In 2020, bars look different than they used to. Bargoers no longer sit shoulder-to-shoulder in candlelight. They’re drinking bottled cocktails in parks, on in-street patios and in stopgap bars set up in parking lots.
Pop-ups aren’t a new concept. But unlike the pop-up bars that cropped up over the last few years, the ephemeral bars of 2020 aren’t heralding a new product, spreading holiday cheer or boosting a bar’s brand. They’re helping a bar to survive. With pandemic restrictions in place, bars have to be malleable, rethinking their spaces or finding new ones, and that often translates to a pop-up.
Banzarbar’s tiny 20-seat hideaway couldn’t work in the current climate, with New York City’s limited-occupancy requirements, so the bar worked with a multimedia artist to build a shipwreck-inspired seating area a few blocks away. Toronto’s Cry Baby Gallery set up a fall oasis, complete with hay bale seating, in the bar’s formerly empty back alley.
Alana Nogueda of The Shameful Tiki Room has peddled packaged cocktails, corn dogs and takeaway drinks out of a teakwood lemonade stand outside the bar’s Toronto location. She’s building out its second location, but for now, the empty space is the perfect place for pop-ups. “We’re launching a pop-up kitchen called Legal Tenders [dealing in chicken fingers], and we’re working on a rum shop we’ll open around Christmas time,” she says.
When NYC’s Compagnie des vins Surnaturels popped up in New York State’s Finger Lakes district over the summer, “It was driven by survival,” says bar owner Caleb Ganzer. “We had pivoted to delivery on day one of lockdown, but three months in, we were running on steam. Our passion was drained. But once we found this place, we knew the planets aligned to push us to stay alive.”
An empty B&B in Cayuga was quickly transformed into Supernatural Lake, a hotel complete with cottage rentals, a wine bar and a full restaurant on the shores of a lake. The team hauled everything from the city, sourced local supply chains and applied for zoning, permits and new liquor licenses. “It was a Herculean feat of organization, mustering up motivation and nailing timing,” says Ganzer. An expanded food program boosted sales, as did a more curated wine program. “The food being on point really helped us win over the guests from day one.”
Death & Co also went alfresco, shapeshifting into a beachside cocktail shack, Low Tide Beach Bar, at the Sound View hotel in Greenport on Long Island’s North Fork. The toes-in-the-sand bar was a complete flip from the dimly lit East Village bar. “We were drawn to this location because of the amplitude of space and the ability to have a good number of guests, almost completely outdoor, with greater distancing and more thorough safety protocols than required,” says David Kaplan, a co-founder of the bar.
Pop-ups also provide an avenue to navigate tough restrictions. Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, wasn’t allowed to operate as a bar, thanks to the state’s tight liquor laws. “We had to pivot to a restaurant,” says Sean Umstead, Kingfisher’s co-owner. He opened QueenBurgers, slinging smash burgers plus wine, beer and bottled cocktails in Kingfisher’s backyard. “We had to figure out what we could execute as bartenders consistently and quickly,” he says. “We were a full-service, high-touch cocktail bar, and now we’re a quick-service burger shop.”
Kelsey Ramage continues to battle government-induced restrictions. She shut her acclaimed bar Supernova Ballroom mid-pandemic. Its Financial District location in Toronto meant no outdoor patio and no foot traffic, reducing the bar’s ability to ride out the pandemic.
But Ramage has realized the Supernova Ballroom concept can exist outside the physical bar. She now leads an amped-up delivery program and is scheming up a series of high-octane socially distanced pop-ups in vacant properties around the city. But the ever-changing restrictions in the city continue to push back the pop-up dates. “The entire industry is going to have to get a lot more creative to survive,” she says.
Unfortunately, a pop-up isn’t a solid path to safety. There are challenges inherent in the model. One is learning to work in a different space. “It’s never your bar,” says Nogueda. “Things will never be where you think because you’re not in your own home.” Kaplan echoes that, saying, “It’s always challenging when you don’t have control of every detail, but those challenges also make it rewarding. How can we give the best experience possible with certain constraints?”
The Shameful Tiki team combats this by keeping familiar traits. “We’re about consistency—making sure staples are on the menu and people recognize the relation,” says Nogueda. “But mainly, we’re always making sure the environment we create is warm and inclusive.”
Part of this warm environment is keeping people safe. “We take safety initiatives everywhere we can, from contact tracing, thermometer checks daily with staff, and one-use menus to plexiglass everywhere and strict turnover service after guests leave, you name it.”” says Nogueda. Granzer enacted traffic patterns and orderly protocols across the property to keep guests far apart.
There are also physical limits to what’s possible to do outside. The lack of access to equipment translates to restrictions. “We can’t make fries outside, so we don’t,” says Umstead. “It’s OK.”
Winter Is Coming
Setting up shop in a sunny locale has been an obvious move for bars. But as streetside patios shutter and drinkers head inside, how are bars going to survive the winter?
Compagnie is continuing to pivot, launching a daytime tea pop-up, featuring light snacks and tea sandwiches, according to Ganzer. He’s also launching a retail concept called Supernatural Wine Shoppe, with weekly offers of rare and allocated wines.
NYC’s Dante is moving the bar up to the roof at The Greens at Pier 17, where drinkers can cuddle up with hot cocktails in winterized rooftop cabins. “We wanted to create a wintery escape, something reminiscent of Upstate New York or the Berkshires, to bring all of the winter escapes we enjoy outside of NYC into the city,” says co-founder Linden Pride.
While these pop-ups are enjoyable for drinkers, it’s stark to realize that these bars, from dive bars to award-winning cocktail spots, need them to survive. “Our real bar is basically in hibernation,” says Umstead, sighing. “We genuinely don’t expect to reopen in any meaningful way until a vaccine is available. That said, we’re so proud that our pop-up has been able to keep Kingfisher in a financial position to make it to reopening.”
“Every bar and restaurant, regardless of the outward-facing appearance, is struggling to navigate this and keep the lights on,” says Kaplan. “PPP helped some, EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loans] helped less, but there has been little national support and guidance. The Restaurants Act would be a major step for our industry. Holding insurance companies accountable for their policies would be another major aid to our world. Beyond the government assistance, consumers should know that for every takeout order, every drink or meal purchased, it all helps. Positive reviews and smiles go a long way.”