These days, the world’s top bars aren’t only serving up stellar drinks on their home turf, they’re also taking their recipes—and bartenders—on the road. From one-night-only guest bartending stints to complete bar takeovers, pop-ups can be a creative way to promote bar brands. But what’s the real return on hosting big-name bars in-house or sending staff halfway around the world to replicate a bar concept in an unfamiliar setting? And how do regulars respond to a periodic parade of out-of-town visitors and revolving concepts? SevenFifty Daily spoke with bartenders in the U.S., Greece, and Argentina to find out what types of returns they typically see on their pop-up investments—and to get their advice on how to implement a successful pop-up bar venture.
Ivy Mix, a bartender and co-owner, with Julie Reiner, of Leyenda, a pan-Latin cocktail bar based in Brooklyn, New York, says that hosting other bars can provide an excellent source of revenue during sluggish sales days or months. For example, she says, “when we bring in bars like [Chicago’s] Lost Lake, we end up making 30 percent more in sales than we would on a typical Monday or Tuesday night.”
Jake Hall, the general manager of The Gibson in Washington, D.C., has seen similar results. When London’s Dandelyan took over The Gibson’s space for two nights in November, the bar increased the number of normal weekday covers by 200 percent to 300 percent. “We did a medium-volume Friday night’s worth of business,” Hall says, “in just two hours on a weeknight.”
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For bars like Leyenda, hosting a pop-up bar can also boost a sagging sales month. “We realized people are not really into tacos and margaritas for the holidays,” says Mix, “so we decided to do a holiday pop-up bar last year. It increased our monthly sales by nearly 60 percent. If we didn’t do that, we would really struggle in December.”
At The Clumsies in Athens, pop-up bars are a permanent—and strategic—part of the business model. The bar has set up shop everywhere from the Blind Spot in London’s St. Martin’s Lane Hotel to the Broken Shaker in Miami, and it has hosted as many as six other bars under its roof in a single night. The Clumsies hosts two pop-up events at its bar per season—a one-day event and a two- to three-day event. Additionally, the bar executes about 30 pop-up events in other spaces throughout the year. “At least 30 percent of our annual profit comes from pop-ups,” says Clumsies cofounder Vasilis Kyritsis. “Our customers know that every time they visit, they’ll find something unique that will only be there for a short time. It keeps people coming back again and again.”
The buzz generated from pop-up bars often has a direct impact on social media interactions, website traffic, and traditional media impressions. The Clumsies’ pop-ups routinely result in a 5 percent to 10 percent jump in social media impressions, says Kyritsis. Mix has observed a similar bump—often as much as a 20 percent increase in interactions on Instagram—after hosting pop-up events. She notes that the majority of those interactions are with new accounts.
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When The Gibson hosted Dandylan, Hall says that the 10 percent increase in web traffic leading up to the collaboration “directly correlated to press drops in [publications] like Food & Wine and Thirsty.” Such press mentions have also proved valuable to bars like The Dead Rabbit. Its 2017 residency at Claridge’s in London was promoted through stories in Esquire, Time Out London, and other publications, and Paula Fitzherbert, the group director of communications at the hotel, estimates the earned value of all print, online, and social media coverage at just shy of £400,000 (around $500,000).
While the upsides of pop-up bars can be substantial, there’s a downside to constantly trying something new—or one-upping the last big splashy event. “I think if you’re not careful,” says Mix, “you can really lose a sense of your brand and the integrity of your own bar.” She also underscores that Leyenda is a neighborhood bar; therefore, she says, “too much change would be jarring for our regulars who come two to three times a week. But I think if you’re in a hotel and your clientele is constantly changing, you can experiment more.”
4 Tips for Pulling Off a Successful Pop-up
When planning strategy for a pop-up bar, bartenders say there are several key practices that will help ensure success.
1. Be selective.
Dead Rabbit’s beverage manager, Jillian Vose, recommends being choosy about your partners. “Make sure the [pop-up partner] bar is of the same quality as your own or better,” she says. “We like to collaborate with partners that have similar visions of doing spectacular work and doing things that are different from the norm”—like the bar’s complete takeover at Claridge’s, which replicated Dead Rabbit’s look and feel, down to the sawdust on the floor.
2. Be focused.
While The Clumsies hosts several pop-ups a year, Kyritsis says that’s only possible because the bar is hyperfocused in its execution. “You have to be as smart as you can about your concept and details,” he says, “ranging from your logo to decorations to promotions to the way you treat customers, to be successful. You can’t just host 10 bars in one night without a plan.”
3. Be organized.
Lucas Groglio, a bartender and an entrepreneur based in Buenos Aires, whose five-month Coctelería Consciente, or sustainable bartending, tour included 13 bar takeovers in 10 countries this year, agrees that hyper-organization is key. “We couldn’t have done this tour,” he says, “without choosing the right bars, being clear on everyone’s responsibilities, and being on the same page about decorations, music, food, and all the details.”
4. Be collaborative.
Hall says the biggest takeaway from The Gibson’s partnership with Dandelyan was learning how to collaborate effectively. “They’ve done more than 200 pop-ups and really have an amazing structure and system for executing them,” he says, “whereas we have experience streamlining prep and service and managing high volume. Ultimately, we hosted the best bar in the world, which was going to accomplish something regardless of sales or social media hits. But the biggest win for us was that we had to get organized and implement some structures to host [Dandelyan] that will make us a more reliable, better-functioning operation going forward—and we’ll continue to benefit financially from that in the long run.”
Laura Scholz, a writer and editor based in Atlanta, has covered food, spirits, wellness, and travel for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Atlantan, Eater Atlanta, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, VinePair, and other publications. She is currently the fitness editor of Atlanta magazine. Follow her on Instagram @lbscholz.