Tips to Help Bartenders Execute Successful Pop-Ups
At the 2023 Bartender’s Circle Summit in Seattle, WA, Chris Elford had some great advice for bartenders interested in launching a pop-up. Here is a summary of some of the key takeaways.
WHY SHOULD YOU USE POP-UPS TO MARKET YOUR BRAND?
Executing a successful pop-up usually involves traveling to a new place, bartending for the night, giving the host bar’s staff a night off and hopefully, throwing a kick-a$$ party!
And while pop-ups can be great fun, they are also a means for bar owners and bartenders to network and grow their brand.
Personally, pop-ups are a way for you to share ideas and connect with peers that you want to learn from. You might even end up making some lifelong friends!
But professionally, they also give you the opportunity to show others what you’ve got. If done well, a pop-up can help you demonstrate:
- What makes you special,
- What makes your bar special, or
- What makes your city special.
HOW TO EXECUTE A SUCCESSFUL POP-UP
① Build a Concept For Your Pop-Up
To start out, build a concept for your pop-up. Find an objective and then get creative and have fun with it.
It’s important to create a narrative for your cocktails. Most cocktails have an origin, but sometimes they lack a story and customers can often relate to stories. Think about why you are serving this cocktail. How did you change it? How should it be enjoyed today?
For example, at one pop-up in another city, Chris’ bar Navy Strength pre-sold tickets for two different time slots to an educational-themed event where they told a story about their bar and their city (Seattle) through the themed cocktails they served during the seating.
Here are some more ideas to help build some inspiration:
- Support a Charity (e.g. Another Round Another Rally)
- Celebrate an Event
- A Book Release Party
- Bartend for Another Bar’s Anniversary
② Find a Venue For Your Pop-Up
Okay, now you need to find a venue. If you have a target city in mind, but don’t know anyone there, try making a post on social media to see if any of your friends can help you establish a connection with a good bar to work with.
Ideally, you are looking for another bar that aligns with your goals, but not necessarily a bar with a similar concept to yours. For example, Chris’ bar Navy Strength (a tropical bar) traveled to Grand Army Bar (a neighborhood pub) in Brooklyn, NY for a pop-up called “Grand Navy.” Cute, huh?
③ Find an Anchor For Your Pop-Up
Next, find an anchor!
You will want to establish contact with a person from the venue who can get things done, make decisions and is responsive to communication regarding logistics.
This person HAS TO BE a good communicator. You want to make sure you know their expectations and they understand yours. Be on the same page about the theme and brainstorm ideas for decorations.
Pop-ups are no fun if nobody shows ups! Your anchor can help do the leg work in their city to reach out to the local press, spread the word on their bar’s social media and contact industry folks through the local United States Bartenders’ Guild chapter. But don’t put all the work on the host bar. You too can reach out to the press. Often a voice from someone a writer doesn’t normally hear from can go a long way.
Lastly, if you do decide on decorations, just remember 1) that you are not trying to move into the host bar’s space and 2) avoid overly relying on decorations to tell your story. One larger statement piece will make a bigger impact than several tchotchkes. A customer may barely notice small swag like napkins or table decorations so if you can bring something from your own bar that isn’t disposable, more power to you!
④ Get Your Pop-Up Sponsored
Don’t forget to get it sponsored! You can create a win-win situation for everyone if you understand your rep’s goals.
First, make it your business to find out the individual KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for each brand. Are their KPIs linked to hosting an event, growing their social media presence, or selling a specific quantity of product?
Second, it’s best to talk directly to your rep, as in, do not send an email! Brands are usually more than willing to help out, but they may have to get creative to make it work for you.
Be specific and clear as to what assistance you require. For example, tell your rep that you looked at flights and this is how much they cost. Then ask if there is any money in the budget to cover it.
That said, if a brand approaches you and asks you to do something, then they should be paying for all your travel and lodging expenses. However, if you are asking a brand to sponsor an event that you want to do, your ask may be tailored a little differently.
Lastly, don’t forget to ask them about their expectations. If you are working with one specific brand, be sure to call them out on the menu. If you are using other spirits in your drinks that aren’t from the brand’s distributor’s catalog, don’t call them out by name (e.g. lowercase gin rum, curacao, etc.).
“Remember, there are three brands: the bar, the sponsor and YOU. You all have goals. All three of these brands can leave this experience really happy.”
— Chris Elford
Co-Founder, Here Today Brewery & Kitchen
PACKING FOR YOUR POP-UP
Costumes bring a little extra party to a pop-up. Chris said some of the most fun he has had at pop-ups is when they showed up in black hoodies and combat boots, rocked some grunge music and just generally played up the Seattle vibe.
If you are working with special ingredients in your cocktails, don’t count on being able to source them locally in the city you are visiting. Bring your own ingredients with you!
Now this is very important if you are traveling with liquids… vacuum seal your liquids! Then vacuum seal them a second time. Pack them in a hard case. Write a friendly note to TSA explaining that “you are about to encounter some liquids because I am a traveling bartender and require them to perform my job,” and then attach the note to the hard case. Check that bag and hope that they return everything the way they found it!
SETTING EXPECTATIONS FOR YOUR POP-UP
Go in prepared for anything but temper your expectations. Something will always go wrong!
The best-case scenario is you can just show up and start bartending, but often you will need to come in early and do some of your own prep.
Also, don’t expect to get paid. Chris said he gets paid to bartend at about half the pop-ups he does. If he does get paid, it is built into what the event sponsor is paying for. As far as sales and tips from the event go, generally, all proceeds go to the host bar and its employees. Chris made the point that the employees of the host bar shouldn’t have to give up a shift for a pop-up event. They should be a part of the party and benefit from having an extra set of “free” hands behind the bar.
Attendees and staff appreciate educational components. Be sure to share what you do and why. Teach others about your processes and ingredients. Remember, not everyone gets to sit at the bar, so take some time to deliver drinks to guests on the floor so that you can talk to them too. They will appreciate the extra effort, after all, they are there to support you as well.
Some more advice:
- Beware the target on your back of anyone who rises above.
- Don’t consume alcohol before or during your shift.
- Export yourself, but also your anchor city.
- Speak kindly of people in your city.
- Champion your city.
- Make your flight!
A LITTLE NOTE ABOUT CHRIS ELFORD
Way back in 2014, we were still young, but already burnt out at our accounting, desk jobs. Can you say, “millennials?!?” 😀
As our love for home bartending grew, the idea of opening a craft cocktail lounge formed. We started putting together a business plan to see if the concept could be financially viable in our hometown (a medium-sized city).
Everything inked out, but we were still working up the courage to quit our day jobs, so we took a road trip to visit some bars in Seattle.
We went to Liberty first only to find Keith Walbauer guest bartending at the next bar, Rob Roy, for his birthday party. Possibly the O.G. pop-up?
At some point, we pulled up to the bar at Canon and were greeted by a friendly, dapper, also young Chris Elford. We shared our plight and he was incredibly positive and encouraging, even inviting us to check out his new tool, The Bar Collective.
We had been focusing on the risks involved in opening a bar, but he helped remind us how fun and rewarding it can be.
After that, we signed a lease and started remodeling a space in the old Wenatchee Hotel Building. We exposed a lot of brick, built out a bar and turned a bank vault into our kitchen.
Then, we sold A LOT of cocktails! It was both a blur and blast.
Over the years, Chris has obviously refined the art of the pop-up. But it occurred to me while writing this article that he has been networking a very long time and we could probably all borrow a page from his book. 😉
Thanks for the tips, Chris!
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