Behind the Bar
LOVESHAQ and the Art of Pop-up Bars
Milwaukee mixologist and Phoenix Cocktail Club manager Adam Sarkis’s first foray into a pop-up bar started as a running joke. Sarkis and his friend, Nathaniel Smith, award-winning mixologist at Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis used to send each other pictures of 1990s basketball players.
Both basketball aficionados, the two dreamed up the Dream Team pop-up bar, with one night of basketball fun and 1992 Dream Team-themed drinks in Milwaukee, followed by a second night in the Twin Cities. Those two pop-ups were a success, so now he’s doing a pop-up called Love Shaq, combining all things Shaquille O’Neal with tiki.
“You need to come up with a concept that’s universal and relatable to people,” says Sarkis, who held his first LOVESHAQ pop-up at the Phoenix this month, and his second pop-up will be in Chicago at Deadbolt in January, with plans to take the pop-up to Baltimore, Atlanta and Los Angeles in 2018. “It’s introducing two things that are not completely familiar to each other but that can balance off of each other.”
Sarkis’s grassroots pop-ups have given him some good reasons and ground rules to get a pop-up going. “You want to start off in places where you know someone, in markets that you’re somewhat familiar with,” Sarkis says. “You also don’t want to force a concept into a market and force it a little too hard, as people would lose interest in it.”
But the concept should be out there enough. “What I found, in setting up special events at bars, is that the more outlandish the concept, the more of a fun response we’d get from people,” Sarkis says.
The concept for LOVESHAQ grew out of two of his twin interests – tiki and Shaq. “When I worked at Braise (an award-winning Milwaukee restaurant), I did Lucky Bun Dim Sum Number One nights on the roof patio once a week,” Sarkis says. “LOVESHAQ grew out of Lucky Bun. We weren’t carrying pineapple or passion fruit juices at Braise because they’re not really Wisconsin things, but with Lucky Bun, we transformed the space once a week, and we did tiki drinks.”
He added the Shaq component, with the idea of framing a lovely picture of Shaq dunking a basketball in an equally lovely bamboo frame. “That doesn’t really fit, but a lot of things that don’t fit – that’s kind of how tiki is,” Sarkis says. “Tiki is kind of an unpredictable bar concept, and the two things work together.”
To do a good pop-up, Sarkis recommends other bartenders start with the folks they already know, and then work with them to collaborate – and fit whatever the pop-up concept is into their individual bars and markets.
Another key is to partner with different liquor companies and brands. “Sponsors are important,” he says, adding that depending on the cities, a single pop-up concept might have different brands sponsoring the pop-up in different cities. “The most important thing is partnering with a liquor company you feel comfortable with and has a lot of support in the markets you’re traveling to,” Sarkis adds.
He already has Beaker & Flask making LOVESHAQ bitters for the drinks, but he doesn’t have any permanent, large brand sponsors yet – though he is in talks with some, who are waiting for their exact budgets to come out for the new year.
Collaboration is really a big part of grassroots pop-ups, he says. “Don’t just take a concept and be a dictator of it,” Sarkis says. “Introduce it to whomever you’re working with, and then find out what their interpretations of it are, and it will continue to grow. That’s also where you’ll get your inspiration from going forward.”
“When I’ve traveled to bartend with friends across the country, I’ve been really inspired,” Sarkis says.
“It’s one thing to travel and visit different bars, but it’s way different when you get behind someone else’s bar,” he says. “Those sound bites you take away from other patrons and then plug into your own bar. It’s a really cool thing to learn about other people’s philosophies and cultures. This pop-up is really a tour of inspiration for me.”
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