Monday, 5 March 2018


[This article previously appeared in Barlife Magazine.]

by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown

Aside from being a drinking establishment launched with the premise that it will be open for a finite period, the sky’s the limit with a pop-up bar. There is far more freedom to experiment with new concepts and far less financial risk than comes with building a permanent establishment.

With smaller start-up investment requirements it is no surprise pop-ups have exploded over the past decade—although the structure has been around for as long as humans have gathered to eat and drink. Christmas and harvest fairs are timeless pop-ups. A great example of more sporadic pop-ups is the series of frost fairs held on the Thames River in London whenever it was frozen so thick it could support the weight of crowds and occasionally elephants. The frost fairs occurred in the 1700s and 1800s with people setting up tents and welcoming an onslaught of customers.  

The most famous historic pop-ups in the USA were the 1960s music festivals. Woodstock and Monterey Pop were not ongoing concerns but one-offs organised by idealists. From those origins a new genre emerged. Music festivals are now big business, employing nearly 50,000 people each year.

Similarly, the pop-up model has emerged as a viable business bar or restaurant alternative and have also become big business. However, smaller players frequently have the advantage. Pop-ups are no more challenging for an individual or small group to put together than for a corporation. Plus, the prevailing opinion  of consumers is a general mistrust of corporate pop-ups. 

An alternative model is to create a free-standing, independent pop-up within an existing establishment. ABV in San Francisco for example has a second bar upstairs in the back. At the moment it is a whiskey bar. Soon it will be a gin bar. Then an agave spirits bar. 

Mobile bars are another of the latest hot food trends to spill over into drink. The average investment to set up a food truck is far lower than to a restaurant build out. The same goes for bars. The licensing can be tricky. But in most countries a mobile bar falls under the same strictures as any other catering operation. 

One of the great secrets of the live concert business is the built-in plan to add more dates if a show quickly sells out all of its nights. This can also add enormously to the profits from a pop-up bar and should always be factored into the plan. It may not happen every time, but we have worked on a six-week event that ultimately ran for four months. It probably could have continued. But with pop-ups it is always better to end them while they are still successful rather than spending the profits to prop up a sinking pop-up. 

Bottom line: What consumers appreciate more than anything is a fresh concept, a new idea. While it is safer to take an idea that has proven successful and repeat it, with pop-ups consumers are drawn to innovation. Thus, being first will be more risky but also more profitable in the near term and a stronger reputation builder in the long run.

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