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How Restaurateur Nick Badovinus’s Series of Pop-Ups Helped Him Weather the Pandemic

In addition to some much-needed revenue, the constant experimentation is keeping things exciting during these tough times

The COVID-19 pandemic came early for Dallas chef Nick Badovinus. In late March, the chef’s steakhouse Town Hearth was one of the city’s first restaurants to disclose a positive case of COVID-19 among its workers, just days after Dallas mayor Eric Johnson ordered the city’s restaurants to close their dining rooms.

Even though the first couple of months were rocky for Badovinus’s Flavorhook Restaurant Group — which also operates seafood spot Montlake Cut, steakhouse Neighborhood Services, and Greenville Avenue’s Desert Racer — the prolific Dallas restaurateur has finally found his groove during these tumultuous last few months thanks to a serious focus on fun, limited-time-only pop-ups at his existing restaurants.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Badovinus says. “With the obvious decrease in on-premise dining, we knew we had to get creative. This is actually a great time to do some things that are different, things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do when you’re trying to serve a busy dining room.”

As such, Badovinus and his staff have been experimenting — a lot. They first launched Vantina out of Desert Racer with a laid-back menu with dishes like ceviches and seafood cocktails, the iconic cheeseburger from Badovinus’s now-shuttered burger joint Off-Site Kitchen, and a Mexican riff on fried rice. Then came Ese Pollo, which slings smoked whole chickens served with tortillas, salsa verde, rice, and beans. In late August, Badovinus debuted Burrito Jamz ‘03, a Tuesday-only pop-up that serves burritos inspired by those found in San Francisco’s legendary Mission district. There’s also the Pizza Parm Project, which serves everything from chicken parmesan heroes to eggplant pizzas out of the original Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane.

A spread of heroes and pastas from the Pizza Parm Project
Pizza Parm Project [Official Photo]

Even though he’s admittedly enjoying these pop-ups, Badovinus isn’t certain that any of them will ever evolve into full-fledged restaurants. “That would mean investing a lot of dough and finding a location and all that,” he says. “The fun thing about these ideas is that the restaurant is already built, the kitchen is already there, and you’ve already got the staff trained. It allows you to have some fun without investing a lot of new capital.”

Still, though, he sees the inherent value of doing these pop-ups, both for financial reasons and for keeping his staff engaged during some truly tough times. In the coming weeks, expect even more pop-ups, including the first at Montlake Cut. “We’ve got plans in the works, and we’re always working on something different,” he says. “Any additional revenue is certainly welcome, and trying new stuff keeps us optimistic. It’s fun, and the world is certainly in short supply of that right now.”

Badovinus is a little tight-lipped when it comes to exactly how long his restaurant group can keep its establishments open given restrictions on dining capacity as the pandemic wears on, regardless of how creative they may be. The COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in the shutter of more than 16,000 restaurants across the country, dozens of which have been in Dallas.

“It’s so far out of our hands that I don’t even think about it,” he says. “We can’t change the reality of COVID as a health concern and an economic crisis, but we can do our part as a member of the community to prevent spread. You control what you can control, and you just can’t worry too much about the rest.”

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