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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

A closer look at Chicago’s love affair with pop-ups

Chicagoans can't get enough of pop-culture–themed pop-ups. What does that say about what we expect from existing bars and restaurants?

Written by
Grace Perry
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Derek Berry has made a career in hosting throwback parties—his brainchild, a monthly dance night called Another ’90s Party, has been going strong at Beauty Bar for seven years. But he knew he had something big on his hands in early 2016. After his Facebook event for a Saved By The Bell-themed pop-up diner blew up seemingly overnight, it was time to sell tickets. “We went on sale, and within a minute we sold the whole first month out,” recalls Berry, the restaurant’s co-creator and operating manager. “And we were like, ‘This is wild. What’s going on here?’” Saved By The Max, a temporary restaurant that recreated the set of the beloved 1989 teen sitcom, would go on to sell out 12 months of ticketed dinners in its Wicker Park space.

Though the diner wasn’t the first themed pop-up to hit Chicago, Saved By The Max was like a cannonball at a pool party, and the nightlife world is still feeling its waves. Soon, pop-culture–themed restaurants and bars were sprouting up all over the city. In January 2017, Emporium Arcade Bar announced that the space next to its Logan Square location (which housed a beach-themed bar called Surf) would become a permanent pop-up venue, hosting rotating themed drinking experiences, including recreations of Stranger Things’ Upside Down, an Uprise skate shop and a holiday hip-hop club. Other Chicago bars have gotten in on the action, too, paying homage to everything from classic Christmas movies to The Simpsons to old-school natural historians.

Following its massive popularity in Chicago, Saved By The Max shipped out to L.A., where the diner is scheduled to serve ’90s nostalgia beginning on May 1. According to Berry, the best way to keep the project alive is to keep it moving around. “Something like this is definitely going to have a shelf life—no matter if it’s one year from now or 10 years from now,” says Berry. “We’re really aware of that.”

 The art of world creation
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

The art of world creation

Successful pop-ups aren’t just temporary watering holes and restaurants, they’re experiences. At least, that’s what the professionals say. Patrons are eager to do more than grab a drink or a meal; they’re there to step into an alternate universe, whether it’s the set of a sitcom or an iconic horror movie or a world curated by a beloved hip-hop group.

Emporium Pop-Ups’ projects go deeper than punny cocktail names and costumed bartenders. The team builds large-scale structures that patrons can get in and engage with physically—like the The Room-themed bar Tommy's World that debuted in December. Complete with recreations of the movie’s kitschy flower shop, Lisa’s apartment and the infamous rooftop green screen, the bar completely immersed patrons in Tommy Wiseau’s cult flick.

The hands behind the madness? A.J. Tarzian of Anarchitype Productions, who helps conceive, design and construct each new bar. With a degree in set design from DePaul University, Tarzian brings his more traditional theater background to a new, interactive environment at Emporium Pop-Ups. The set designer sees the rotating projects as a way to explore a middle ground between watching a movie and seeing a play. “I’ve always been interested in bringing elements of theatricality into mainstream environments,” says Tarzian. “Taking that artform to spots where people don’t expect it.”

The Emporium team doesn’t have a standard strategy for selecting and planning its events. Sometimes brands approach them to partner on an event, as was the case when they teamed with Disaster Artist distributor A24 on Tommy’s World; other projects simply reflect what the team is excited about at the time. After bingeing Stranger Things, Emporium’s director of pop-ups Jared Saul suggested they fill the gap between the scheduled Run The Jewels and Halloween bars with a tribute to the Netflix series. “I threw it out there, and everyone was like, ‘No, that’s stupid, that’s just for kids.’” But the team came around to Saul’s pitch, and though it was eventually shut down by Netflix via a polite cease and desist letter, the Upside Down became one of its most successful concepts.

According to Saul, the group’s most fruitful projects have been those customers already relate to. “I think if people identify with and connect with [it] on a personal level, it’ll be more successful,” he explains. And what do you do when you’re having a unique, jealousy-inducing experience dripping in recognizable pop culture references? You Instagram it, of course.

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Share photos, not plates
Courtesy: Saved By The Max

Share photos, not plates

It’s tough to imagine the pop-up phenomenon in an age without social media; one could even say that Facebook and Instagram are inextricably tied to the trend. When it comes to marketing and promoting fleeting events, Facebook does a lot of the heavy lifting. In fact, Saved By The Max organizers used only organic marketing during its Chicago run from June 2016 to June 2017. That’s right: Berry and his team sold out an entire year of ticketed dinners simply by manipulating the Facebook algorithm.

Once the idea for Saved By The Max was conceived, Berry created a Facebook event and asked a handful of folks with robust followings to indicate they were attending. A few days later, they’d “unattend” to eliminate a paper trail. Those clicks placed the event on hundreds of feeds, prompting more people to organically encounter the listing. Many local media outlets, including Time Out Chicago, were tipped off to the nostalgic diner via Facebook, too. Soon, word of the Max spread like wildfire, all because of a simple social plan and a clever idea that tapped into millennials’ ’90s fever.

