UMAI – that’s the name my friend, Akira, and I chose for our pop-up restaurant centered at Brown University. In Japanese, umai means delicious, or tasty; it’s a little on the nose because we mostly make Japanese-inspired food. Our food influences are varied – Akira’s family is from India and Japan, and mine is from Israel and eastern Europe.

Photo by Uri Dickman

Before creating UMAI, Akira and I met up a couple times to make food in our dorm kitchen, including chashu and udon, chicken katsu curry, fried rice, and Hainanese chicken rice. During sophomore year, I got lucky with the housing lottery and now live in a suite with a kitchen. Our excitement about cooking skyrocketed, and we made some really delicious beef on top of rice. Then, I saw a video of my favorite YouTuber Joshua Weissman, in which he announced that he would be hosting a pop-up restaurant. I thought, could we pull this off too? Hence, UMAI was born. 

Photo by Akira Nair

PHASE I: Outreach

Our first task was to plan. The question was, how do you even make a pop-up restaurant? Of course, it had to include selling food, but how, where, and what? First, we had to decide what to cook. My favorite dish of all time is Japanese home-style curry, so we had to have that on the menu. We then decided on a really good Korean-inspired dish: a spicy beef stew with glass noodles.

For our first event, we decided that selling food super cheaply and to as many people as possible was very important in order to establish our brand. With our business model set up, we made an Instagram account, a logo, and announced our premiere.

PHASE II: Building Our Reputation

It turns out that hosting our first pop-up event on our school's main green was a good idea. We sold a small bowl of either curry or beef stew on top of rice for $3, a large bowl for $5, and a cup of iced green tea for $2 to make some extra money. We paired these along with some complimentary daikon and carrot pickles, our signature side.

After a really stressful evening of shopping in heavy rain, and an even more stressful morning of cooking at 7 a.m. and carrying the 20-pound pots of stew and curry across campus at noon, about 45 people showed up. Some friends even kindly volunteered to help us! I’d call that a success.

Photo by Erin Alexander
Photo by Erin Alexander
Photo by Erin Alexander

That said, we lost about $100 and had a ton of food left over. To avoid this major issue, we needed to have a different kind of event next time.

PHASE III: Branching Out

Our next event was more formal, but we also intended for it to highlight our cooking prowess and prove ourselves to be consistent — an important trait to have in order to ensure attendance at each of our events.

Photo by Emily Sun

On a Saturday where a hurricane nearly ran through Providence, we had four groups of four reserve a spot and come to my dorm building for a prix fixe — a meal in which the menu is pre-determined — for $16 per person (and $18 per person if the group was 3 people).

Photo by Emily Sun

For the dinner, we served miso soup, sesame-garlic broccolini, Korean-style fried chicken, and our signature fried rice. We also served a side of cabbage slaw and pickled daikon and carrots (of course), as well as mochi for dessert. If this sounds like a lot, it was. Especially in my tiny kitchen and lack of equipment.

We went shopping at the local Chinese market, Good Fortune, the night before and bought a large quantity of ingredients. We made about 15 cups of rice the night before (which ended up being way too much). The day of, we started cooking at noon and started the service at 6 pm.

Photo by Emily Sun
Photo by Emily Sun
Photo by Emily Sun

These were probably the most stressful 2 hours of the year. We were lucky enough to have 5 volunteers to help with cooking and serving food, but still, it was a stressful time. Akira’s friend Sid helped me out on the line by frying the chicken while I took care of the fried rice, broccolini, and gochujang sauce for the chicken.

Photo by Emily Sun

Akira took charge of the house, managing the people serving, asking the guests what they needed, expediting the service, and also helping out with plating the food. Again, we were so grateful for all the help we got; otherwise, our events would have been impossible.

The first table was seated at 6pm, and we had to push food out immediately. Of course, the food wasn’t ready yet, and we didn’t know how much food to give each group, so we put an absurdly large quantity of food on each plate (which we were informed was too much). Luckily, we had that constructive feedback given to us before the next group arrived. Also, our chicken wasn’t frying properly because the oil wasn’t hot enough, so it ended up getting a bit confit-ed. It ended up tasting okay, but not as good as it did for some of the other groups.

The next group arrived, and we gave them cold soup. This was something that shouldn’t have been as big a deal as the previous mistake, but I felt really disappointed about. Thankfully, they understood that we were bound to make some mistakes, and I appreciated for that. So after the first couple groups, we got the hang of things and made it through the rest of the service, with even enough food to have for ourselves.

And yet, although the guests gave us the kindest of compliments, I couldn’t shake the unwanted feeling that the food wasn’t good enough. This led me to conclude that perfectionism is unproductive. Instead of striving for perfection, I need to try my best to push out the best product that I can, people will enjoy it. After all, the food was well-priced for the quantity we served, and it tasted good. Such small and insignificant mistakes mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. This idea is easy to say, but hard to take to heart and truly feel that way.

Photo by Emily Sun

Our next pop-up event was more chill – we served latkes to celebrate Hanukkah. But to add our own UMAI touch, we made kimchi latkes with a gochujang crema to be a second option for those who wanted something different from the traditional with apple sauce and sour cream (still my personal favorite).

Again, we went shopping the night before, and began preparing at noon for our event at 3 pm. This was perhaps the most relaxed cooking session we had because prep was so much easier than the last event. Here, all we had to do was grate the potatoes and onions, squeeze out the water, and mix it with eggs (and kimchi for half of the batch). After that, we were ready to go.

All of a sudden, about 10 orders came in at once, and the stress immediately skyrocketed as we struggled to put out the first order. The oil, again, wasn’t hot enough, and the latkes themselves took about 8 minutes to cook. So, unfortunately, the first order took much longer than expected. However, after that, we finished up the other orders within 30 minutes. Other people ended up coming a little later, but with the first big group done, we had already nearly sold out. And much to our surprise, we made our first profits!

Of course, in total, we were still $100 in the hole, but our small profit was a step in the right direction. I took it as a sign that we will continue to succeed in the future.

PHASE IV: What’s next?

We have a couple goals for what we want to accomplish in the future with our pop-up. Now that we have established that we can make a profit, once we pay off our losses, we will begin to donate our profits to charity. This is both a good way to get people to come and a great way to support the broader food community. We know there are millions of people that live without the resources we at Brown have, and donating our profits will create a meaningful difference in that disparity.

Secondly, we are most excited to host a multiple-course dinner where we attempt fine dining. This is unlikely in the near future because of the difficulty of such a task, but it is definitely something that we could attempt in a year or so.

We also would love to do a fried rice extravaganza, where we would set up a cooking station on the main green and cook the rice to-order.  This is a much more doable event and one that would, much like the first event, get the word out about our pop-up.

If you would like to support us, then just follow our Instagram or show up at one of our events! If you have any questions, then let us know via Instagram as well! We hope to see you soon and to see our vision through!