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City Revival Through Retail: The Transformative Power of Pop-Up Stores and Restaurants

Three years on from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, many U.S. cities are still struggling. According to cell phone data analyzed by Axios, daily downtown foot traffic is down more than 50% on pre-pandemic levels in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Portland. San Francisco brings up the rear at just 32% of pre-pandemic foot traffic.


These cities suffered disproportionately as a result of the sudden work-from-home shift. Even as some big employers institute return-to-office policies, others are hesitant amid a still-tight labor market. So some of the country’s biggest municipalities are taking matters into their own hands and implementing out-of-the-box ideas to lure back daytime workers, weekend and evening visitors, and even permanent residents.


One of the most exciting and innovative initiatives — leveraging temporary retail and foodservice environments to breathe new life into forlorn urban spaces — is increasingly seen as a winning strategy to revitalize forlorn downtowns. We’ve been working on this problem at xNomad for years and have seen amazing results across Europe, and we’re seeing incredible results on this side of the pond.


Let’s take a look at the success stories that have “popped up” in San Francisco, Denver, Boston, and Chicago, and see what they might mean for future urban revitalization initiatives.


“Vacant to Vibrant” in San Francisco


In San Francisco, a painful “tech-cession” plus top employers’ seemingly permanent work-from-home policies equals a recipe for downtown decline.


Or does it? SF New Deal’s wildly successful “Vacant to Vibrant” pop-up retail program, which has significant support from city government, begs to differ. Providing stipends up to $8,000 for pop-up entrepreneurs in the retail, food and beverage, and arts and entertainment categories. Each recipient gets an opportunity to work their magic for three months in formerly vacant storefronts – and hopefully to parlay their success into more permanent shops, galleries, and restaurants.


Last spring, Vacant to Vibrant’s first round drew 900 applicants for just 15 spots. That demonstrates incredible pent-up demand among the city’s vibrant communities of artists, makers, and culinary innovators. And it’s a hopeful sign for downtown San Francisco’s future.


Explorers and Makers in Downtown Denver


A similar initiative is underway in downtown Denver. Popup Denver, a partnership between Denver Economic Development & Opportunity and the Downtown Denver Partnership, aims to fill vacant storefronts on the city’s iconic 16th Street Mall with a mix of retail, culinary, and maker-space environments. It recently closed a second wildly successful funding round. Many of its first-round finalists are already building on the buzz built around their appearances. 


Popup Denver’s most exciting feature might be the intense amount of hands-on support — far beyond financial grants — it gives to makers who’ve developed workable products but haven’t yet opened physical storefronts. Entrepreneurs like these are the future of small-scale urban retail, and it’s exciting to see key city stakeholders stepping up to help them.


Professional Pop-Up Services in Boston


If anyone understands the need to make a buck, it’s pop-up entrepreneurs. Those based in Boston — and willing and able to pay seasoned professionals to do the hard work of scouting locations, dreaming up branded signage and decor, and navigating municipal red tape — have a friend in Boston Pop-up.


Boston Pop-up has been in the pop-up services niche for nearly 10 years, since long before work-from-home drained central Boston of its mojo. The company arguably knows its home city better than any similar organization elsewhere. Not that it has many peers, which is a problem in and of itself. 


Hey, maybe there’s an opportunity there.


Serving Up Success in Chicago


Chicago is doing its best to move past its reputation for red tape with the city-sponsored Chicago Pop-up Initiative. The program aims to streamline licensing and regulation for small retail and foodservice businesses. Pop-up restaurants get an especially sweet deal, as they’re exempt from the city’s cumbersome location-based licensing requirements. That’s driving a wave of food entrepreneurship in the heart of America’s third-largest city.

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