Q&A with Pop Up Grocer’s Emily Schildt

Emily is the Founder of Pop Up Grocer, a traveling pop-up grocery store showcasing the most exciting new brands in CPG and food and beverage.

Photo by Daniela Spector.

Tell us how you came to found the Pop Up Grocer?

I’ve worked in the CPG space, in food and beverage specifically, for the entirety of my career. And I’ve been ruminating on grocery stores for the last five years.  The place I wanted to shop in, one that housed all of the amazing products that I was privy to via my profession and was aesthetically-pleasing, didn’t exist.  As a resident of New York City — the capital of the best of everything! — I thought that was particularly shocking.  So, I was curious how I might change that. 

Simultaneously, I was working with a number of DTC brands who were struggling to engage  their target consumer solely through increasingly crowded digital channels.  In late 2018, a light bulb went off that I could create the grocery store of my dreams by positioning it as a platform for exposure and visibility for new brands — a media positioning, rather than sales.  In early 2019, I opened our first store, in NYC.

I have read that you use social media, in particular Instagram, to find many of the products you spotlight.  How do you think social media is changing how consumers interact with brands?

The storefront used to be the introductory space for brands, but now we’re discovering things on our little handheld devices.  Now, the store’s role is to strengthen or build upon that initial introduction.  So really, social media has changed the landscape of retail and the role of the store, which requires much more intimacy and emotion than its transactional nature before.

I also read that one thing you always say in your pitches is that “food is the new fashion.”  What do you mean by that?

Fashion is a business of creativity and innovation.  Its introductory platform, the fashion shows, set and inform trends in the industry.  Food is very similar, though I felt like it was missing its runway.  Sure, there are restaurants and they arguably do this, but so much in recent years has been happening in the packaged food space, specifically, that hasn’t received its rightful space for introduction.  

Also, thanks to social media, food has become a very accessible way in which to self-identity.  A $12 avocado toast says as much about you as a $500 sweater.  And, food is a great indicator of a more all-encompassing lifestyle, i.e. one of health & wellness.  As such, it has surpassed fashion in many ways to help tell the stories of our lives, or at least how we want to appear to others. 

You recently developed your first eCommerce platform, The Pop Up Grocer Box.  Is this part of an overall strategy to embrace a more digital shopping experience?

Yes and no.  We believe in brick & mortar, perhaps now more than ever.  Online shopping is convenient, but it lacks emotion.  I believe we have little to no emotional connection with, or loyalty to, the brands we experience exclusively on digital.  Thus, we exist to complement this experience.  

Our boxes exist to allow for us to broaden our reach and build our community in cities outside those where we currently have locations, and to extend our relationship with those whom we’ve met inside our stores in previous locations.  But, it exists to enhance the IRL shopping experience, not to replace it. 

How do you view the rising threat of private label products as legacy F&B companies have sophisticated their branding? 

I think staple products will have a difficult time competing with private labels, but novelty will always have a place, and will be paid for at a premium.  I also believe in the value and importance of brands… obviously 😉 I don’t believe people will find joy or excitement in buying private labels, exclusively.  They want a story, they want to support makers, they want to believe they’re contributing to something more than the success of the store in which they’re shopping.

What common thread do you see amongst the successful brands you have interacted with? 

A strong sense of self, indicated by unique, colorful, bold packaging, a responsible ingredient & nutrition makeup, and a commitment to doing better.  Just like the person in the room you’d find the most attractive or the romantic partner you’d pick — they’re confident, they’re genuine, and they make you feel like the best version of yourself.

Five years from now, what will Pop Up Grocers’ business look like?

We’ll have flagship stores that serve as reliable destinations for discovering the newest in grocery, alongside pop-ups and a thriving online presence which includes both eCommerce and community.  Or, at least, this is what my crystal ball tells me. 😉

If you could have one person attend a Pop Up Grocer store, who would it be and why?

Hm, maybe John Mackey [Co-founder & CEO of Whole Foods].  I’d be curious to see his reaction and hear what he thinks, and to be able to ask my own questions of building what he did.  Can we have lunch?  I think I’d have a lot of questions!

If you could join the crew from Inception and implant one idea into the minds of consumers, what would it be?

I wish the structure and realities of pricing were something that we all better understood.  The fact is that if you’re a small brand, making products the right way, with limited distribution, you are not going to have the economies of scale that help drive the price down.  Just as we are starting to adopt a less-is-more consciousness to shopping for apparel, we should apply this to food.  Ideally, we eat more of the things that come directly from the ground and that support our farmers, and complement them with packaged products that bring us joy, excitement, and inspiration.  And for that, we are willing to invest more in them. 

What is a particular category or trend in F&B that excites you?

Vinegar is really having a moment right now, and this, to me, is indicative of just how adventurous the baseline of consumer palettes is.

What is one belief that you have that most people would disagree with?

Grocery stores are not dead.  They are just in dire need of fresh thinking and new players.

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

Ha!  I’m literally the least spontaneous person ever.  But, I guess sometimes I don’t look at restaurant menus and just ask the waiter to give me what I should have if I were to only come here once.  Is that spontaneity? 

What is one childhood memento that you have and how does it serve you?

I think the only thing I’ve kept is this autograph book I bought with my allowance before I went to Disney World.  I had all the characters sign it, and after I got home, my friends and family members signed it.  I like looking back and thinking of little me, and the immense happiness a simple signature brought me.  It really helps put things in perspective.

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel your flow state?

I like spending a lot of time alone.  It’s important to me to have an active inner life; to be alone with my thoughts and to enrich my thinking through reading, listening, and observing.

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?

I work out, drink coffee, and eat breakfast every day.  I also make my bed every day.  If I haven’t done these things, it’s cause for alarm.

What is the last: 

TV show you binged? 

The West Wing.

Movie you watched? 

Work It, on Netflix.

Song you listened to? 

Arigato by Hank Jones.

Podcast you listened to? 

Morning Brew: Business Casual.

Book you read? 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman.

Up Next: Karen Huh, CEO of Joywell Foods

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