Inside track by Mark Wingett If I casually uttered the names Lupa, Ortega, Al Rollo and Franny’s, you might think I’m naming the back four from Italy’s World Cup team of 1990. (Maldini, Baresi, Bergomi and Ferrera, in fact). No, the names at the top of this piece have been, at some time or another, an incubator brand; test concepts that restaurant operators have tried at one or more sites to establish the merits of a further roll out (or not). Some have snuck under the radar. For years, it has been rumoured that the Ground Burger restaurant in Chiswick is the work of Adam and Sam Kaye and had been opened in response to the spate of burger concepts that sprung up from the mid-2000s onwards. The rumours have never been confirmed and the anticipated rollout has never materialised, although the restaurant remains a good-quality business. Others have laid the groundwork before being superseded by formats more in tune with consumer tastes. Gondola launched its Jo Shmo’s burger concept in the early 2000s. The trial concept, which won M&C’s Best Emerging Concept award in 2004, grew to around five sites before being replaced by the new and improved Byron brand, which will open its 14th site in London next month. Gondola, master of the incubator brand, also launched Lupa, a pizza delivery brand, and Al Rollo, its pizza-by-the-metre format, at the same time as Jo Shmo’s - both dipped their toes in the water, but have since disappeared. Some have got to the brink of chain status and then seemingly gone back to the drawing board. Step forward Ortega, the Tragus Group’s tapas chain, which had reached seven sites, but now stands at three with its development on hold but not completely forgotten. The recession and the squeeze on consumer spending has seen the majority of the established operators sensibly go back to basics and return to rolling out and refreshing their core brands. This is not the climate for taking risks. However, it does seem the climate for pop up restaurants. Word of mouth, some ingenuity, a good product, the need for landlords to trade otherwise dead space and the power of social media, is allowing pop up restaurants to also launch in pubs and in prominent locations. #MEATEASY was the word on everyone’s lips at the start of the year. Formerly operating from a street-food van, this burger concept relocated to above Capital Pub Company’s Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross. Through some clever twitter-influenced hype, it had punters, food bloggers and journalists queuing up to be part of what has been described as a restaurant “event” rather than experience. Due to close this month, it is thought to be looking for a more permanent base. The pop-up remains a great way to test a particular market, a point Giraffe co-founder Russel Joffe would certainly agree with, after the success of Franny’s, his Italian pop-up concept, which has been trading in Frith Street, Soho. Formerly a Paramount Restaurant site, trading under the Bertorelli brand, it was acquired by Giraffe late last year. While the company explored new design variations for its core brand, the interim period has allowed Joffe to try out Franny’s, which offers fresh home-made pizzas, pasta and grills. This has provided the company with the opportunity to understand in a real world environment, which approaches to menu, design and price point worked best for the format. The site will convert to the Giraffe format – a new New York-inspired design but with a “Soho tweak” – in May, but we may not have seen the end of Franny’s. Joffe said: “It was a fun concept that traded successfully and it may be something we can look at doing more with in the future.” And it is not the only concept that Giraffe has up its sleeve. Joffe is also pleased with the trading performance at Guerilla Burgers, the company’s West Coast of America-inspired restaurant in James Street. Like Franny’s, Joffe said that there was a possibility of opening up others sites under the brand, but that Giraffe, “remains our growth concept”. All-day Italian café chain Carluccio’s also explored the pop-up route in the lead up to last Christmas, with three sites in shopping centres – Bristol’s Cabot Square, Manchester’s Trafford Centre and Cardiff’s St Davids. All traded well and boosted brand awareness, and it is thought that the company will look at doing something similar later this year. The pop-up trend has given established operators the perfect platform to flex their creative muscles and increase brand awareness. Expect a few more to pop-up over the coming months.