Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone. That means just one thing: the final big holidays are upon us! Finishing the year strong is all that should be on any operator’s mind. For most, that means seasonal promotions leveraging the (hopefully) cheerful feeling of the last weeks of 2018.
One type of promotion that has been steadily growing in popularity is the pop-up bar. There are a few ways this kind of promotional event can be executed: the event space buildout, the venue takeover, and the full transformation. We spoke with famed bartender, operator and industry emissary Erick Castro about the latter two.
Castro owns, co-owns or has otherwise partnered on several critically acclaimed bars, such as Polite Provisions, Craft & Commerce, Boilermaker and Raised by Wolves. He and his bar teams have built a reputation as being among the very best in the business. From now through Christmas, Castro and his team operate Miracle on 30th Street, a holiday-themed pop-up that transforms Polite Provisions into a different concept.
“The one bit of advice I would have for anybody if they were going to do a pop-up for the first time is they just need to come to terms with the fact that they’re gonna have to commit,” says Castro. “You gotta commit to it. No one wants to go to a half-ass pop-up.”
In other words (also from Castro), an operator has to not only pick a lane when it comes to this type of promotion, they have to own it fully.
“A pop-up should be experiential, so you want the pop-up to kind of suck you in. So, if you go to a Christmas pop-up…and there’s just a little bit of tinsel and some stockings up—no one’s buying it. No one’s gonna tell their friend to go there. No one’s gonna post it on social media,” he says, pointing to Miracle on 30th Street as an example. “You’re gonna have to just commit. You gotta go in with the mindset of, ‘This place is gonna look like Santa Claus vomited on everything in here. It has to be a transformative experience.”
This applies, of course, to any pop-up. Really, it applies to any type of promotion: go all-in or don’t bother. Guests are savvier than they're sometimes credited as being, and that means they can see through a subpar effort. Operators waste their money and time, and the time of their staff members, if they don’t deliver on an experience all the way.
“If you’re going into a place that’s maybe a wild west pop-up, you gotta [have] sawdust on the floors, shots of whiskey…and a piano playing old-timey music because that’s what people want,” explains Castro. “They wanna get sucked in, and if you do it half-assed you’re gonna waste a lot of time and effort and not get anywhere. It’s not gonna make any traction.”
Every operator should strive to have their bar, restaurant or nightclub known for at least one thing. Maybe guests return to a venue for a particular bartender or bartenders. It could be a signature drink or an amazing selection of craft beers or unique wines. The point is, operating at the level of an Erick Castro isn’t a prerequisite for planning a pop-up. An operator with a local following can partner with the owner of another revered local venue for this type of promotion.
“There’s definitely a couple ways of doing it. One way that’s really popular right now is bars are doing pop-ups where it’s essentially a takeover of another bar. And for something like that, you generally don’t have to do much in regards to décor or change anything up,” says Castro. “The appeal is actually just having these bartenders from another part of the world, another part of the country come in and take things over.”
It also works if a bar team with a following is hosted by a bar in the same city or state. A local pop-up is exciting. It’s different, it’s an event, and it can draw big attention from the community, helping to increase the strength of both brands. Operators who put in the work to develop their brands can one day find themselves traveling with their teams out of state—or out of the country—for a pop-up.
For instance, acclaimed Tiki bar Lost Lake executed what Castro describes as a “full-blown” takeover of his award-winning bar Polite Provisions last year. Lost Lake flew six members of the team in from Chicago to San Diego for this pop-up, transforming Polite into a Tiki paradise with an 8-drink Lost Lake menu. This pop-up required significant time and coordination to pull off but was well worth the effort and cost.
“Everybody in San Diego came out for that with the mentality that, ‘Oh, wow, I really would love to see these guys making cocktails and I don’t always have the time or money to fly to Chicago, so Polite just saved me the airfare and the lodging,’” says Castro.
When asked about costs for executing a fully immersive, transformative pop-up, Castro says that operators should work with a beverage alcohol sponsor with whom they have already developed a great relationship. If the pop-up involves traveling across state lines, as was the case with the Lost Lake takeover of Polite Provisions, things he cautions that things can get a little tricky. This is because the sponsor will need to decide what budget to tap into for the event.
