Pop-up bars have been, well, popping up for several years now, especially since the first Miracle Christmas-themed temporary installment launched in New York five years ago. But are those limited-time events, in which a space’s decor, music, drinks, possibly even food are transformed based on a theme, worth the effort for operators? A panel weighed in on the topic at the second annual Bar Convent Brooklyn on June 11.
Pop-ups certainly can bring in additional revenue for bar owners, said moderator Philip Duff, principal of on-premise consulting firm Liquid Solutions. “Typically a bar will triple sales in the month of December with a Miracle pop-up.” The Miracle family of Christmas-themed pop-up bars has become a global phenomenon and will expand in 2019 to more than 100 Miracle and Beachbum Berry Presents: Sippin’ Santa locations.
Other pop-up themes have ranges from cherry blossom festival and Pokemon to the many Game of Thones-inspired bars we saw this past spring. Or sometimes a famous cocktail bar will pop up at a location in another city or country. In addition to additional revenue opportunities, pop-ups enable bars to create or maintain media interest, test a concept idea before committing to it and partner with other operators or brands.
The Dead Rabbit has done a number of pop-ups all over the world, said Jillian Vose, beverage director/partner of the New York cocktail bar. The most successful was a pop-up in London’s Claridge’s hotel in August 2017. “We were flabbergasted when asked—we’re an Irish pub and they’re a marble-floor hotel!” she said.
The Claridge’s pop-up was a major production, however, requiring seven months of planning, plus Vose and the other Dead Rabbit partners had to be in London for two weeks to handle training, build out and press requirements, among other preparations for the eight-day pop-up. Then there was the cost of decor, the daily fee for active bartenders, plus flight accommodations and meals within the hotel for the duration of the pop-up.
Indeed, pop-ups are more involved that they seem, said bartender/consultant Eben Freeman. “It’s like planning a wedding—there are so many things to be considered.”
And there is a lot that can go wrong. Maybe the guest bartender is a diva, he notes, or maybe the host is clueless. If you’re the traveling bartender, what if customs confiscates your chemicals? Missed flights and connections, lost luggage and broken equipment are other common potential pitfalls. If you’re bringing staff over to work at a pop-up, keep in mind that “bartenders are not the most responsible people in the world,” Freeman said.
As the host bar, be sure to do your research and determine the pop-up is on-brand—do your customers want this? If you’re bringing in bar stars from another operation, are they better than you? Are they going to show you up?
On the flip side, what if the guest bartenders suck? If they can’t execute properly on the concept, is that going to hurt your reputation? Are they asking you to buy brands that you don’t normally stock?
Once you’ve determined a pop-up’s viability, take steps to avoid the many things that can go haywire, Vose said. For instance, to ensure that your bar tools and equipment arrive, “either bring all of your own stuff or send it ahead.” Be prepared for the host bar or restaurant not to have certain things, Vose said, recalling one that didn’t have lemons.
And when you’re training people for a pop-up, Vose said, be very specific. Include pictures of the glassware, specify ounce vs. milliliter measurements and so on. “You can never give too much information.”
What are the hallmarks of a successful pop-up? According to the panelists, pop-ups should typically run for a significant period of time, with a guest-centric concept that is financially viable. They should offer an immersive experience from decor, drinks, food, music and staff apparel, with brand partnerships that support but don’t dominate. “It behooves you to make your pop-up truly a representation of your bar in the different location,” Freeman said.