Photography by Andrea Fenise
“Pop-up” food experiences are, yes, popping up all over, making them one of the fastest growing trends in the food and drink industry.
Yet, as always, Memphis has her own way of making things unique for those who live, work and create here. We talked to local chefs embracing the pop-up to find out more about them and their unique takes on this trend. Here we meet Spencer Coplan, 28, chef and owner of Wok’n in Memphis, which serves a fresh take on American Chinese food. With 13 years of fine dining under his belt, he started doing monthly pop-ups in November of 2017 at Porcellino’s (which has since closed) and moved on to do regular dinners at Silly Goose, Meddlesome Brewery, Wiseacre Brewing and the South Main Market.
Edible Memphis: How do you plan your pop-ups?
Chef Spencer Coplan: I reach out to event spaces and restaurants, breweries, bars via email, word of mouth and personal connections. Once we have a location, we discuss the style of the meal—buffet, a la carte, preorder. Once the style is set, I write a menu and prep list, build a team with friends who are available to help. We go grocery shopping at Viet Hoa and the Winchester Farmer’s Market, prep and then execute the event. We do pop-ups anytime we can. Right now we’re fortunate enough to have them weekly.
EM: How did you conceptualize your pop-up?
Spencer: I enjoy cooking various cuisines. With my Jewish background, I’ve spent time focusing on Chinese food like Peking duck for Christmas dinner. Also, as a chef, I always leave work late at night when there aren’t many food options open. When I was in Seattle, however, there were tons of late-night Asian eateries. I wanted to take my concept one step further and turn it into American Chinese bar food. Who doesn’t love Chinese food with a cold beer?
So I thought, why not combine the two?
Spending the majority of my career in fine dining, I wanted to make a change and bring good quality food to people at an affordable price. We enjoy creating pop-ups, ideally wherever there’s a bar—Meddlesome Brewing or Silly Goose, for example—involved.
We create an experience. Chinese decorations, zodiac placemats, loud rock and roll music, all with a comfortable atmosphere and great service.
We want Wok’n in Memphis to be more than just a meal. We want it to be an experience.
What we serve is unique. We don’t want this to be an average dinner out. Most people have never had our versions of the menu items before.
EM: What are the benefits of doing pop-ups? Are they easier than a restaurant?
Spencer: Pop-ups are a great way to get your concept out there without fully committing to a brick and mortar. It’s also cheaper, and you can bring the concept to the people by being nomadic. Different menus and spaces create different styles for the events, which makes you figure out what works and what doesn’t.
EM: What have been some valuable lessons you’ve learned?
Spencer: Inconsistency of venue is a challenge. Not being at a confirmed location with regular business hours causes issues. Getting the people to know where and when we are popping up is key. The neighborhoods in Memphis are great, but sometimes it’s hard getting people to leave where they live. So offering variety is also key.
Working for the Enjoy A | M Restaurant Group really gave us a head start. We had a location (Porcellino’s) and we had customers (the employees from all the surrounding Enjoy A | M restaurants). This helped create a following, and we were able to branch out to other locations with the help and insight from fellow industry people.
It’s not what you know; it’s who you know!
EM: What makes Memphis an ideal place to host pop-ups?
Spencer: Memphians are always down for a good time and love to eat. Also, because the cost of living is so cheap, people can spend their money going out to eat and drink.
EM: What’s your signature dish? (pictured)
Spencer: Hash browns with scrambled eggs and green onions; breakfast egg roll with sambal mayo.
EM: What’s next for you?
Spencer: Wok’n in Memphis is opening up a permanent stand in the South Main Market. Until then, catch us there on Trolley Night, November 30th!
Andrea Fenise is the owner and creative director of AFLD Creative Agency, a multidisciplinary creative agency. She is a lover of great design, fashion and graphic, and enjoys sharing her obsession of food with her husband and daughter. Follow her local food tasting tours and candids on IG @andreafenise. www.andreafenise.com