How Pop Up Grocer curates its aisles with emerging food and snack brands
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Founded in April 2019, Emily Schildt created Pop Up Grocer to showcase unique and little-known brands—many that are marketed to appeal to a millennial audience—in food, beverage, home, pet, and body care. (Think: plant-based gelato, chickpea tortilla chips, mushroom jerky, and crackers made from seed flour.)
But this isn’t any ordinary grocery store, but rather it’s a traveling pop-up store (thus the name), and it recently launched a Chicago location in May.
Fortune recently spoke with Schildt about what it was like running a grocery business during the pandemic and plans for the summer.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Pop Up Grocer?
I’ve been in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space for the entirety of my career. At its start, I worked for a budding greek yogurt company, in a brand marketing capacity, and after that, just before Pop Up Grocer, I was operating a brand marketing consultancy which I founded, called Sourdough. (And there were a few other ventures in between.) I worked with small food and beverage companies, helping them to establish their identities, through voice, content, packaging, etc, and bring their new products to market.
It’s in that work that I came up with the idea for Pop Up Grocer. I found the retail aspect of a product launch the most lackluster and challenging. So, like a lot of entrepreneurs, I sought to build what I felt personally didn’t exist: a modern, equitable grocery experience, in alignment with the modern brands being created, and their values.
Pop Up Grocer isn’t like any normal bodega, market, or grocery store. Can you explain the inspiration for the concept? What kind of void does it fulfill that other grocery providers have missed?
Correct! We are built for discovery, as opposed to convenience. Rather than stocking our shelves with everything one might need (pantry staples, milk, toilet paper, etc.)—and arguably burying all else in the process—we present a narrow (400 versus 40,000), filtered assortment of exclusively new-to-market, better-for-you items. Our aim is to introduce people to brands that might not yet be available entirely, or can easily go unnoticed, buried on the vast shelves of a mass grocery store or in the depths of online shopping destinations.
And in return, on the flip side, we offer brands and their founders an efficient path to retail and an effective way to reach their target consumer. It’s been shocking to me to learn just how difficult it is to simply get your product in the hands of those you think would enjoy it, when considering the traditional channels for doing so.
Pop Up Grocer is becoming known for carrying items that you might not find most places, but also with a healthier twist. How do you choose which kinds of items you carry?
We select what we showcase based on three guiding criteria. First, is the brand itself or the product new? And in addition, is what is being created novel? Is it using a familiar ingredient in a non-traditional format, like cauliflower pasta, for example? Is it helping us enjoy something we’ve long put on ‘the no list,’ like candy?
Second, looking at its ingredients and sourcing, does it meet our quality standards? In a nutshell, these can be summarized as being thoughtful and responsible.
And third, does it look nice? We understand the importance of first impressions, and thus for the benefit of both our consumers and the brands (we want their products to be received well!), we ask that the packaging design be aesthetically pleasing. (Though, subjective, I know!) We also put an emphasis in our sourcing on supporting founders of color, women, and those otherwise underrepresented and under-resourced.
Pop Up Grocer recently launched a Chicago location. How did that opening go? What have you learned from previous openings that you applied in this case? Where else might you expand next?
We opened our sixth pop-up in Chicago this spring, and were for the month of May. This opening was very significant, as we saw our highest traffic and level of enthusiasm, I would say, to date. (We also saw our highest in-store sales, though as we are focused on discovery, this is not our primary metric of success.) I think this is due to a confluence of things, but perhaps most notably, an indicator of sustained excitement around grocery “post” pandemic and a real zeal for activities, having been stuck inside for a year.
It is motivating and really enlivens me about the future of the business. We’re thrilled to open again this fall, at a time where we will be on the other side of it even more, and are looking forward to sharing the details when we can. And apart from pop-ups, we’re also expanding in new physical and digital spaces.
Looking forward, where do you want to see Pop Up Grocer in five years?
I hope we will have solidified our position as the go-to place to find (and sell!) trendsetting grocery brands, not only in the US, but also Canada and Europe. And I would like to think we will have made a real difference in terms of what shoppers can expect from a grocery store experience, and in terms of helping founders catapult their businesses. I also hope we’ll still be having fun doing it!
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