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New pop-up venue brings punk approach to Atlanta restaurant scene

Sam Flemming is bringing a punk approach to the Atlanta culinary scene one pop-up at a time with a new food stall at the Ponce City Market Central Food Hall.

Punk Foodie at Ponce, the newest establishment at one of the city’s popular food halls, operates on a model of rotating chefs serving up different menus each day of the week. Owner and operator Flemming said the stall works as a sort of “accelerator program” for local chefs in the pop-up scene.

Punk Foodie at Ponce is the newest iteration of Flemming’s long-term project. He started Punk Foodie in 2021 as a pop-up restaurant curation platform consisting of an Instagram account, newsletter and web application where curious foodies can search for pop-ups happening in and around Atlanta.

Before moving to Atlanta, Flemming spent 25 years living in and traveling around Asia, where he tried several different types of cuisine and “felt the rush” of eating new food.

“When I moved to Atlanta six years ago, I was looking for that kind of feeling again,” Flemming said. “That’s when I discovered pop-ups.”

Pop-up restaurants are temporary restaurants set up by chefs in various spaces, like bars and breweries. The traveling establishments, Flemming said, are a lot like touring bands. Instead of instruments, they unload cooking equipment.

“These are like punk chefs, right?” Flemming said. “Three chords and the truth.”

He realized that while there are dozens of pop-ups around Atlanta, people don’t know when and where they are happening. He used his background in market research technology to catalog hundreds of pop-ups and created a tool to search them by location, chef, date or cuisine.

“The pop-up scene, and hopefully Punk Foodie as well, is a great outlet for lots of diversity, for folks that may not have access to capital to even get a food truck,” Flemming said. “It gives us a level of accessibility that other formats don’t have.”

But Flemming wanted to make pop-ups even more accessible. The idea of opening a restaurant had been “percolating for a while,” and Ponce City Market proved to be a good match for the concept. The business could draw in local and tourist crowds while acting as a launchpad for Atlanta chefs.

“It’s like an accelerator,” Flemming said. “We have the foundation. You don’t have to worry about insurance, the business license, health rating, marketing, all that we’ll take care of when you come in.”

Flemming, who doesn’t have a background in food, handles all the logistics so the chefs can prioritize running their kitchen. He said Punk Foodie at Ponce is like an advanced pop-up. Cooks can spend a few months at the stall and build a following before taking the next steps of opening a restaurant.

Jess Kim and Jun Park are the first multi-month residency at Punk Foodie’s Ponce City Market stall. The pair are chefs and owners of Ganji, a Korean pop-up infused with global flavors. Ganji will run the Punk Foodie kitchen seven days a week until December when a new pop-up will take up residency in the stall.

Both chefs were raised in Metro Atlanta, and the Ganji menu matches their upbringing.

“It’s what we grew up eating, the stuff that we saw, especially living in Atlanta,” Park said. “We both grew up with Korean food, but my fondest memories were not Korean food; it was American food, Japanese food, Chinese food, Mexican food.”

While Kim and Park have years of experience in the industry, they weren’t given a chance to cook the cuisine they grew up with in other kitchens. It pushed them to start their own pop-up restaurant.

“Jess ran plenty of kitchens, and for years, she wasn’t really able to do what she wanted, even when the things she did were great,” Park said. “We both saw that so much.”

Park said after years of backbreaking work, “you don’t see anything at the end of the day.” He said it grinds a chef down over the years. Kim said the industry expects young people to pay dues, but over the years, they get pushed back down the ladder.

“We’re just like, we don’t want to work for other people,” Kim said.

As an independent pop-up, Ganji managed a pop-up at a brewery about once a month. The pair wanted something different, and Flemming wanted them to join Punk Foodie at Ponce, where they would have a full kitchen.

With Flemming handling logistics, Kim and Park have been able to focus on the food. They launched a menu with items like cacio e pepe tteok-bokki, a combination of Italian and Korean cuisine, or the pork belly bossam sando on Texas toast.

“Just getting to be back there, it definitely gives us a lot of leeway in terms of personal schedule and lifestyle, which really takes additional stress off us for the most part.”

Ganji runs lunch and dinner on different days of the week and dinner service on weekends. When they’re not cooking, other chefs take over the kitchen for pop-up brunch, lunch and dinner. Bosnian-ish pop-up Krupana and Taiwanese-American pop-up Mighty Hans are running weekend brunch through early November. On Mondays, the guest chef rotates out on a weekly basis.

Sam Flemming said the success of Punk Foodie at Ponce depends on balancing the rotating roster.

“We’re trying to find the right balance between variety and consistency,” Flemming said.

Some chefs will be around for months, while others will have blink-and-you-miss-it pop-ups. Each chef brings in a built-in audience, but Flemming hopes the exposure at a high-traffic place like Ponce City Market will increase visibility for the cooks. In time, he hopes the Punk Foodie at Ponce model will evolve the restaurant industry.

“I think it’s a new way to build out a restaurant,” Flemming said. “You’ll be able to tap into that talent that already exists.”

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