Chicago has become a magnet for pop-up bars, where bar owners bank on nostalgia to promote their business. Proprietors have mined properties from Die Hard to Stranger Things to Rick and Morty to Fleetwood Mac to celebrate the movies, TV shows, and video games that bring people joy. Fans can pretend they’re Carrie Bradshaw or Squidward for a night, drinking cocktails named for characters or inside-baseball references, posing with impressive props like an Iron Throne bristling with swords, and flooding social media with proof they stopped by. Excited would-be customers dress up, rehearse scripts, and rewatch old episodes on YouTube in preparation for the event.
Securing licenses, ensuring customers feel the pop-up is authentic, and developing menus is hard work. But when COVID-19 appeared, the niche industry came to a screeching halt. Nostalgia is no insulation from a pandemic.
The phenomena took flight four years ago, when Derek Berry landed on a notion that left bar owners across the city salivating in hopes of mimicking its success. Berry — then a DJ and promoter at West Town nightclub Beauty Bar — was sitting on his couch one evening in 2016 when an idea struck that would change Chicago’s bar landscape. A longtime fan of ’90s sitcom Saved by the Bell, he joked with friends about the show and reminisced about simpler times when he would rush home from school to catch his favorite shows.
Berry sought to create an immaculate recreation of the Max. He and his crew even watched YouTube clips of the series ensure accuracy, combing through footage to determine the proper angles for prop placement. The restaurant would also have a bar component. The diner where Zack Morris, Lisa Turtle, and A.C. Slater hung out after school did not serve booze. There, fans could eat special food, make referential jokes with servers, and take pictures to memorialize the occasion. Barry created a Facebook event on that Sunday night in February with his friends. By 10 a.m. on Monday, the event had accrued around 5,000 “likes,” and local news sources had already picked up the story. Four months later, the pop-up launched to long lines of fans.
The Max had drawn NBC’s attention, catapulting Berry toward starting his own pop-up business. He moved to LA to work with high-profile properties, including contemporary shows like Breaking Bad and popular throwbacks like Good Burger, with events both on the West Coast and in Chicago. Berry was humming along, and his work impressed studios. When a Beverly Hills: 90210 pop-up failed to come together, organizers called him to straighten out the situation — he was kind of a ringer in the vein as the Wolf, a la Harvey Keitel’s role in Pulp Fiction. Soon, he sewed up a deal for his next project: He was going to work his magic with Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless, a property he was particularly excited about.
The pandemic wasn’t yet a big story in the U.S., but the studios were already showing trepidation. Berry was frustrated. He had grown his career from being a nightclub promoter and DJ, uprooting his family from Chicago to LA. The day before tickets for the pop-up were going on sale, LA shut down all on-site dining. All of his hard work was being flushed down the drain.
It’s hard to say why Chicagoans have responded so positively to pop-culture pop-up bars, but the city’s drinkers have shown for the events with unbridled enthusiasm. Writers and commentators point to the broader phenomenon of an American fascination with nostalgia; an obsession with the past and the media reminding us of bygone days that may or may not have been all that wonderful.
Netflix’s nostalgia-driven ’80s-era mega-hit Stranger Things was the talk of the town in August, 2017, and Emporium Arcade Bar owners quickly recognized the potential of a pop-up inspired by the show. They conceived “the Upside Down” as a pop-up with movie-quality props that made folks feel they were on the ground in Hawkins. Themed cocktails included a maple-flavored drink called Eleven’s Eggo’s, garnished with a waffle wedge. Fans across the country were planning trips to Chicago, and publications like Condé Nast Traveler and Food & Wine magazine covered the opening in Logan Square. Emporium eventually received a cheeky cease-and-desist letter from Netflix demanding that they shut down the event after two and a half months.
But the risk is worth it for the business, say the owners of a rival arcade bar. Over at Replay, Mark Kwiatkowski says he hopes more media companies realize the free promotion their properties receive from pop-up bar events, licensed or not. “When [Adult Swim show] Rick and Morty announces a new season, Eater Chicago and GQ France aren’t writing about it,” he says. “Our events are getting that kind of press. My PR team will aggregate all the media hits, billions of impressions, and I think that helps. Some of them started to realize that, but not all of them do.”
Kwiatkowski takes special pride in his “pop-up squad,” a collection of local artists whose efforts set Replay Lincoln Park apart from some of the city’s less ambitious themed-bar events. He’s gone on to hold more than 20 pop-culture-themed pop-ups, with themes including hit TV show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Pokémon, and even video games like Fortnite.
Tom Molloy, a Chicago artist who’s been in the Replay squad for two years, says the gig is unlike any other he’s encountered. “I was trained in painting and digital art, but then pop-ups come along and it’s like, ‘We need you to sculpt a Pokémon out of tape and Styrofoam,’” he says. “I’d never done that before, but now it’s so easy to me. It can be frustrating — tape and foam can only go so far — but it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
The point, of course, is to bring in business — for some operators, costumes, decor, and themed drinks are a means to an end. But as he became increasingly immersed in the pop-up world, Kwiatkowski developed a soft spot for the excited fans who line up to celebrate their favorite media. Replay’s Parks & Recreation pop-up, themed after Amy Poehler’s heartfelt NBC sitcom about the joys of local government, is a case in point: “The first girl who walked in literally started weeping,” he says. “She loved it, and proceeded to be there practically every night. [Parks & Recreation actor] Jim O’Heir came in and took special care of her, signing memorabilia and taking extra pictures.”
