Kansas City is making it easier for pop-up businesses to get off the ground
The city council recently approved the creation of a permit for pop-up vendors to sell food at events, paving the way for many local entrepreneurs.
Nestled inside Casual Animal Brewing Co. in the Crossroads — away from the searing 90-degree heat — is the three-person team of Tacos Valentina.
They’re commanding the bar on the right side of the brewery: Rogelio Avila is pressing tortillas made from freshly milled masa. Kendra Valentine, his fiancee, is taking orders and spooning elotes into paper cups. In between them, Pablo Muñoz is filling the freshly pressed tortillas with shredded, juicy barbacoa or mushrooms.
In addition to the elotes and street tacos, Tacos Valentina is serving tetelas: a triangle-shaped masa treat filled with refried beans and Oaxaca cheese.
This is a normal Thursday for Tacos Valentina. As a pop-up business, Tacos Valentina doesn’t have a brick and mortar restaurant of its own, nor does it operate a food truck. It operates in different spaces, partnering with local businesses and events where they can bring their traditional Mexican dishes and sell them to hungry customers.
And Tacos Valentina is not the only small food business to navigate the pop-up world. Driven in part by the pandemic, entrepreneurs in Kansas City have formed pop-up businesses to share their food and goods at local events or businesses.
“It's like this new wave of new innovation,” Avila said. “The people love it. They really like the idea of these new, different types of food being available without having to invest in the time of being inside a fine dining restaurant.”
But, until recently, Kansas City, Missouri, has never created a specific permitting process for pop-up food vendors; there were only permits for brick and mortar spaces or food trucks. It’s led to obstacles for small pop-ups and sparked hesitation among some businesses to show up at events. For others, the confusing process has led to shut-downs by the Kansas City Health Department.
That’s changing now, as the City Council last week passed an ordinance that would establish a permitting process for pop-up vendors.
“What this will do is it will give these mobile food vendors the opportunity to do this at up to three locations, under one permit, for the entire year,” said 4th District Councilman Eric Bunch, who sponsored the ordinance. “So that's the big change here, and it's gonna allow these folks to get one inspection and one permit.”
For Avila, supporting pop-ups — including their ability to legally operate in the city — is about supporting entrepreneurs.
“It's more exposure — people come in, they try the food and they're like, ‘Oh my god, this is great, Kansas City needs this. I'm willing to invest in you to make this happen more,’” he said. “Also, it's a full embrace of culture — a lot of people who are doing pop-ups are fully embracing their culture, and they're bringing out an idea that they are 100% passionate about, and they're just like throwing it out there.”
Before the pop-up ordinance passed, businesses like Tacos Valentina would have to apply for a permit for every event they attended. And for businesses that had a more regular pop-up schedule — like popping up at a local brewery once a week — that process was cumbersome.
“What was happening is that every single one of these events was a separate permit,” Bunch said. “And so they were being required to apply for this permit and pay the fee each time, even if it was in the same place, every single time.”
Bunch said the new permitting process strikes a balance where the city still follows the food safety rules outlined by the Food and Drug Administration.
But some of the previous confusion around permits for pop-up businesses like Tacos Valentina had made it difficult to keep appearing at Kansas City, Missouri, events. And there was always the fear that a KCMO health department inspector would shut down a pop-up at the last minute.
Avila said there was one week where they decided to cancel a pop-up event because of concerns over a Health Department shutdown.
“To have that happen to you is almost like, how do you explain that to the general public or at least the people that were there that saw that,’” Avila said. “That's always been one of those constant fears.”
It was frustrating for Montana Mckenzie to figure out the health department’s permits for their pop-up, Spicy Moon Foods.
“I'm also a full-time parent. I don't have time to get down to the health department,” they said. “It's so confusing when you go online. You have to have someone explain it.”
Then the health department showed up at a pop-up event and shut down Spicy Moon Foods, which sells vegan and gluten-free dishes. There’s a lot at stake when a pop-up is shut down — from money lost on the costs of the permit and the food to a loss of opportunity from missing out on potential customers.
“If you have something that's off, you don't get approved and you're done, and you are out all that money,” McKenzie said.
For pop-up businesses like Spicy Mama’s Salsa, the confusion around permits on the Missouri side was enough to push founder Angelica Michel to only attend pop-up events in Johnson or Wyandotte counties.
She’s been appearing regularly at the weekly farmer’s market at the KC Farm School since last summer.
“The health department, I'll say, doesn't make it easy,” she said. “I always got a different answer each time I called on what I needed to do. Now I have a commercial kitchen. It's just taking a minute for it to get inspected. … I can't wait for them to approve me.”
Bringing something new to the table
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Kansas Citians like Michel to start their own businesses. For Michel, it began with a pandemic garden.
Experimenting with produce to make salsa took Michel back to her childhood.
“I like to experiment, bring something new to the table,” she said. “That's why I'm doing this, ‘cause I wanna bring, essentially, my childhood to people's tables.”
Spicy Mama’s Salsa, like many pop-ups, is a one-person operation: Michel buys the ingredients, makes the salsa, does the marketing, runs the social media and attends every pop-up. Michel still works her full-time job while running Spicy Mama’s Salsa — her eventual goal is to sell her jars of salsa in local stores.
Ameet Malhotra and his business, Elephant Wings, are new to the pop-up world, too. Malhotra started his business as a personal chef.
After being laid off at Hallmark months before the pandemic began, Malhotra saw it as his opportunity to make Elephant Wings his full-time job.
“I could do it on my own time,” he said. “I like the flexibility.”
On a Friday afternoon, Malhotra is busy putting together Indian-style tacos — cumin chicken with corn, beef kheema with coriander chutney, paneer with mango and tomatoes — at Afterword Tavern & Shelves in the Crossroads.
Malhotra describes his cooking as “homestyle Indian food, but with a twist.”
Showcasing culture through food
For many pop-ups in Kansas City, attending events and partnering with businesses is one way to showcase a cultural background through food.
That was the case for Avila and Muñoz with Tacos Valentina, both of whom are Mexican-American.
“We have always dreamt of having a restaurant business with a late-night option,” Avila said. “Because back home in Dallas, there's late-night taco spots everywhere. And we were like, ‘Man, Kansas City really needs something like that, because that's a great thing to have.’”
The three-person team also wanted to find a way to strike a balance between work and life, a difficult goal to achieve in the grueling restaurant world.
“We were trying to find a solution to the big restaurant problem,” Avila said. “It's hard to find a good balance between life and work when it comes to restaurants and being quote unquote ‘veterans’ of the industry, we were trying to find something where we can make a system more obtainable and more efficient for everyone.”
Avila said being a pop-up allows them to experiment with different dishes, like tetelas.
“People love it. They’ve never seen it before,” he said. “It brings us a lot of joy because it's like, man, this is something that is very Mexican and that a lot of people have never experienced.”
Michel feels similarly about Spicy Mama Salsa. She likes the pop-up style because it reminds her of the street markets in Mexico, and she hopes to bring a taste of that culture to Kansas City.
“Whenever I'm in Mexico, there’s vendors everywhere — that is what they're known for,” Michel said. “You can find the best street tacos there and find people doing art in the street. So it's kind of like trying to bring that culture over here.”