New Year’s Eve was to mark the finale for Saved By The Max, the charming Chicago pop-culture pop-up that debuted in June based on the 1990s NBC show, Saved By The Bell. But here’s a morning announcement: They’re extending the pop-up through May and adding new menu items from chef Brian Fisher, who’s also killing it over at Entente in Lakeview. But the biggest news is that the pop-up will embark on a national tour after Chicago’s run is done. The dates and locations aren’t finalized, but Los Angeles should be an obvious stop.
Organizers Zack Eastman, Derek Berry and Steve Harris have now extended their run twice. Reservations for the Max have been booked solid for most of entire year, and it would seem the last six months have been stuffed with more than enough nostalgic ‘member berries to sate fans of Zack Morris, Mr. Belding and Kelly Kapowski. They’ve had celebrities, like Mario Lopez, stop by and they’re scheduled to appear on the next season of Fuck, That’s Delicious, as Action Bronson and his crew have already filmed.
The Max will take a break during the first week of January, taking five days off before starting Chicago’s final semester on Jan. 6 and going though May 31. They’re also asking superfans to tell them why The Max should pop up in their city. The three sat down to chat about their experiences over the last year. Before that, check out the video from actor Dennis Haskins, as Mr. Belding breaks the news. More reservations for Chicago go online at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22.
Let’s start with the news. How did you decide you wanted to extend the pop-up and go national?
Zack Eastman: The operation has really come into our own. The excitement is still there not only from our guests, but from our staff. We all sat down and talked and we looked at not only the subjective pieces of the business, but the objective pieces as well. Our waitlist is large. We’re constantly getting emails asking if we’re going to be here for longer. Now with our plans to take this to other markets nationally, we felt as Chicagoans that it was only fair to give Chicagoans a clean year of Saved By The Max before it goes anywhere else.
Steve, you’re kind of the incubator here, as you had the space and own other businesses, including Debonair Social Club. How was it working with these young turks?
Steve Harris: I love it. We’ve worked together in the past, but we’ve never had a project like this. Some of this stuff was unexpected, but in the planning stages we really built this to succeed. We built this to exceed any other pop-ups we’ve done in the past. Even if it was for the weekend, we wanted it to the be the best weekend that Chicago’s seen. I don’t know if we’re superstitious, we’re definitely humbled when you look at the brand and concepting it. But we were all for getting the best design, the best food product, getting the best drinks in people’s hands. We didn’t want to go short on anything. It was really about—like Zack said—community interest that was propelled further.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing The Max?
Derek Berry: We’re all doing what we were doing before which is we are all partners in our respective nightclubs. Like Zack was saying, we only expected this to be a short time. So no one was saying ‘"quit you’re day jobs"...
ZE: I’m an operator and a partner up the street at the East Room, which is a bar in Logan Square and also run an events company called 1833. And those two things take up a good amount of time, and like Derek said we’ve all kept those other jobs, but as the success of this business has grown, our attention is shifting to nurturing this business. Now, I think, the really interesting piece is, did we create something that we sat out to create? Yes, but it exceeded our expectations. I think we’ve created something we’re really excited about which has shifted our thinking of what a restaurant can be in today’s culture and society.
What have you learned over the last six months?
SH: I never was in a business before where the money came in the front and you had to manage expenses so you didn’t run out of money in the last week. It’s a great exercise in learning a business that way.
Did NBC sign off on the menu?
ZE: As our partners in the business they have a say in the business just like we do. But they were not restrictive in that sense. It was more, "hey, let’s make sure the copy makes sense in terms of the TV show." It was more helpful than restrictive. They weren’t here to say "hey, we don’t you to put coconut milk in the waffle." They were celebrating the food and beverage side.
Did hiring chef Brian Fisher, who has fine-dining experience, help legitimize your operation? Korean chicken and waffles isn’t typical diner fare.
ZE: I would say yes. When we came up with this idea, we wanted to have elevated food. We didn’t just want to serve hot dogs and run-of-the-mill mac and cheese and a burger. We came at this project, again, looking at the finer details, and really looking at the customer experience as much as we could...it took us a month to find that right person, but the first time we sat down with him—we were introduced to him by some of our friends at Goose Island—we all just clicked right there in the tasting room. We were just handing out and shooting the shit. He’s a fan of the show, and he came highly recommended by a lot of people, and we tried his food. From there it’s developed into a great friendship, as well.
Is this the future of the restaurant business, could someone replicate this?
ZE: The traditional restaurant setting will always remain because I think that’s really important to a lot of people, including myself. I also do think, yes this could be replicated. Yes, other people could do this and I do think we’ll stat to see more of these longer-term pop-ups, more of these experiential pop-ups come to life in the near future.
Will you guys be replicating this with a different concept? Perhaps working with NBC’s Friends or Seinfeld?
DB: Everyone’s asked that! Right now it’s just Saved By The Max.
Anything to add?
SH: When building it, we thought we were onto something special. It wasn’t about dollars and cents, it was about all the elements the commercials with Max (actor Ed Alonzo). Each time something kind of came out of the bag, something special and new.
ZE: It energized you...
SH: Yes, it energized. Sitting room with a healthy room. There were a lot of elements that kind of fell into place. Being in the Chicago restaurant industry for so long, there’s a lot of high-end concepts, but I don’t see a lot of great execution. In our conversation, on paper, idealized, all this things should work. But executing, it’s a different ballgame.
You’ve had Slater and Belding come in, but are you saving Zack, Kelly, Jessie for L.A.? Folks are asking a lot about Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley.
ZE: We’re hopeful. And hi: Mark, Elizabeth, Tiffani. We’re hopeful they can join us soon. The door’s open. We’d love to create something unique with them when the time’s right for them and us.