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A Look Inside The Wacky, Wonderful World of The Pop-Up Bar


Foodie fads tend to come and go. But the pop-up is here to stay.

Picture the scene: A friend of a friend’s sister knows about a hot new pop-up and tonight you are finally checking it out. The location, (which was a mystery until revealed earlier on Instagram), brings you to a darkened alleyway in a neighborhood you have yet to explore. You open a nondescript door to a industrial-sized loft and are instantly hit with a wave of bright lights, loud music and intoxicating smells. Highly anticipated and heavily decorated, the place is alive with people from all different backgrounds, but with one goal in common: to have fun. 

Temporary establishments are said to have dated as far back as 1298 when seasonal markets were held, enticing people with gifts and mouthwatering treats. It wasn’t long before these simple and seasonal markets evolved into more complex pop-up shops, expos and restaurants. Today it is not uncommon for a pop-up to sprout seemingly overnight.

But, what drives people to these pop-up bars and restaurants? Is it the experience or the exclusivity? And more importantly, what goes into making it a success? To find out, first we need to go back. Way back.  

In 2004, when frosted lipgloss and low-rise jeans were the norm, the term ‘pop-up’ was hardly a household name. But in a little known blog, trendwatching.com
, the buzz was brewing. A blog post from January of that year addressed the idea that consumers who are used to massclusivity and planned spontaneity were delighted by one-off, unannounced experiences.

Several months later in June, big box retailers such as Target and JCPenney caught on and opened their own pop up shopping experiences that became more about the shock than the shoes. Pop-up retail began extending to other genres around 2009 when the pop-up restaurant began growing public interest. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the last year, Chicago has seen a surge of pop-up bars, likely catapulting off the wildly successful ‘Saved by the Max’ pop up, a bar that was intended to recreate the 80’s pastel splendor of “Saved by the Bell.” 

Co-owner, Derek Berry was inspired to create the pop-up after he helped host a 90’s night at a local Chicago bar. It was Berry’s dedication to authenticity that greatly appealed to the masses and allowed Saved by the Max to stay around for over a year before moving on to its next venture in LA.

Mark Kwiatkowski, owner of Replay in Lincoln Park, saw how successful Saved by the Max was and figured he could do it, too. 

“I was watching the new season of ‘Rick and Morty’ with my son at the time, and I was intrigued by it. I asked him if there was a bar in it. He said, ‘Well, Rick’s a big drunk and there’s an arcade.’ Then I knew we had a theme we could build out,” Kwiatkowski was quoted

Creating a pop-up takes serious cash and commitment. Kwiatkowski ended up shelling out $10,000 creating set pieces like a giant naked Santa.  

“I started out hoping to cover my investment and considered it a marketing cost,” Kwiatkowski said
. “(Creating pop-ups) has driven a lot more traffic and done way more than I ever expected.”

Since Rick and Morty, Replay has played host to a slew of other pop-ups including a Pokemon and Simpson’s version.

While Kwiatkowski sees a lot of Millennials strolling through his bar, he says people of all ages find themselves at Replay, sometimes exposing themselves to new things.

“It’s funny seeing people’s faces as they consume the crazy theme stuff we’ve done, but it’s also interesting to see people discovering old arcade games for the first time,” he said to the Chicago Tribune

While some convert their entire bar into a pop-up, others are simply utilizing their extra space. 

When brothers, Danny and Doug Marks, stumbled upon the perfect location for their second Emporium Arcade Bar, they knew they were onto something. Centrally located in Logan Square, the space was close to public transit and featured an additional, totally separate bar next door.

The duo knew from the start that the second bar would be utilized as a rotating event space, it was just a matter of when. Finally, in 2016 they opened their first pop-up, “Surf
”, an experimental “endless summer” project with swinging seats, fresh-squeezed cocktails, and a fake beach. Since Surf, Emporium’s second space has played host to more than twenty-two different pop-ups.

For Jared Saul, Emporium’s pop-ups are all about expanding the brand, creating and cultivating new partnerships and making one of a kind experiences. Saul is Emporium's man of many hats. He’s the Director of Business Development, Director of Beer and Director of pop-ups.  

Recently he oversaw the development of the Cimmerian Ark of Carcosa’ Pop-Up Bar
, presented by 3 Floyds. The brewery completely took over the space showcasing its brand and aesthetic through a “mashed up interpretation of ancient Egyptian art/architecture, Conan The Barbarian, & the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

It’s partnerships like this that can prove especially fruitful for pop-ups.

“Large brands are using pop-ups as a way to supplement and drive revenue, while building brand awareness,” said Jessica Stackpoole, founder and CEO of EventPro Strategies. “It’s a way to leverage seasonality,” and to take advantage of high-impact locations where the target audience is already present.”

In an interview with Illinois Meetings + Events
, Stackpoole emphasized the benefit of pop-ups for large companies when testing new products.  “Before spending immense resources on a new product or service launch, pop-ups can serve to test the market,” she said.

Recently the city of Chicago released a first-of-its-kind ordinance
 to create a licensing structure, allowing for the operation of short-term “pop-up” stores and restaurants. This will give restaurateurs and entrepreneurs a chance to test new concepts and experiences without the burden of a long-term lease or license.

As stated in a press release
, “currently, business owners seeking to operate pop-up establishments must obtain a full 2-year license. If approved by City Council, the new license will provide the option of a 5-, 30-, 90-, 180-, or 365-day license, depending on their business activity, all at a very low cost.”

Companies like Box Shops
 and Boombox in Chicago are taking the pop-up concept one step further by offering spaces for short-term, bespoke shops and restaurants in vibrantly painted shipping containers. Additional paperwork is required for those looking to sell alcohol. Monthly vendor leases start at just $1,000 a month and applying for a space is as easy as filling out a job application. 

Whether you are new to the industry or a seasoned veteran, it's always a good idea to switch things up and find out new ways to drive business to your bar. Are you considering hosting a pop-up? Sound off in the comments below. 

Maggie Mahar

Writer and Chicago native. Has a greeting card for every occasion. Plant mom and Provi employee since 2017. Marketing Manager.


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