As part of the BBVA Compass series on pop-up shop entrepreneurs, we spoke with Josh Haynes, owner and chef at Alloy Thai in Birmingham. A BBVA Compass customer since he was a teenager, Josh plans to work with the bank to fund his brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The ‘pop-up dinner’
While attending school in Bangkok, Thailand, Josh Haynes experienced a style of Thai food that was much different—and better—than he had expected in the riceand- curry shops tucked away in private residences. That exotic palate of flavors served as the guide for his Birmingham restaurant.
“The ‘pop-up dinner’ was an idea I was exposed to the first time I was living in Bangkok,” says Haynes. “I had only two English-language channels, China Central Television and BBC World, and I saw this program about people in Hong Kong and Shanghai who were running restaurants out of their apartments.”
After returning to Alabama from Thailand, the idea simmered on the backburner for years, until eventually, Haynes realized he couldn’t ignore his gnawing desire to bring a more traditional style of Thai food back to Alabama and the United States. Eager to start his own restaurant, Haynes participated in CO.STARTERS, a program that guides aspiring entrepreneurs by walking them through the process of opening a business. “Ideally, you start in the smallest, easiest way possible to expose people to your idea or product,” Haynes says. “That was one of the biggest things I learned.”
Why a pop-up restaurant?
A pop-up restaurant was, in his words, “naturally the best way to begin marketing the restaurant, building a reputation, and getting food in people’s mouths.” Haynes started by inviting friends and family over to his Southside apartment, and in exchange for free food, he asked for advice. “I asked everything from ‘What do they look for in a restaurant?’ to the value of service, convenience, etc., and gathered feedback,” says Haynes.
Finding the perfect pop-up spot
Soon after the supper clubs in his apartment took off, Haynes expanded his test market and exposure by setting up pop-up restaurants at Birmingham breweries and street markets. “The pop-ups have been mutually beneficial,” says Haynes. “The breweries provide me with an audience that’s already there, and I provide food for their customers. It’s a good symbiotic relationship—and generally there are no costs in terms of the venue, just the cost of the food and equipment.”
More control, more work
Haynes’ one-man operation enables him to better control costs, he says. “With a pop-up restaurant, you can limit costs almost as much as you want. That’s one of the appealing things about doing business in this limited, small way. You don’t have to have a huge amount of cash or a deep-pocketed investor. You can make it work on your terms, and at whatever scale is most comfortable for you.”
But the affordability typically translates into more work and effort for Haynes. “I do pop-ups like a traditional rice-and-curry shop. I place pots of curries on oldfashioned clay burners, and keep Thai salads cold on buckets of ice. I pack everything in the car, and unpack it.”
The limited operation also means he can’t always satisfy demand. Once, he sold out in a mere 50 minutes. The buzz about Alloy Thai’s food — and limited supply— turned out to be a good thing; people now flock to Haynes’ pop-ups, hoping to get a place in line before he runs out.
Challenges of a small-scale restaurant
While Haynes often hires a server or cashier to help him at events, he does much of the work himself—which can be a challenge. His love of authentic Thai food and aspiration to open a full-scale restaurant, however, make the effort worth it. “It’s hard to juggle everything when you’re one person,” he says. “You’re trying to fulfill multiple roles like marketing, scheduling dinners for clients, paying bills, and doing the shopping. The easiest part is the cooking.”
Working toward a brick-and-mortar location
For Haynes, a brick-and-mortar restaurant has always been the goal. But for now, he’s enjoying his current success and waiting for the right opportunity and location.
“Sometimes I experience this ‘fear of missing out’ about getting my restaurant into the right neighborhood. But then I realize, I don’t need to rush into a situation where I’m taking on debt and risk. That’s why this small-scale approach is perfect for the moment. There’s a limit to how much I can grow and make money with this model, but as long I can keep building momentum, a brick-and-mortar restaurant will come.”