Berry doesn’t pretend to have invented the idea of pop-ups. Restaurants across America, including Logan Square’s Midwest farm-to-table pioneer Lula Cafe, were “dressing up as other restaurants” for years prior, and theme nights at bars were already well-trodden ground. But the detail-oriented approach and plethora of engaging props at Saved by the Max was unrivaled at the time, and set it apart from one-night-only events and seasonal festivities like Halloween. Ultimately, Berry proved pop-ups could provide real escapism, a chance for customers to step out of the mundane activities of day-to-day life and into a playful new world.
“I think what we did was we touched all five senses,” Berry says. “We know that people love Instagrammable moments, but if you’re immersed in the experience — not just taking photos, but listening to music of the era, being called ‘preppy’ by your waiter — it ends up being more in-depth. While you’re there, you feel like you’re in [the show].”
In March, Kwiatkowski was in the midst of his team’s most ambitious pop-up yet: a Lord of the Rings-themed event that consumed the large arcade area at the front of the venue. A second, slightly smaller pop-up, Harry Potter, was winding down in the back room, and the team was preparing to launch Shrek in that same space for St. Patrick’s Day.
The weeks and months that followed — the pandemic, the state’s stay-at-home order, sweeping closures; some permanent, others temporary — are by now a familiar story. Replay Lincoln Park reopened in the last week of June, but Kwiatkowski says he found the scene, now limited to 100 customers, was awkward, even upsetting. The space didn’t even get close to its maximum capacity. “People weren’t feeling comfortable,” he says. “The whole dynamic was very strange... It just felt so apocalyptic or dystopian or something, it was depressing for me.”
After spending more time grappling with the city over permitting for outdoor seating, he and his team debuted a Bob’s Burgers-themed outdoor pop-up. Kwiatkowski says that despite the extreme logistical challenges, he never really considered moving forward without pop-ups.
“It’s what we do, and now more than ever, people want an escape — a safe escape, obviously,” he says. “It was an easy calculation because people can’t go to concerts or sporting events. People are looking for fun, safe things to do, and they want to escape from all the different pressures that this pandemic has put on all of us. It was a no-brainer, honestly.”
The current scenario has forced the Replay team to work with what they’ve got — namely, a license from the city to hold an outdoor pop-in a creepy alley behind the bar that Kwiatkowski calls the “dumpster area.” For Halloween, they’re holding a drive-thru haunted house where actors in spooky costumes terrorize customers for 30 minutes. Carless would-be patrons can even rent a (sanitized) car from the bar.
Meanwhile, for their first pandemic pop-up adventure, held indoors and outdoors, the Sixth — a Lincoln Square cocktail bar — selected Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Staff decorated the bar’s interior and 10-seat sidewalk patio with oversized props, such as six-foot-tall toy dinosaurs and enormous ladybugs, to make customers feel small.
A key part to success is to choose a theme with a “dormant” fanbase, according to Sarah Zelman, marketing manager at the Sixth. Originally released in 1987, the film still has hoards of watchers and rewatchers who don’t have a convention or fan celebration to attend. “The fanbase doesn’t have anywhere to express it,” she says. “It’s not like Harry Potter, where there’s stuff you can buy at the bookstore.”
Even the most popular property, however, won’t make up for a half-hearted approach. Fans now expect more than a few cardboard cutouts and familiar mixed drinks with jazzed-up names, and they’ll spread the word when an event doesn’t live up to the hype. Berry, Zelman, and Kwiatkowski all agree that delivering on the premise — a singular experience worth waiting and paying for — will make the difference between a rousing success and dismal failure.
“Hitting exactly what you promise is important, and you have to recognize that these are important memories for people,” Zelman says. “You have to respect that.”
As Halloween approaches, pop-ups gain popularity. Promoter and DJ Heaven Malone is bringing back his Shining pop-up. Instead of the tiny West Town bar where he previously hosted the tribute to Jack Nicholson’s film, Room 237 will take place a Morgan Manufacturing, a roomy private space in Fulton Market.
Berry is also taking a different approach after his success with Saved by the Bell, Good Burger, and Breaking Bad. Those properties cost money, and Berry paid a licensing fee to NBC covering all necessary usages. This alliance put Saved by the Max and its organizers in a new category of pop-ups: extended events that lasted significantly longer than a typical theme night or weekend. Berry declined to say how much licensing costs. He just announced a partnership with director Kevin Smith, to bring a fast-food pop-up to the West Loop based on Smith’s movies.
But money’s tight right now. Berry has uncorked a new idea in LA centering on his love for emo music. Emo Brunch will be full of menu puns. But Berry can’t wait for a time when it’s safer and he gets to play with all the snazzy toys in the movie and TV studios’ sandboxes once again.
“You may be able to get away with doing them without the studio, but we’ve learned that if you want to treat these as not just a one-time splash, but look at this like a sustainable business model, they get super supportive,” he says. “Sometimes it stinks paying royalty fees, but this could open doors to a way bigger thing. If it’s unofficial, most of the time you’re focused on not getting shut down.”