Attendees’ social media engagement is equally important for attracting visitors; after all, in 2018, “word of mouth” is essentially a euphemism for “I saw it on Instagram.” In the case of Emporium Pop-Ups’ Stranger Things-themed bar, The Upside Down, the photo-sharing app and a little viral luck attracted the masses. Saul notes that with that particular event, the group's Instagram follower count almost doubled, and he contributes the influx of out-of-town followers to the social network. “Without Instagram, I doubt we would have had such a huge international base of visitors like we did,” says Saul.

Something as fun and fleeting as an immersive pop-up naturally feeds our collective impulse to document and share our experiences. After all, if you didn’t post about it, did it even happen? But it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation: Are pop-ups simply a byproduct of do-it-for-the-’gram mentality, or have they further enmeshed that attitude into our culture?

The shifting nature of restaurateuring
Photograph: Jason Little

The shifting nature of restaurateuring

Instagram doesn’t just have its hands all over pop-ups. According to Chicago chef and restaurateur Edward Kim (Mott St), the photo-sharing app embodies what many in the industry see as our generation’s “short attention span.” While Instagram buzz may be crucial for temporary restaurants and bars, it can have the opposite effect on brick-and-mortar restaurants. Or, at the very least, it’s changed how business owners strategize for long-term success.

Kim opened his first restaurant, the now-defunct Ruxbin, at the height of Yelp's heyday in 2010. Restaurants were no longer judged primarily by formal newspaper and magazine reviews but by user-generated content, and suddenly, everyone was a critic. And now, eight years later, Instagram has replaced Yelp in many ways. According to Kim, the aesthetic appeal of a dish, perhaps accompanied by a “yay or nay” caption, holds as much power in generating buzz and ushering in diners as formal reviews did a decade ago. “Before, you had to read a one-page story in the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times,” says Kim. “Then you read a paragraph on Yelp. [Now] you just look at a photo.” There’s a rush to be the first to judge a place, according to Kim, and that judgment increasingly comes in the form of Instagram photos.

Given this desire to be the first to try a new spot, getting people in the door in the first month isn’t a problem for Chicago restaurateurs. The city’s dining scene is buzzier than ever—perhaps you heard that we were named Bon Appetit’s Restaurant City of the Year in 2017? But keeping folks coming back is a different story. “We talk about how the old model was like, first you need to open up, and you build up and build a foundation,” says Kim. “Now, it’s like, gonna be really big in the beginning—the first three months. But can you survive the next three months? Six months?” Whatever numbers a restaurant attracts in those first few months are not at all indicative of its long-term stability.

For many consumers, there’s a predictable sequence at play: Dine at a restaurant once, take photos and never return—the exact cycle that’s intended for pop-ups. But unlike temporary installments, brick-and-mortar restaurants aren’t meant to pack up and hit the road after a month.

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You don’t have to choose
Photo: Jason Little

You don’t have to choose

When limited-time restaurants first became the rage, they were largely chef-driven—a big name visiting a new city or a sous chef trying their hand at manning the kitchen for a month or two. This, according to Kim, was neither profitable nor sustainable and was largely done for promotional purposes. Emporium Pop-Ups and Saved By The Max not only embody the shift to theme-driven concepts, but they’ve also found creative ways to keep drawing crowds. “That’s the cool thing about the nature of it—since it is switching things so often, people can’t really get tired of it,” says Tarzian.

Chicago’s most prominent pop-up creators show no signs of slowing down, and the reasoning is simple: They’re having a blast. “As long as we’re having fun and making enough money to keep the doors open, I don’t see why we can’t continue,” says Saul. The trend even inspired traditional restaurateur Kim to do a Salvador Dalí-themed dinner to celebrate release of the surrealist painter’s cookbook in 2016.

Ultimately, pop-up experiences and traditional restaurants exist in totally separate categories. While temporary spaces are designed with the intention of going viral, brick-and-mortar eateries serve a different function: to nourish a community, ideally for a long time. No restaurant could survive if patrons only went once and never come back. (Okay, so Alinea might be the exception.) Still, Kim says he believes these two experiences can coexist: “Restaurants that come and go are a flash in the pan and it’s exciting, but there’s still room for craft.” And the craft of cooking—really mastering a menu, a new kitchen, the art of great service—takes time to hone.

Perhaps it’s most useful for diners to approach the two with distinct attitudes. We can't expect the same experience from a traditional eatery as a themed pop-up. Excellent pop-ups are fun, creative outlets that excite patrons and expose us to new concoctions in a memorable environment. But if we expect every meal to be flashy, culturally relevant and Instagrammable, where will we be nourished?

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