Boston, MA– Pop-ups by their very definition tend to have relatively short shelf lives. There may be a high public demand, but many operators would prefer not to face the perpetual carousel of licensing delays, zoning approvals, and commission board decisions that constitute a permanent brick and mortar location. Nor can you blame them. Given a dearth of qualified kitchen staff and the relative uncertainty of the restaurant community in Boston—which has seen dozens of long-standing institutions close shop in the past few months alone—it’s a riskier gamble than say… trying to keep your casino license despite your ex-CEO being embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal.
But to make the move from Boston to New York City, where restaurant operations (permanent or otherwise) have an even greater chance of failure, is nothing short of foolhardy. Then again, you could say the same about opening an Indonesian food pop-up shop. Just ask Retno Patiwi and Peter Gelling of Kaki Lima, who recently announced plans to depart Boston in June for NYC.
“We’ll be in a different city, but the mission will remain the same: To introduce high-end Indonesian cuisine to an American audience,” Patiwi and Gelling stated in the announcement. “While we are excited for our move, it is bittersweet: We are super sad to say goodbye to our Boston community.
“In these five years in Boston, we’ve meandered through an industry populated by some amazing and hard-working people. We’ve seen firsthand how challenging it is to make this kind of business work here. And we marvel at the generosity offered by the Boston restaurant community.”
When Patiwi and Gelling opened Kaki Lima five years ago, Indonesian fare in the city was virtually unheard of. In fact, it was non existent. Even Chinatown’s long-running Penang is a Malaysian-Thai fusion. And its absence has been a mystery. Boston has historically played home to a sizable Indonesian population numbering in the thousands. And given the general readiness to adopt international flavors into the greater culinary thread, you’d imagine the vibrant colors and aromas that constitute the alternately sour and spicy world of Indonesian cuisine would find a welcome home here.
And it did. Not only did Kaki Lima receive “Best of Boston Pop Up” awards from the likes of Boston magazine and the Improper Bostonian (RIP), but Patiwi herself was the subject of a prominent 2016 New York Times profile, referring to Kaki Lima as “champions of Indonesian culture.” Both of which should have been key drivers behind establishing a brick and mortar location in the city.
“...We went back to Indonesia last year and talked to possible investors,” Patiwi told Boston magazine in 2014. “Now I’m thinking about philanthropists, because I need people that believe in Indonesian culture. I need people that are not just in for the money, but also for the food and for the history of Indonesia.”
While Patiwi plans on re-establishing herself in New York as the reigning queen of Indonesian street food in the U.S., Gelling will make the move as editor of digital media maven Quartz. Meanwhile, Boston residents who have not yet experienced Kaki Lima’s patently addictive beef rendang and dadar gulung now have less than a month to bid farewell before the couple relocates their Boston pop-up series. For the moment, at least.
Image via Kaki Lima Boston