are looking forward to opening their own place on Whyte Avenue.

The restaurant with a focus on natural wine, which is aiming to open in April at 9616 82 Avenue NW, is the latest example of an Edmonton eatery that has made the journey from pop-up to stay-up.

"We know people will come," said Justin Jones, who started the restaurant with his husband, Derrick, plus two silent investors. "They came for the pop-up, so we have the proof, we have the numbers that say people did show up."

The couple discovered their love of natural wine on their honeymoon, said Jones, who has an extensive background in hospitality management for restaurants such as Biera, Blind Enthusiasm Brewing, and Café Bicyclette.

Because natural wine (essentially wine without much intervention such as added preservatives) is a niche market, it would have been a risk to leap right into restaurant ownership. Their friends at Take Care Café, which is usually closed at night, offered them the opportunity to run a pop-up in their space across the street from where Darling Restaurant will be.

"It was just a great suggestion on their part to be willing to let us use that space, kind of test out the market, test out the concept, and see if people will come," Jones told Taproot. "It was a happy middle ground of like, 'Hey, let's test this out, let's have some fun. We'll invest in it, but only so much so that we can see how it goes, and if it goes south, then that's OK.'"

Arden Tse and his partners ran a similar playbook with Prairie Noodle Shop back in 2013-2014, before Edmonton had any dedicated ramen shops. Pop-ups gave them a chance to run a minimum-viable-product version of their concept, leveraging other people's social media accounts and clearly communicating the story of the Prairie Noodle brand without having to invest in their own brick-and-mortar location.

"It was a way for us to not only build up momentum and interest but also attract other investors," said Tse.

A portrait of Justin and Derrick Jones holding  wine glasses in the courtyard at Take Care Café

Darling Restaurant co-owners Justin (left) and Derrick Jones knew they could hack it as a standalone restaurant after trying out pop-up experiences at Take Care Café. (Supplied)

And it worked. New investors joined, and by pop-up No. 4, Tse announced that Prairie Noodle Shop would have its own space, opening on 124 Street in 2015.

That's not to say that starting with a pop-up guarantees long-term success. Due in part to pandemic-related struggles and uncertainty, Tse and his team shuttered Prairie Noodle in October 2020.

"I don't regret the restaurant closing, and I think I would have regretted not trying," said Tse, who has been an investment manager with Yaletown Partners since 2019.

It could be argued that Prairie Noodle Shop paved the way for Edmonton's now plentiful ramen scene, as well as Kasey Ramen, which has seen considerable success as a pop-up, though it hasn't made the leap to restaurant status.

Sometimes pop-ups outlast the restaurants that gave them their start. Northern Chicken debuted at a pop-up at Dovetail Deli in 2016. Dovetail is no more (though Kara and Nevin Fenske's Drift Food Truck and Eatery is still a going concern). But Northern Chicken now has two locations.

A pop-up is a learning experience. Along the way, the Joneses learned they wanted to appeal to families like them — they have a young child — and not just serious oenophiles.

When Darling opens in mid-April, it will be as a casual restaurant, serving dinner as well as lunch on weekdays and brunch on weekends.

"We dropped the 'Wine Bar' for a few reasons. First off was the approachability of it," Jones said. "We thought, 'Let's create a space for those people, just like us, that are looking for a place where their toddler can bring a toy truck, and they can have a glass of wine.'"