“Pop-ups” have been a Baltimore thing since before that phrase existed. For a century or more, vendors have hustled Baltimore’s streets to sell snowballs, crab cakes, oysters and more.

This year, the number of pop-ups in Baltimore is truly eye-popping. They are reinvigorating the city’s vacant spaces and serving everything from buttermilk biscuits to Neapolitan pizza. At a time when restaurant owners are feeling the strain of inflation and high operating costs, the pop-up model offers a low-commitment means to set up shop and explore new markets.

“The entry point is low,” said Ed Bosco, whose Verde just helped launch a pop-up pizzeria called Key Neapolitan at a former gas station along Key Highway. The cost of launching the project, minus rental of an oven and the land, was about $5,000 — a fraction of what opening a traditional restaurant would have cost. “You don’t have to buy a building, you don’t need a mortgage,” Bosco said, especially when interest rates are rising.

Key Neapolitan’s pies are baked in a portable brick oven; customers can take them to go or gobble them up at a picnic table on the property. During a recent visit, young kids played cornhole while dogs on leashes lounged beneath tables where their owners ate pizzas and drank beers. The Key Highway stand sold 188 pies its first Friday night in operation, and Bosco said it’s allowed his Canton restaurant to reach a new segment of the city. Even the developer who owns the property is impressed that Verde’s team took a “vacant, piece of shit gas station and turned it into a beautiful streetscape,” Bosco said.

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Views of 1302 Key Highway, which was formerly a gas station.
Key Neapolitan occupies the spot at 1302 Key Highway, which was formerly a gas station. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

While awaiting construction on her own brick-and-mortar eatery along the Inner Harbor, baker Amanda Mack is hosting a weekly pop-up bake shop just outside the space, near the Cheesecake Factory. In addition to bringing in revenue for her small business, Crust By Mack, while construction is completed, the Saturday pop-up allows her to spark buzz and connect with longtime customers to get them used to coming down to the area. Some, she said, haven’t been downtown since before the pandemic. The initiative has the support of developer P. David Bramble, who Mack said “was very intentional about bringing the life back to Inner Harbor.”

Thanks to the pop-up, Mack said she’s also getting her name in front of a new audience: tourists hungry for a taste of authentic local flavors and experiences. “We’re definitely connecting with a lot of people we’ve never met,” she said. She’s working on a guide to the area’s Black-owned businesses just for visitors.

Southern Living’s 2021 Cook of the Year: Amanda Mack show’s off some of her baked goods under the pavillion of her new retail space in the redeveloped Harborplace waterfront in Baltimore, MD., on March 11, 2023.
Amanda Mack awaits the construction of her new brick-and-mortar shop in Harborplace. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

Even Baltimore’s storied ballpark has gotten in on the pop-up action, hosting a rotating cast of local businesses inside what was previously Camden Yards’ Charm City Diner. During Opening Day weekend, Highlandtown bistro Sally O’s served up smashburgers, pork rind nachos and a “walking mac ‘n cheese” inside a waffle cone bowl to hungry attendees. “It was definitely cool points” for the business to be at the Yard as the Orioles beat the Yankees, owner Jesse Sandlin said.

Logistically, though, it was a challenge, including having ingredients delivered to the stadium and finding staff for the busy stand, which was “just slammed” during the weekend, Sandlin said. And Levy, in its first year as the stadium’s concession provider, “didn’t have a lot of advice” about what the business owners should expect.

And pop-ups don’t preclude more permanent restaurants in the future. Bosco said the success of his Key Highway pop-up makes him interested in opening a branch of his restaurant in Federal Hill: “We’re trying to figure out what’s next.”

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The temperate weather, too, has helped, as Bosco worries a bit about how to manage in super-hot temperatures. Pizza dough rises in heat like Flubber, he said, so Bosco is looking at vertical air conditioners to keep the dough from expanding too much. It would also help staff stay cool — no small consideration at a time of labor shortages.

“This is really an experiment with good food,” he said.


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