Perhaps a simpler way is to keep things between the operations: “You do our bar and promote for us and we’ll do your bar and promote for you. It’s a trade.”
Continuing with the Lost Lake-Polite Provisions takeover, that event was the result of a trade. In April of 2016, Lost Lake transformed a space occupied by Chinese restaurant Thank You. The Tiki bar and the restaurant shared a kitchen where an electrical fire occurred, and both businesses had to shut down temporarily. Last August, Lost Lake announced Stranger in Paradise, an extension that would transform Thank You into a space to serve a rotating menu of experimental drinks and food.
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Enter: The Polite Provisions team. Castro and Polite staff took over Stranger in Paradise for two nights. While an excellent promotion for Lost Lake and the new Stranger in Paradise space, and a great way for Polite to bring their drinks, style of service and brand to an entirely new market, Castro says it was also just a fun time for everyone.
While the Lost Lake/Stranger in Paradise takeover by Polite Provisions was a thoughtfully planned and coordinated effort, sometimes a pop-up embodies the term literally. Castro recalled traveling to New York City with several Polite team members for a wedding in New Jersey. As a co-owner of Boilermaker in NYC, Castro saw an opportunity.
“We’re already here in town… I’ll cover the changes [for] anybody’s flight and I’ll get us a hotel room for the night, and we’ll all just party and stay one more night,” explains Castro. “So, it was just perfect timing and it just worked. Sometimes it’s fortuitous and you just want to take advantage of things like that.”
Operators probably should avoid relying solely on an opportunity to present itself, of course. Castro recommends two to three months minimum to execute a successful pop-up bar event. If an operator is traveling, for instance, airfare and lodging can be a significant cost. Planning months ahead can help keep that expense as low as possible. It’s also a matter of logistics.
“You don’t wanna wait for a week or two out [from the pop-up] to book a hotel and then realize there’s a massive convention and every hotel in town is taken,” cautions Castro.
When a pop-up is well planned and well executed—sponsor and staff sorted, drinks (and food if applicable) finalized, menus printed, venue transformed inside and outside, specialized glassware ordered and delivered, marketing in place, etc.—it can be so successful that it becomes a recurring event. Such is the case with the Sippin’ Santa and Miracle on 30th Street pop-ups, which several operators across the country—including Castro—have helped plan, coordinate and execute.
The former is a Christmas-themed pop-up that has transformed Boilermaker for three years now, operating from November 23 through December 31. This year marks the second time the latter event has taken over Polite Provisions. It also began on Black Friday and will operate through Christmas. And, of course, cocktails are a massive focus for these pop-ups.
“It’s not just about the recipes, it’s about figuring out how to get them out to people as fast as you can,” says Castro.
In the case of this year’s Miracle on 30th Street, Castro and the team have been planning since last year. In fact, Castro says serious work started last February. While dialing in the cocktails takes “only” a solid two to three weeks, working with a sponsor requires operators to be savvy and respectful of their time. Giving them several months of lead time is paramount. This is due in large part to how far out beverage alcohol companies finalize their budgets for the year.
“It’s really smart to pitch them, I would say, seven months in advance if you can,” advises Castro.
The more time an operator allows for the planning process of a pop-up, the better the chances are that it will be profitable, impactful and memorable. This isn’t to say that a pop-up planned now to take advantage of this holiday season can’t be executed, but the odds that it will succeed are rather slim. When an operator looks at images of Miracle on 30th Street they may just see decorations and a few seasonal drinks. Castro knows that the transformation took much, much more.
“There’s hundreds of man hours that go into the décor and thousands upon thousands of dollars that go into decorating the place. We spare no expense [when it comes to] making the event as transformational as possible,” says Castro.
That’s just for the look of the event. Think about the hours of calls, emails and texts that take place to coordinate sponsored product, distribution, team members, and everything else required behind the scenes. The result, however, is well worth it for operators who plan far enough ahead. Beyond strengthening a brand through guest perception and engagement, the boost in revenue can mean finishing the year strong.
“We make it all back and then some.”