Behind the Bar

How To Make Your Bar's Pop-Up Event Spectacular

The interior of a bar decorated for Christmas.
What began as a means of buying time morphed into an international sensation. This year, there were more than 30 holiday pop-ups themed around either Miracle on 9th Street or Sippin' Santa's Surf Shop. (Photo: Courtesy of Moki Media)

If a themed bar sounds like fun, but you’re not willing to commit to to it full time, you might want to take a page out of Greg Boehm’s book. When he was getting ready to start construction on Mace a few years ago, his mother suggested that he delay it one month, host a Christmas pop-up bar and start construction in January. “Miracle on 9th Street was born,” he says. The next year, Derek Brown and Angie Fetherston, co-owners of Drink Company, got involved, along with a bar in Connecticut. Boehm turned Boilermaker into Sipping Santa’s Surf Shack, for the season, which morphed into a sort of Christmas tiki experience.

This past year, over 30 bars around the world signed on to become Miracle or Sipping Santa pop-ups, connected by custom Cocktail Kingdom glassware and art, and a menu created by Nico de Soto, co-owner of Mace. Boehm has things down to a science. “At this point we have so much knowledge and experience,” he says. “We have a manual that we share with people that's very clear on what works.”

To become part of the franchise, bars have to be willing to fully embrace the idea, and abide by the guidelines. “It has to be somebody that has a very high level of interest in cocktails,” says Boehm. “It's not just a Christmas themed gimmick. It's a very serious Christmas cocktail experience.”

Boehm’s advice for would be pop-up bars? Planning. “In the old days there was a New York Times critic named Craig Claiborne, he could write a review and it could almost put the restaurant out of business because all the sudden there was a line around the corner and they would run out of things. I think you have to be ready for that with a pop-up. You need really good systems, and you need to be ready to support it. Whenever you think you're done, you're probably not, you probably need to keep decorating, keep planning, because if it is successful it's incredibly trying and can stretch even the most organized space to its limits, and if it's not successful right away then you need to be ready to figure out ways to market it. You have to be ready for an intense dive into the water.”

A holiday themed cocktail glass. Planning for a successful pop-up? Pay keen attention to every detail as it relates to the theme. (Photo: Moki Media)

For his second year as part of the Miracle Bars project, Brown added a new element, turning Eat the Rich into a Stranger Things pop-up. “I think what people do when they think of a theme, historically they would just route that into the cocktail menu. It might be some aspect of the glassware or the garnish that would revolve around that theme, but we tried to create the entire environment around the cocktails, so what that does, effectively, is it creates a very fun place to be. What I'd really recommend people do when they're thinking of thematic menus: do it up as much as possible,” he says. This approach is clearly working for Brown. “In about a month, we had about fifty thousand people come through. You could call it a viral success. We had three hour lines almost every single night and we went all out.”

But all that viral success was the result of a lot of hard work. A team of 40 plus (consisting of mostly volunteers) helped bring the holiday theme to life. “It took us over a month,” says Brown. “The Stranger Things themed bar was very elaborate. Actually on one of our walls we have the Demogorgon that pops out of the wall using animatronics that one of our bartenders, Matt Fox, created. He didn't know how to do it. He literally just went on the internet and figured out how to do it. That's what I mean when I say if you commit to it it really can be successful.”

Just because a pop-up goes viral doesn’t mean it’s well executed, as Ben Bernheim experienced after checking out a Game of Thrones pop-up that had gotten online buzz. The trouble began with trying to find the location. “When we first arrived, we were very unsure that we were at the right place — there was no indication outside whatsoever that it was indeed happening there. Later, as we were leaving, we were approached by two or three groups asking if they were at the right place. Despite Buzzfeed’s fantastic publicity for the place, and the fact that everyone was talking about it, nobody really knew [where it was being held] and finding it wasn’t as breezelessly easy as I might have liked.” Bernheim notes that poor availability of information online was a distinct weakness.

The pop-up didn’t take over the whole bar, rather, that part was held downstairs. “It seemed that lots of people were coming and going without queuing,” says Bernheim, either unaware of the pop-up, or uninterested. Though the wait had been about half an hour, the reason wasn’t immediately clear. “Given the hype and the queuing, it was surprisingly small and I don’t think there were that many people there,” he says. “There seemed to be quite a lot of staff (if only for crowd control) for the number of patrons.”

“The décor itself was slightly disappointing,” says Bernheim. “There was a sword propped up behind the bar, and the odd Game of Thrones banner on the wall. The staff were very, very subtly in costume, easy to miss. There was a handful of televisions playing episodes from Game of Thrones scattered around. Everyone cheered at the death scenes.” Beyond the room, the main thematic aspect seemed to be in the drink menu (which was apparently hard to come by, Berheim suggests, because people were stealing them). For Berheim, the experience left something wanting. “It wasn’t really worth the hassle, waiting and high prices,” he says. “ if I enjoyed the evening it wasn't because the pop-up bar itself.”

Berheim had never been to the bar in question before the pop-up, a good reminder that a themed pop-up can also introduce a whole different crowd to a bar they might not be familiar with. “We saw people who weren't necessarily cocktail driven come in, and they love the theme, they love the idea so they'd order more cocktails, and we saw people who are more cocktail driven come in and light up because it was fun, it wasn't a real stagnant environment where you have to kind of sit there and worship at the drink,” says Brown. “We got a whole range of new people in and we got a lot of our regular customers excited about being here, too.”

This project has whet Brown’s appetite for more pop-ups, beyond the holiday season. “We're plotting ways that we can do it intermittently,” he says. “We have a team and volunteers and staffing and we've worked through all the details of it. We feel like ‘what else can we do?’ kind of rubbing our hands together, trying to figure out like how much fun we can make it.”

For Brown, the heart of a pop up is the level of work and thought that goes into it. “I think that if you're going to go, you might as well go all the way: getting bartenders to dress up working from a theme, making sure that the cocktails reflect that theme, and that the environment reflects that theme, all of that can make it more fun,” he says. “Occasionally, in the past, we've done thematic menus where it's just the cocktails, and that's fun, people enjoy it, but it's just not the same as when you go all out. That's when people really lose their minds, and they're taking pictures, and they're inviting their friends. You go from having a bar that is busy and people are excited about, to having something that really is special and people think of as a destination.”

Editor's note: While hosting a one-off event at your own bar can be fun, we do not endorse pop-up events at Tales of the Cocktail — these events present serious liability issues and take money from the pockets of New Orleans hospitality workers. Instead, we encourage our visitors to visit and support our wonderful New Orleans service industry family. Read more about our pop-up policy here.

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