It’s 4:30 a.m. and the workday isn’t even halfway over for Alec Rutter and Kimberly Chaurette.
Rutter stands in a haze of flour and cornmeal tending a 750-degree Fahrenheit wood-fired oven. Steps away, Chaurette is putting the finishing touches on a batch of buttery sticky buns. Before their day ends at 11:00 a.m., they will have boiled, baked, and sold more than 200 bagels and sticky buns.
Rutter and Chaurette are the team behind Rover Bagel, which, since September, has been popping up four days each week inside Bambolina, a Salem restaurant known for its wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza. The couple, who also work at Bambolina, specialize in Montreal-style bagels: naturally leavened using Rutter’s own sourdough starter, soft and chewy on the inside, with a blistered, almost charred exterior.
Rover is part of a larger wave of pop-up restaurants in Salem—and across the North Shore—that are giving diners creative takes on familiar foods, offered up in unusual settings.
“The first weekend we were like, ‘Oh my God!’” says Chaurette about Rover’s rapid growth.
And elsewhere on the North Shore, you’ll find another pop-up created by a young couple, which has exploded in popularity since opening last fall.
Goodnight Fatty makes the kind of cookies (they call them “fatties”) we all crave: warm and gooey and always stuffed with a rotating line of flavors, from Oreo pudding to dark chocolate cherry to pumpkin crème snickerdoodle. The pop-up launched from Salem’s Derby Joe coffee shop, and is now popping up at locations around the North Shore—even offering deliver of its cookies.
“The party line from customers is that it smells incredible in here,” says Erik Sayce, who runs Goodnight Fatty along with his fiancée, Jennifer Pullen. “We’ve gotten so many people who have said, ‘This is the best cookie I’ve ever had.’ I don’t think we’ll ever get used to that.”
And the appeal extends beyond the cookies. Sayce and Pullen began selling their cookies from the Derby Joe coffee shop on Friday and Saturday nights. One evening there’s an eclectic mix of customers: Teens sit at the bar eating cookies and drinking bottomless glasses of milk, 20- and 30-somethings mingle at nearby tables playing board games, and a young mother walks in with two kids in tow.
Sayce compares the atmosphere to a Pixar movie, saying that everyone—no matter the age—can feel at home there; it’s a magical experience for kids and entertaining for adults. “It brings people back to childhood so quickly,” Pullen says.
Rutter and Chaurette agree that their success also goes beyond the food. The people behind the bagels and cookies are part of the story, and a draw for repeat customers and new customers.
“The response has been incredible. And having familiar faces come out week after week, it’s been overwhelming. Even new faces. When people come and say it’s their first time here, that’s awesome,” says Rutter.
A Growing Trend
Rover Bagel and Goodnight Fatty aren’t alone in finding pop-up success. Po’ Boys and Pies has recently served up its southern sandwiches and sides at Opus restaurant and Notch Brewery & Taproom in Salem. Also making the rounds is Jaju, which serves up its Polish pierogi at farmers’ markets and breweries, including the recently opened Gentile Brewing in Beverly.
For budding restaurateurs it’s easy to see the appeal of the pop-up format. It offers creative freedom with low financial risk.
Rutter and Chaurette have experience at bakeries across New England, including Forge in Somerville, and even briefly ran a pizza pop-up. One day they hope to open a brick-and-mortar shop, but in the meantime working out of Bambolina gives them a chance to hone their product and business model.
Sayce and Pullen agree that the pop-up model allows them to take chances they couldn’t otherwise pursue—starting with their name.
“If we had a $200,000 investment in this, I can almost guarantee we wouldn’t name it Goodnight Fatty. We would have gone the safe route,” explains Sayce, who says the idea for Goodnight Fatty came out of a late-night, post-dinner craving for cookies. “I think a lot of people could see themselves doing something like this. It’s the realization of all those conversations you have when you’re walking home from dinner—all the ideas you spout out.”
While Rutter and Chaurette have their sights set on a shop of their own, the team behind Goodnight Fatty plans to stick with the pop-up model, while balancing their full-time jobs at the Salem Academy Charter School.
A key part of the success for Rover Bagel and Goodnight Fatty is the owners of the restaurants and shops that helped them launch.
Rutter and Chaurette connected with Tim Haigh and Larry Leibowitz, the owners of Bambolina, thanks to a tip from Salem’s Ward 2 city councillor, Heather Famico. There was an almost instant bond, says Chaurette. “We showed up to do a test bake at midnight on a random night and he just said, ‘Cool. I’ll see ya. Go out the back door when you’re done.’”
Sayce and Pullen say there was a similar trust with Dan Crowther, the owner of Derby Joe. Sayce had already been a frequent customer of the shop when he and Pullen brought Crowther a warm cookie to pitch the pop-up idea. They say he was instantly sold. “Dan has that willing-to-try-anything attitude,” says Pullen.
And that describes how customers across Salem and the North Shore have reacted to the pop-ups. Rutter, Chaurette, Sayce, and Pullen are all in their late 20s, and they say that among friends and customers there’s a growing desire for “big city” experiences, even in a smaller community like Salem. Part of it is the food. But it’s also the sense of vibrancy that comes from pop-ups and other creative ventures.
“People in [Salem] want this to succeed,” Pullen says. “And they tell us how excited they are that this is here. And they start talking about other stuff that’s happening in Salem and they get so excited.”
Rover Bagel at Bambolina
288 Derby St., Salem
7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
Goodnight Fatty, Various locations across the North Shore
Friday and Saturday
7:00 p.m. to Midnight