Fans tracking Seattle’s abundance of popups this past year know the cycle: Elation upon learning about a new burger/breakfast sandwich/barbecue/naturally fermented pizza/Latin drinking snack popup. Optimism that its rotating schedule must surely include a stop near your house.
And, the inevitable outcome: Of course. They’re at Fair Isle Brewing.
Seattle is rich in roving food projects. But the Ballard taproom claims an unusual concentration of great ones. First came last summer’s breakout favorite Rough Draft Burger Shop, smashing its patties to rapt crowds. Next, Brothers and Co. with their shio koji fried chicken and kimchi queso. By the end of the year, Lupe Flores was frying her Lebanese-Mexican crunchy tacos, while Sundays were all about Karachi Cowboys’ Pakistani soul food.
This year, even Melissa Miranda was there, setting aside her regularly scheduled grueling restaurant routine at Musang to flip burgers on the driveway grill. In January, she revived Musangtino’s, the popup she once ran with longtime friend Jeff Santos. The menu—Filipinx spaghetti, a play on the Jollibee burger, and another lumpia-inspired patty of shrimp and pork—debuted at Fair Isle after a three-year hiatus.
A few factors contributed to the brewery's double life as a popup incubator: permit prosaics, the food-friendly nature of Fair Isle’s signature beer style, and a dash of pandemic timing.
Cofounders Andrew Pogue and Geoffrey Barker spent years looking for a place to launch their brewery. Eventually they landed in a former home of an orchid retailer, a boxy, lightly industrial building at 936 NW 49th Street, in the thick of Ballard’s brewery district.
While other taprooms summon a robust schedule of food trucks, Fair Isle’s owners designed their space to include a permitted kitchen. “That’s rare in a brewery” says Pogue. But Fair Isle’s beer is a rarity, too—a temple of farmhouse ales in a landscape of IPAs. These wild yeast saisons pair marvelously with food. Ergo Pogue and Barker had visions of multicourse beer pairing dinners. They built a private dining space and dubbed it the Orchid Room in honor of the building’s previous occupants.
“We did exactly one pairing dinner when we opened in January” of 2020. remembers Pogue.
“With a single tear in our burger-sized eyes we’re pushing back tomorrow’s grilling session to another day,” Rough Draft Burger Shop announced on Instagram. The fledgling project had scheduled a popup at Fair Isle for March 14, 2020; cofounder Aaron Wilcenski knew the owners from a few previous beer pairing dinners.
“Another day” turned out to be two months and an emotional lifetime later. By May, Wilcenski and his then-partner had set up on an open griddle in the driveway, smashing those patties for socially distanced, stir-crazy customers to take home in paper sacks.
Seattle wanted to comfort itself with burgers, and Rough Draft’s tavern-style creations were worth fumbling your way through new concepts like “ordering in advance online” and “waiting in a line six feet apart.” The fandom came on fast. But by the end of the summer, Rough Draft had acquired a food cart down in Portland (a Seattle bar is in the works). Wilcenski compiled a list of friends with popups for Fair Isle’s owners. From there, he recalls, “it snowballed into something big and fun.”
It also snowballed into an inadvertent incubator. Brothers and Co. did a stint serving fried chicken sandwiches—not an option at their usual farmers market stalls. The preparation honed at Fair Isle will be central to a future brick-and-mortar spot, says co-owner Zachary Pacleb.
Most participants stay six months or less, says Pogue, the brewery’s co-owner. “There’s a lot of turnover, and rightly so.” Now, he and Barker rely on word of mouth to fill the calendar. They do interviews and tastings, but the real indicator of success, he says, are operations that can handle a crowd. “Nobody wants a line of 15 people waiting for their order.” They also seek variety. “We don’t want every single day of the week to be burgers and beer.”
Nasir Zubair had never heard of Fair Isle when one of its employees DM'd about his Karachi Cowboys popup. Zubair knew he wanted to grow his food into a full-time enterprise, but borrowing other chefs’ kitchens got old. “It’s like having someone stay in your guest room,” he says. Even with a warm welcome, “As you got going, it was kind of an inconvenience.”
During his months serving aloo sliders and keema over basmati rice at Fair Isle, Zubair bolstered his existing fan base, and found new followers among people who came for the beer, and decided to wash it down with an order of chana masala. The nice equipment helped too, says Zubair. Especially given all the things that can go wrong in a temporary kitchen setting. “It’s like putting on a play every single time—you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In June, Karachi Cowboys opened as a full-on restaurant. If they hadn’t found the space on Capitol Hill, says Zubair, they’d still be at Fair Isle.
Fair Isle wasn't afraid of big asks; they also slid into Melissa Miranda's DMs. The chef remembers being impressed with Karachi Cowboys’ setup. The brewery was so accommodating, she says. “Also their product is incredible.”
Before her restaurant, Musang—before the Bon Appetit videos, the New York Times think pieces, and ahem, a few magazine covers—Miranda had devised a comfort food menu with Jeff Santos, a friend from growing up who now owns Wow Wow Lemonade. She called him up: “Do you want to do this every other week? We’ll just kick it, grill burgers.”
Their presence throughout the summer turned Tuesdays into prime time. It was fun, says Miranda, but it was also R&D—a chance to dial in their dishes. She and Santos are looking, casually, at spaces: “We’d actually love to open a Musangtino’s brick-and-mortar,” says Miranda. “If that’s a concept I hope to develop in the future, it’s nice to know that people will come.”
Fair Isle’s owners aren’t sure how long their status as popup proving ground will last. They didn’t charge chefs during the pandemic, but recently instituted a fee system. They might reinstate those Orchid Room dinners in early 2022. Meanwhile, the brewery has a fall and winter popup schedule that’s almost entirely new faces. “Everyone turned over at the same time,” says Pogue. Fair Isle will start announcing these names next week; consider it a preview of the names we’ll be talking about this time next year.