Pop-Up Theme Bars Are Cashing In on the Nostalgia Economy


3 minute Read

Pop-Up Theme Bars Are Cashing In on the Nostalgia Economy

Nostalgia is trending. And it’s everywhere.

On Netflix and NBC, you can find the freshly reanimated corpses of canceled TV shows, ranging from the critically acclaimed (Will and Grace) to the … less so (Full House). On Instagram, #tbt-tagged photos clog feeds with images of cherished memories – or just that day last week when your hair looked good.

Now pop-up theme bars around the country are making it possible for you to take nostalgia to the next level and immerse yourself in your favorite programs and movies.

Saved by the Max, a “Saved by the Bell”-themed pop-up, wrapped up its Chicago residency in May. Next stop is Los Angeles. This summer, residents in our nation’s capital sipped daiquiri-inspired “dothraquiris” at a “Game of Thrones”-themed pop- up. Stay Classy, inspired by “Anchorman” and other iconic Will Ferrell characters, has appeared so far in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. And perhaps the most surprising addition to the pop-up contingency is The Upsidedown, a Chicago bar inspired by “Stranger Things,” the Netflix original series whose second season hasn’t even premiered yet.

#GoTPUB

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For sentimentalists with Instagram on the brain, the appeal of these pop-ups is fairly straightforward. For bar owners and restaurateurs, however, investing in a short-term pop-up requires careful consideration about the type of business you have versus those you want. Or don’t want.

Todd Luongo was in Boston this past spring when he saw a local news story on the Ferrell-themed pop-up, Stay Classy. As the proprietor of Mythology, a then-six-month-old restaurant in D.C.’s competitive H Street Corridor, Luongo saw the pop-up as a way to get on the radar of trend-seeking diners.

“It’s become an experience-based culture in a lot of ways,” Luongo says of his decision to host an iteration of Stay Classy above his Mythology restaurant. He hoped that customers would come check out the theme bar on the second floor of the townhouse-style space, and then stay for dinner at the first-floor restaurant. So Luongo tracked down Zach Neil, the co-founder of Stay Classy, and they worked out a deal to bring the pop-up to D.C. in May.

The venture was a success, Luongo says. Social buzz and traditional media coverage have helped him garner attention for Mythology and establish a reputation for its 10 (yes, 10) varieties of frites.

But now he’s winding things down, and it’s about time to pour the final Scotchy Scotch Scotch. Luongo hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll do another pop-up in his establishment, to which he recently added a third-floor sports bar. “Pop-ups are becoming cliché, especially in D.C.,” according to Luongo. However, he’s open to something more along the lines of what he calls a temporary theme bar, lasting for around 12 to 18 months. “There’s a life cycle to these places, and even a half-life,” he says.

It's time to read the news Boston! #stayclassyboston

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That’s the thing about nostalgia – it’s fun for a casual hang once in awhile, but do you want to commit?

Sometimes, it’s not up to you. Take McGee’s Pub in New York, which became the epicenter of “How I Met Your Mother” fandom without even trying. It was the bar of choice for series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas back when they were staff writers on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” dreaming up the series. And so, it was the inspiration for the show’s beloved McClaren’s Pub.

“It’s as popular today as when the show was on the air,” says manager Frank McCawley, who has witnessed all manner of HIMYM superfan grand gestures, including groups of fans gathered outside clutching yellow umbrellas. With syndication, the program is now reaching an even wider global audience, and McCawley says they’ve had fans visiting from Australia to Pakistan.

While the proprietors didn’t ask for the attention, they’re certainly not mad at it. They even created a special “How I Met Your Mother” Monday menu, which features items like the Suit Up Sandwich and a dish called, simply, TedMosbyIsAJerk.com (it’s a chicken jerk wrap).

Going all in with a theme on one night of the week or for a limited engagement can be an effective marketing strategy, especially in competitive neighborhoods. And for pop-ups, at least, the narrow time frame provides a sense of urgency, something you don’t get with a permanent theme bar.

“The dirty little secret is that everyone does a pretty good job,” Luongo says of the competition among other bars and restaurants. “So you have to give someone a reason to come to your establishment.”

Theme bars might not provide a longterm solution to the eternally competitive nature of the restaurant business; but in an era when consumers journey to far-flung cities just for food and beverage experiences, visually dynamic bids for nostalgia are a logical development. And they sure look good on the ‘gram.

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