Pull up the 10 highest-grossing films of the 2020s thus far, and you’ll notice a trend. The list is topped by the ninth “Spider Man” movie, two big-budget sequels, one movie based on a toy and another based on a video game, two big-budget Marvel sequels, the 10th “Spider Man” movie, the sixth “Jurassic Park,” and the fifth “Minions.”

This follows the 2010s, when eight of the 10 highest-grossing films of the decade came from the Disney-Marvel pantheon — the outliers being the fourth “Jurassic Park,” and the seventh “Fast & Furious” installment, no doubt also the fastest and most furious movie up to that point in cinematic history.

Now take a look at what’s happening around the MCU these days — no, not the Marvel Cinematic Universe, silly, that’s the Modern Cocktail Universe, to you — and perhaps it’s no surprise that many of the most anticipated new bar openings of recent vintage follow a similar blueprint.

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The easiest business decision in the world is to give consumers more of what they want, the thing that they have shown with their spending to have a proven affinity for. This holds true whether it’s Vin Diesel and The Rock driving fast cars while potentially also — and here’s the key — being angry, or whether it’s another locale from SG Group, Mr. Lyan, or Death & Co.

Fresh on the heels of starry debuts such as Sip & Guzzle in New York and Death & Co. in D.C., bar-going MCU fans can’t wait to see what comes out next year: 2 Sip Too Guzzle? Lyanest 6? Still Death, Still Company?

Franchises sell. People love spending money on the stories and brands and faces they already love. It reinforces their fandom and doesn’t require the effort of seeking out something new that they might not like as much anyway. As such, even a cursory glance at the current MCU shows an abundance of franchises and sequels, with the pace of production picking up over the past few years in particular.

The Expansion of Bar Groups

The MCU may have launched when Employees Only opened up its Singapore outpost in 2016. Offshoots in Hong Kong and Miami came and went, along with a Panama City bar called Strangers Club, but E.O.’s in New York, Singapore, Sydney, and Los Angeles remain strong. The Dead Rabbit is expanding into Washington, D.C., and Austin, while Death & Co. is up to four branches and even crowdfunded its way to more than $2 million to help spread its reach. The team behind A Bar with Shapes for a Name has two additional art movement-themed cocktail bars in France, and more on the way; SG Group has nine concepts, though I confess it’s hard to keep track; and Florería Atlántico has stretched its legs from Buenos Aires to Barcelona. Rather than going global, other groups expanded their local footprint first before moving farther afield, with Licorería Limantour opening two locations in Mexico City, Dante opening two in New York along with a third in Beverly Hills, and Mr. Lyan currently operating two concepts in London, with two more in Amsterdam and D.C.

Opening a new world-class cocktail bar is no turnkey operation. It requires adapting to the local market while staying true to an internal vision of what the bar represents and offers, training a local team, and adding that much more to a personal entrepreneurial plate that’s likely already piled high.

“Opening up in Barcelona was challenging, we’re still learning,” says Tato Giovannoni, owner of Florería Atlántico, whose Barca location debuted last summer. Giovannoni revealed in conversation that he’s also planning to open a Florería in Washington, D.C., this year, joining a movement to make the nation’s capital also one of its cocktail capitals.

“Each property has to be locally relevant to be successful, and we can never take our success elsewhere for granted,” he says. “It all has to be earned, every city and every day we operate.”

“We try to keep our authenticity, bringing in something that was born in Argentina, but also try to adapt flavor-wise and take inspiration,” Giovannoni says. In Barcelona, the bright and vibrant flavors of Catalonia and the Mediterranean at large are showcased, while the bar’s menu continues hitting on its theme of the movement of humanity around the world.

As the beer world saw with craft breweries expanding into new markets, just because something crushed in SoCal doesn’t mean they’re going to care in the Midwest or the Eastern Seaboard or wherever else. They have their own craft breweries there. So who are you?

“[That’s] why I believe many other scaled hospitality brands and concepts fall short; they’re often replicating a ‘New York speakeasy,’ a ‘SoCal craft brewery,’ or a ‘New York Irish pub,’” says Jack McGarry, managing partner of The Dead Rabbit. “These localized concepts don’t travel well because they don’t resonate with local audiences, as they fail to serve their needs or wants.”

For David Kaplan, CEO of Death & Co. parent company Gin & Luck, a concept is only as strong as its tie to a specific place. “Each property has to be locally relevant to be successful, and we can never take our success elsewhere for granted,” he says. “It all has to be earned, every city and every day we operate.”

But a leopard can’t change its spots, and what’s the point of opening a new location if everything about it has been changed to the point of being unrecognizable? “Every new Florería, with Barcelona being the first one, there’s always going to be a little Argentinean touch,” Giovannoni says. “The idea was to spread the story about my country, what we do, how we live, how this country was made..”

