SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Curtains went up, flowers came out and foie gras was whisked in through the back door.
The bagel shop on Pickett Street that served its last sandwich a few hours earlier became a five-star restaurant in what seemed like a flash.
At 7 p.m. sharp, guests, who purchased online tickets to Supperpie, a nine-course popup dinner, walked into the elegant, summery scene with no knowledge of what had happened before they entered or what lay ahead.
That’s the power of the popup.
Food served in a new and often secret location by chefs who bring their “A” game is the dining trend of the moment. In Portland and across the state, more underground dinners are popping up this summer than ever.
At the helm last Thursday was Rocco Salvatore Talarico, a traveling chef who has cooked his way from San Francisco to South Portland and is working on a cookbook centered on his creative, international culinary style.
An hour before show time, Talarico, who has the words “foie gras” tattooed on his fingers, was looking for missing bottles of prosecco while madly slicing a baguette.
“Can I get an Amen?” he asked the assembled cast of friends helping him pull off the theatrical production.
Preparing numerous courses, a chef’s muse, several intermezzos and two desserts in a cramped sandwich shop means ferrying in pre-made sauces, coolers of meat, borscht, glassware, herbs — all the accoutrements for an extravagant, moveable feast.
As diners mingled outside with aperitifs, the music in the kitchen grew louder. Talarico, seemingly unorganized, had a Zen-like calm.
“There is no sense in getting nervous — if it falls on its face, it falls on its face,” said the chef, who grew up in Mechanic Falls and learned to cook at his grandfather’s restaurant, Luiggi’s Pizzeria, in Lewiston.
From smoked trout on a black bean cracker to vanilla soup with goat cheese cake, and micro alcohol-fueled slushes as chasers, his first popup was anything but a failure.
“I’m in awe by how beautiful and delightful this place is,” said Celine Goddard of Lisbon Falls, who was seated at a communal table with the trappings of a festive wedding. “I can’t imagine what it takes to go through these steps.”
A few seats away, avid foodie Bill Minkowitz of Scarborough was relishing the clandestine scene. He read about Supperpie on a food blog and didn’t hesitate to order two $150 tickets for himself and his wife.
“When you go to a restaurant, you know what you’re going to get. There are restraints,” said Minkowitz, who enjoys being wowed by renegade chefs. “This is like a tasting menu at a restaurant, but more daring.”
And perhaps pricier.
Though admittedly a splurge, the leisurely four-hour meal was a getaway for Minkowitz, a pharmacy salesperson on staycation this year.
“Instead of going somewhere for a week, we might do 10 of these,” he said.
The popup trend is arriving right on time for chef Erin French, who shuttered her farm-to-table restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, in Belfast this spring.
Recently she bought a 1965 Airstream trailer and is bringing the table to the farm.
“You don’t need walls to practice and share your love of cooking,” said French, 32, who just launched a popup dining series called Fork to Field throughout the state. “People will still rally around you.”
By striking up partnerships with places such as David’s Folly Farm in Brooksville, French can continue to bring awareness to Maine agriculture and “show how important these farms are to the state.”
On Saturday night French will cook a picnic style meal of fried chicken, if she can procure enough local birds, and side dishes from the Blue Hill Peninsula. Beyond cooking, she is mowing paths for private dining zones on the Brooksville farm and is making tables out of barn board.
Though time consuming, her popup series is more economical then running her own restaurant.
Costs are kept down because of little overhead, and by sourcing locally harvested produce and meat — all within 10 miles of her popups — she saves on transportation costs.
“I’m getting everything directly right from the farmer, so there is no markup. I’ve been able to donate time on the farm and have slaughtered ducks for trade,” she said.
Popups also help new chefs create a name for themselves when they enter a new market.
Before Damian Sansonetti opened Blue Rooster Food Co. in the Old Port, he introduced city dwellers to his talents with a popup series last fall.
Sansonetti considers the concept “very rogue catering.”
“Whenever you have the opportunity to do something new, you want to wow people,” he said.
Though the popup platform is great publicity, it’s not as easy as it looks.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Sansonetti, who hosted a lobster dinner in a vacant lot in East Bayside last month, which required intense planning. “You have to know your logistics well.”
From trash cleanup to portable toilets, planning is required.
In the retail world, popups have become a marketing buzzword. According to Bloomberg, the popup industry reached $8 billion last year and businesses such as Popup Republic, a Boston-based firm that markets them, are stepping in to help.
Popup Republic chief Jeremy Baras said dining popups are the strongest category.
“It’s about the experience as much as the food,” he said. “It’s the fear of missing out, whereas at a permanent restaurant, you can always go.”
That here-today, gone-tomorrow ethos is what keeps popups adventurous. And appeals to what Josh Potocki, who helped pioneer Portland’s popup scene with the popular Pocket Brunch series, calls real epicures.
“These are true food people,” said Potocki who assisted Talarico at the first Supperpie, held in his cafe. “Only true diners would come out to something like this. … It shows they just trust you.”
At the Barn at Flanagan Farm, 668 Narragansett Trail, Buxton
What: Maine’s top chefs cook in a rustic barn. Chef Jason Loring from Nosh Kitchen Bar up next.
When: August 19
What: Nine to 12-course meals from chef Rocco Salvatore Talarico
When: August 8
Location: To be announced
Fork to Field by The Lost Kitchen
What: Locally sourced and prepared meals by chef Erin French
When: July 27
Location: David’s Folly Farm, 1390 Coastal Road, Brooksville
What: Monthly brunch series featuring a cast of Portland chefs in various locations
When: To be announced
Popup coffee bar
The Standard Baking Co., 75 Commercial St., Portland
What: Tandem Coffee Roasters mobile brew bar
When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. July 27