A Black Market Pops Up in Madison

photo by JonAnne G. Walters

The foodie underground has officially taken no prisoners, and while it may not be as menacingly effective as the legendary French resistance, that's exactly where the inspiration derives for Black Market Madison.

A "pop-up" restaurant run by Chef Greg Walters and wine connoisseur Justin Time, Black Market Madison seeks to elevate dining in Madison on its own terms. If you think pop-up restaurants are nothing but glorified dinner parties, you have to consider the revolution going on in the food industry — from the way food is processed to the way it's consumed. Pop-up restaurants are definitely more of an "underground" dining experience, right up the alley of local foodies who have embraced the buy-local and "slow-food" dining concepts.

"I think it works in Madison based on the fact we have an incredible food culture in this city," Walters said. "Madison has always been supportive of alternative business models, and people like trying new things in this city. They are not afraid of going to dinner with 20 people they don't know and trying something new."

According to Time, the beauty of the pop-up restaurant is two-fold: first, there is the romance and drama inherent in the one-night-only dining experience in an intimate, shared space with like-minded culinary adventurers.

Second, there is the practical aspect of getting the operators' vision in front of interested diners, without the overhead and time commitment of permanently securing a venue — at least for now.

For Walters and Time, it's a thrill to introduce something to Madison that often is only attempted in much larger markets like New York, Chicago, and London. Time quoted Alan Philips, founder of the Hunger Pop-Up Series in New York City, who summed up the concept from a New York perspective:

"The goal is to create memorable culinary and social moments that exist briefly and then disappear. Each evening will be set up like a fabulous dinner party, where all the guests sit at the same time and simultaneously share an evening. Like a dinner party, guests will be encouraged to interact, and will leave with only a memory of the experience that will never be exactly replicated again — a moment, similar to the many great moments that take place every day in New York, which fade out as quickly as they 'pop up.'"

According to Walters, most parties are in the range of 20 to 25 people, although it can vary by venue. Customer demographics are all across spectrum, including professors, students, young professionals, matures, and even people with food allergies. Their common characteristics: a love of food and conversation.

The partners are not averse to catering for even smaller, more intimate settings — say a man proposing marriage to a lady — but the ultimate goal is to generate enough business to establish a restaurant down the road.

Their business model incorporates the use of social media as marketing tools to build a brand at lower cost than traditional avenues. The investment required to start a restaurant — ventilation hoods alone costs $70,000 — is formidable, especially if you do it cold, without prior audience recognition.

This way, they can gradually build a brand for Black Market Madison, continue to develop their culinary skills by working full time at other local restaurants, and eventually get to the point where a permanent facility is realistic. Think of it as a way to incubate the restaurants of the future.

Hanging Overhead

In the restaurant trade, Walters said food costs should be 30% of the expense of a dish. The other components are labor and basic overhead costs, which can really add up. Since virtually everyone who works for Black Market Madison is working on voluntary basis, and since there is no structural overhead, most everything (including expensive, high-end ingredients) can be "poured" into the five-course meals that cost about $40 each. The meals, usually based on a theme, are prepared at various restaurant kitchens around town, and then transported to the site of the dinner gathering.

In what some would consider a professional heresy, many of the restaurants Black Market chefs cook in are owned by friends and associates, but food service in Madison is apparently more tight-knit than most industries. "What we're doing is stepping into an experimental form of brand-building in trying to maintain our overhead as low as possible and without any real investiture of hard capital," Walters explained. "We own the equipment we work with, but for the most part we are using [restaurant] venues allocated to us by friends, and word-of-mouth relationships."

Walters, who does not have a culinary degree, already works in two different kitchens, including The Weary Traveler. He grew up in a home with parents who loved to cook, and food was a constant topic of conversation once initial pleasantries were out of the way. Justin Time (he was not named for the old Dean Martin song) serves as the restaurant's wine expert. He didn't have much working knowledge of fine dining until he started working at the recently closed Restaurant Magnus, where he learned to think outside the box. He eventually fell in love with wine, serving as a wine steward at Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro, and came to appreciate how creatively combining fine dining and fine wine can be a true art form. Another business partner, Andrew Schmidt, works in product testing at Epic Systems, another Madison-area business known for creative applications.

"We all have the 40-hour work week that we're doing this around," Walters noted. "So we have to wisely choose how to invest our time."

And money. Wine, for example, is handled on a "bring-your-own beverage" basis. Once Walters designs the menu, Time's job is to recommend a wine to go with it. The BYOB system enables Black Market Madison to interact with local businesses Star Liquor and Cork 'n Bottle by sending diners their way for the recommended wine. They don't impose the wine on anyone, nor do they pressure people to even buy wine or beer or any other beverage, but beverages are a cost of doing business — a diminishing investment as soon as the cork is popped — and this way, diners are more likely to get better price and value for their beverage.

When Time first approached Cork 'n Bottle, they thought he was trying to sell them something. Now when Black Market Madison customers come in, they point out specific wines and even had a display of beverages "that go with a Black Market dinner," Time said. "It's a synergistic relationship."

In addition to word-of-mouth advertising, Black Market "marketing" consists of a website, e-mail blasts, and Facebook and Twitter appeals, which also help to keep overhead low. Even though most of the back office work is done on paper, the company exists electronically, not as a physical entity. Andrew Schmidt manages PayPal so that diners can order tickets online.

The fact that pop-up events often are tied to philanthropy doesn't hurt Black Market's appeal. The partners started working with nonprofit groups, including the Rubber Soul dinner, an umbrella group for a variety of charities, dinners for relief efforts in Rwanda and South Africa, and the Salvation Army's temporary living shelter. They have yet to be approached for business events.

Underground Dining

The name Black Market Madison comes from Walter's fondness for romantic stories of underground defiance from World War II, when the great hotels of Paris would hide "all the good stuff" in the walls. So while Nazi officers chowed down on potatoes and sausage, hotel patrons would enjoy grander meals in the privacy of their hotel rooms.

In addition, there is a collection of designers and artists in Singapore who called themselves Black Market, and the restaurant partners like the of the idea of young people doing something new and, in the process, changing the way things are done.

"The last two or three dinners, we've seen a bit of groundswell in terms of more people magically seeking us out or moving beyond the word-of-mouth we have going on," Time said. "I've been pleasantly surprised that people we didn't know have found us."

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