Avoiding the F Word

If this was the cinematic MCU, we’re probably still in Phase One: smash hits and big names begetting smash hit sequels with more big names. Tertiary characters haven’t yet entered the fray, and the bar groups involved can be considered among the cocktail crème de la crème. When these top-of-the-line operations open up shop in new places, they’re able to raise standards across the industry by training more staff and perhaps providing a new market something it had been missing.

This type of expansion is what the restaurant world has long done, but it’s not an equitable comparison. While a restaurant’s atmosphere is of the utmost importance, when you enter, say, one of the 31 restaurants José Andrés operates, you aren’t expecting him to be in the kitchen making your food, or to come to your table for a chat. On the other hand, a bar is dependent to an extreme and rare level not only on the execution of a good or service but on the staff providing that good and service, and the customers showing up beside you as a result. The people behind a bar and how they tend that bar are its truest encapsulation in a way that cooks working the line or baristas preparing lattes aren’t, because a great bar isn’t a mere conglomeration of recipes to be churned out.

“There are so many restaurants that became a chain, but a chain isn’t the same thing; that expansion is like copy and pasting something.”

A great bar is a feeling. It’s a state of mind. And it’s only achieved or unlocked with the right atmosphere. That vibe when you walk into a space and know you’ve found your new home away from home is the direct result of the staff’s hospitality, and the synergy between them and their guests. As soon as I first stepped foot into La Factoría in 2016, I knew it was one of my favorite bars in the world and one of the best bars on the planet; I hadn’t yet ordered a drink. As La Factoría works toward opening a second location in Puerto Rico, it will be up to their founding team to attempt to recreate that vibe even in their absence.

That definitive essence of what a great bar is and how it feels makes expansion perhaps that much more nuanced and exasperating than it is even for other high-end hospitality businesses facing similar challenges. At all costs, the dreaded F word – franchise – and its soulless implication must be avoided. Otherwise, you’re simply following a Jon Taffer approach wherein sterile numbers analysis will somehow magically transform a failing bar into an uber-successful one — even at the terrible, terrible loss of costumed pirate bartenders.

“Being viewed as a chain has commodification associated with it, which we’re definitely not seeking to do,” McGarry says. “My ambition for The Dead Rabbit is to become primarily the best Irish pub company in America, and if we get that right, then we’ll be able to expand our reach to further the mission.” He uses the example of Bennigan’s as his antithesis, a dumbed-down concept built upon the emptied husks of Irish culture represented by what he refers to as paddywhackery and leprechaun porn.

“There are so many restaurants that became a chain, but a chain isn’t the same thing; that expansion is like copy and pasting something,” Giovannoni says. “With ourselves, and some of these other bars, the expansion comes from this need of showcasing who you are to the world, in our case, showcasing Argentina to the world.”

Avengers Assemble

The only thing that sells more tickets than another “Iron Man” sequel is when Stark brings the whole gang together into a gigantic franchise fest. When Walter Meyenberg, head of a Mexico City hospitality empire including Hanky Panky, announced a partnership dubbed MWA this year with married cocktail power couple Maura and Alex Lawrence Milia, social media picked up on the theme. “Avengers assemble,” the MCU memes said. Such a crossover collaboration is equivalent to “Endgame,” bringing the big stars together as thirsty consumers throw down their hard-earned money, begging for more.

While that may be the outcome, it’s far from the intention. “This perception seems to come from the outside; to us we’re just a group of passionate people trying to make beautiful things and understanding what each of us can bring to the table,” says Alex Lawrence Milia. “If our peers want to copy that ethos then that’s a great thing; if you want to come together for PR purposes, you’re missing the point. This is not something I’d suggest as a blueprint.”

As that Avengers-esque squad formed, with a London duo relying on the proven CDMX expertise of a friend and partner, someone such as Giovannoni also saw the wisdom in finding the right local team in someplace new. “It would be impossible for us to open up in Spain without our partners. We don’t know the city. That was the main reason we invited Diego [Cabrera] and Gustavo [Dipasquale] from Salmon Guru,” he says. “It’s nice to work like that, to join forces with people who know more than you.”

Bar supergroups and franchises may not be a blueprint everyone should try to follow, but you can be certain we’re going to be seeing more of it. “I believe that this is just getting started in the cocktail space,” Kaplan says. “We have obviously seen years of success in the restaurant and hotel world with phenomenal brands growing regionally, nationally, and globally.”

In that sense, it’s not new. But it is heating up. “It’s not a trend, it’s something that was going to happen,” Giovannoni says. It was inevitable that bars would attempt to walk the well-trodden path that restaurants have, and while there may be momentum behind the cause right now, it’s a movement that’s bound to stay. There’s no guarantee of success, of course. Ask “Ant Man” or that guy who shoots the arrows about that. But in the bar world, of course, there’s never been any type of guarantee.

“It’s trying to share your dream, and finding people who make your dream a little bit their own dream, and letting those people — those dreamers — put a little bit of their dream in yours,” Giovannoni says. “It could go well, it could go wrong, because that’s life. No?”

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