Pop-up cocktail bars—taking shape as bars with changing themes, new enterprises within existing bars, and specialty, traveling concepts—offer operators a chance to shake things up, leverage current trends, and create memorable experiences for both new and regular patrons.
Restaurants are no stranger to upending their routines; many establishments tweak menus to reflect the season, bring in guest chefs for take-overs, host special dinners, and even reinvent concepts altogether when guests lose interest. In recent years, pop-up restaurants have been gaining traction as newbie chefs and restaurateurs test out concepts and dishes at their friends’ restaurants, in open event spaces, or even outdoors. Pop-up bars are also catching the coattails of this movement.
“You have to keep things fresh and exciting, and pop-ups are a great way to do that,” says Mark Kwiatkowski, owner of Replay Lincoln Park, a game bar venue in Chicago that hosts regular pop-up themes. “It’s like a movie: You don’t always want to see the same movie over and over; you want to see something new. Plus, customers want the opportunity to take pictures that they can post on Instagram and Facebook and show off to their friends. With different pop-ups like ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Office,’ and ‘Spongebob Squarepants,’ we’re also able to attract diverse audiences.”
One could attribute the start of the pop-up bar trend about five years ago to Greg Boehm, who drew major crowds with his holiday cocktail pop-up, Miracle on 9th Street, which he held at his not-yet-opened bar Mace in New York. This led to Drink Company in Washington, D.C. hosting its Miracle on 7th Street pop-up, which remains popular each year.
But then there are the bars (Drink Company included) going after other themed pop-ups, including many based on popular TV shows and movies for an almost guaranteed packing of the house. Brick Bar is a Lego-themed pop-up complete with hands-on building opportunities, costumes, and life-size Lego characters from the animated movies. So far, the concept has appeared in Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio, and more pop-ups are expected in the future.
Many bars have capitalized on the cult following garnered by “Game of Thrones,” which concluded last May. Kwiatkowski says that Replay’s pop-up of the HBO hit was, without a doubt, the most popular in the history of the bar, lasting nearly 100 days from January to May. For that elaborate installation, which took about a month to develop, Kwiatkowski relied on the Pop-Up Squad, a group of artists and lighting specialists that create the concept, décor, and artistic elements of Replay’s various pop-ups.
This particular theme involved converting each of the four bars into four kingdoms from the book and TV series and installing life-size cutouts of the iconic characters and even a giant throne. For the cocktail menus, which differed at each of the four bars, bartenders collaborated with the entire Replay team to come up with ideas and names.
“What’s important for these pop-ups is to be able to do some batching and focusing on straightforward cocktails that can be executed quickly,” Kwiatkowski says. Recipes are emailed to the team ahead of time for study, and then cheat sheets are posted at the bars. The Replay team got lucky with the GOT installation; extreme cold temperatures meant smaller crowds and easier set-up.
In an entirely different form of a pop-up bar, Suntory Spirit’s “Tiny House” is an indoor-outdoor installation that can be set up at an outdoor event or even on a rooftop, as in the case of the W Hotel South Beach for the Art Basel event in December.
“Pop-up cocktail bars are catching on around the country because people love the experience they provide,” says Gardner Dunn, senior brand ambassador for Beam Suntory. “The Suntory Tiny House allows us to create the mood and environment in a specific space for a specific time to the highest form of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, that guests might only get if they visited Japan.”
The house, which opens and closes like a powered clam shell and requires about five hours to set up, can be transported and installed anywhere with enough space. Designed after bars in Tokyo’s Golden Gai (an area renowned for its architecture), each tiny house features a fully functioning bar equipped with A/C, working sinks, and other essentials. Sporting only five seats, Tiny House creates an especially intimate Japanese whisky tasting, as orchestrated by renowned bartenders. Outside the shell, guests can sip on highballs while relaxing in the Japanese garden lounge, complete with a wooden deck, inlaid TV, sand Zen table, and engawa benches.
“Pop-ups become a temporary and cool experience and make even a regular neighborhood bar a destination for a short time,” Dunn says. “With both bars only seating five people, it’s very exclusive and intimate. You not only are engaging and interacting with your fellow guests, but also your guest bartender.”