For a decade, Fernando “Fefo” Aciar has owned Ocafe, a Latin American-infused coffee stalwart of the West Village, but in May of this year, he launched Ostudio at Night, a new restaurant and wine bar in Brooklyn that puts pop-up chefs at the forefront.
Located at the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, Ostudio offers its fixed cafe and dinner menu — from chef Omri Silberstein, an alum of June Wine Bar — in tandem with dozens of pop-ups that are scheduled as one-night-only events or longer-term residencies spanning several weeks. The restaurant has featured chefs both established and lesser-known who work in collaboration with the Ostudio kitchen staff to create their own short-term menu takeovers. One night, customers might find baked Alaska with corn ice cream; another night, black sesame custard with chile peanut candy — meant to pair with a bottle of natural wine.
Ostudio at Night has one of the most robust pop-up programs in Brooklyn, a growing trend among New York City restaurants that includes Winona’s, a Bed-Stuy restaurant known for pop-ups, as well as King Tai, a Crown Heights bar that further invested in its pop-ups by building an entire second floor kitchen this summer. There’s also Fulgurances Laundromat, which opened in Greenpoint last year, an outpost of a popular French restaurant that changes its menu every couple of months. Wine bar Rhodora opened right before the pandemic but is hitting a stride with its ramped up pop-up program. Meanwhile, Crown Heights coffee shop Daughter lends its space to pop-ups to help bring in dinner customers, often doubling as a platform to raise funds for local causes.
With all of its multidisciplinary parts, Ostudio is an ambitious, creative, and well-designed experience — a canvas for some of the most exciting pop-ups in Brooklyn, alongside daily bar bites that can stand on their own. Overall, it offers a chance to catch a showcase of up-and-coming talent in a restaurant formatted for fun — but it’s still figuring out what it will be. Models like Ostudio at Night demonstrate the tension of relying on the labor of guest chefs without being extractive — in a notoriously thin-margined industry.
Not all of the restaurants that have carved business models around pop-ups have figured out what is emotionally and financially viable, both for themselves and for the pop-up operators. Hunky Dory and KIT, closed during the pandemic, despite being cherished pop-up hubs. On the other end of the spectrum, after it was dubbed by the New York Times as the “restaurant of the summer,” residency space Outerspace imploded last summer — during which Eater reported that former staffers also found issues with management from the onslaught, and said they didn’t listen to grievances about working conditions.
Whether things will be different for Aciar and his collaborating chefs remains to be seen, especially when it comes to all parties being compensated fairly. Across the city, some venues take drink sales; others give pop-ups the money from food sales, while some take a percentage of total sales. A handful of venues give away space for free. Ostudio at Night takes a percentage of sales from food and beverage (upwards of 10 percent); for residencies, chefs are paid a lump sum for a couple of weeks. In a few cases, for less established pop-ups, Aciar says he offers the space for free.
“Ostudio was introduced to us and something that really stuck with us is the community. He has ceramics and artist studios, a kitchen upstairs and downstairs, all of those multiple platforms really resonated with us,” said Andrew Ceneus, a co-founder of the mutual aid organization Food With Fam that hosted an event at Ostudio that raised funds for food distribution at the Sumner Houses. “The goal of Food With Fam is to build community and share resources, and we rely on partners to help make that happen,” says Ceneus, who said he’d be eager to return. He tells Eater that their team was offered complimentary space, and bought wine from Ostudio to serve.
Select pop-ups commend Ostudio at Night for its lofty goals and noted it could be a cool stepping stone, but told Eater they’d wait for Ostudio to do some back-end troubleshooting on the organization and financial agreements before considering signing on or returning.
One of the ways Ostudio appears to be valuable is in setting up a platform for chefs who might still be figuring out their culinary vision for recipe testing and for a potential restaurant. This was the case with forthcoming East Village restaurant Caleta, which Ostudio hosted in August, as they worked on building out a savory menu.
“So far, because we’ve been wholesale and retail, we just work and then drop off ice cream... it was great to have full conversations and actually connect with customers,” says Jesse Merchant Zuñiga, half of the ice cream brand Bad Habit, which will be produced out of Caleta. Customers who found out about the space via word-of-mouth or Instagram “were really excited to be there and curious,” she says.
Other chefs who’ve cooked at Ostudio, like Woldy Reyes, have no imminent intention of returning to traditional restaurants. Despite the grueling amount of work that goes into them, he says he sees pop-ups as an alternative framework for culinary aspirations. For him, Ostudio’s residency allowed him to “be more experimental, and have a space to exercise creativity,” without worrying as much about getting “butts in seats.”
For customers, the changing menu means there’s something to try with each visit, and growing reasons to bring friends.