Pop-up bars hit the pub world

By Gemma McKenna

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Public house

Pirates design at Pop-Up Pirates
Pirates design at Pop-Up Pirates
The latest trend to hit the pub (and restaurant and retail) world is the pop-up bar — Gemma McKenna reports from some of this summer's top sites.

The latest trend to hit the pub (and restaurant and retail) world is the pop-up bar — and clever operators are using them to test the market before committing to long leases or expensive freeholds. Gemma McKenna reports from some of this summer's top sites.

Fancy cashing in on a seasonal location, extending a site's opening buzz, or carrying out some market research before committing to a new pub? A pop-up bar could be the answer.

Pop-up bars are so-called because they are set up to open for a short period — maybe three months in the summer ­— before they disappear. Blink and you miss them, if you haven't got your finger on the pulse.

Ask anyone about pop-up venues and Pierre Koffmann's name will come up. Koffmann used to run the fêted triple Michelin-starred La Tante Claire in London about six years ago, before disappearing from view. Then, as if by magic, he popped up on Selfridges' roof last summer, offering diners a fleeting opportunity to taste his cuisine. Floored by the "unprecedented" demand from customers, Selfridges extended the opening period. Koffmann is now staging a more permanent comeback.

Since then, the notion of a pop-up bar or restaurant has been very much in vogue. And canny operators have worked out that it doesn't have to be just a fad, but can lead to a much more serious proposition.

Brenhan Magee has worked in the industry for the past 19 years, first with pub operator the Breakfast Group and then through owning Club Bar & Dining.

He recently decided the time was right for a new challenge, found a huge Fulham pub he liked the look of, and decided to take a punt on it. Knowing a full refurb would mean closing for three to four months over the summer, Magee opted instead to do a "touch-up", and start trading as soon as he could. Happily for Magee, the reopening window coincided with the biggest sporting event of the year — football's World Cup.

So it seemed logical that the new site, taken on a tenancy-at-will agreement from Enterprise Inns, should have an overall football theme. And so Fever Pitch was born.

"All my operations have been in Soho, so venturing further out from the centre of London (the Fever Pitch pop-up was in south-west London's Fulham Broadway), I wanted to gain a better understanding of what's here. Since the World Cup brings everyone together, I couldn't have timed it better to be able to see the demographics of the local area."

Potential

Soon after opening, Magee realised the site had great potential, and set about organising a lease with Enterprise.

"My main interest in running Fever Pitch was the bigger picture — what we're going to do over the 20-year lease", he says.

The PR machine behind Magee's pop-up went into overdrive as the start of the World Cup loomed — on its first day, Fever Pitch featured on the BBC's national news bulletin, while Sky Sports news team filmed from there on the day of England's first game. Their last game even attracted Al Jazeera's news team.

In order to get the pub ready for the World Cup, there was still a lot to do, and Magee says he spent £180,000-£200,000, three times as much as he planned, getting the building up to standard.

The money was spent on totally refurbishing the toilets, sprucing up the paintwork and buying new furniture.

"It's a win-win. Closing for only three weeks, instead of three months, made us a much more attractive proposition to Enterprise Inns.

"It's also given us the chance to get to know the locals and the council, so they can see what kind of a venue we want to run. They've been amazing."

He said running the pop-up was not for "financial gain", but rather allowed him to see the potential of "this big landmark site".

Time was called on Fever Pitch after the final whistle on the Spain v Holland final, and Magee can now start planning in earnest for the site's more permanent incarnation — the Broadway Bar & Grill.

One of the benefits of a pop-up is that it allows operators to have a go at something they would not necessarily want in their permanent venues.

For Jon Ross, joint director of the Mothership Group, his new pop-up, Pop-Up Pirates in Clerkenwell, afforded just that opportunity.

Mothership already operates three pubs — the hip live-music venue the Queen of Hoxton, the art-focused Book Club in Shoreditch, and traditional boozer the Pelican in west London. The group turns over £4m.

"Mothership is different from other bar groups — we engage with local art and music communities, so that before we open our doors we can get their opinions on the site, and they can influence the design," says Ross. "We really look for opinion-formers as customers."

Unusual

Pop-Up Pirates, in London's Clerkenwell, gives free rein to unusual ideas. It opened in mid-May and is set to close in the middle of August.

"Here we can have a lot more creative fun — the other sites are more neutral. Rather than changing the gallery every two months, here we can go crazy for three months!"

Mothership drafted in the 15-strong art collective, Pirates, (hence the name) to decorate the venue. As an "homage to letters", in keeping with the area's history as the city's former printing enclave, you can see vintage 1950s fonts, 3D letter sculptures, toilets with chalkboard walls, and mock printing presses spewing out reams of paper.

"You can't make money out of a project like this in just three months — you barely justify costs. But the PR value is amazing and we've even been approached by people in advertising and movies to see if they can use the venue to film documentaries or for fashion shoots."

The group knew the site before taking it on — it previously traded as a bar called Dust — and they managed to strike a deal with the private landlord to take the site for a limited time. As Ross says: "The landlord has to pay rates on the empty property anyway, so it's a no-brainer for them, especially as we come in, do some improvements, then move on.

"You never know unless you try — the site's in an unexpected place, but it works. I don't think we'd ever take it on permanently, but we will dabble in a few more pop-ups, I think."

Stand-out pop-ups

• Love it or hate it, Unilever invested in a Marmite pop-up shop on Regent Street last year, which proved so successful the company is planning more

for 2011.

• Posh lifestyle-group Quintessentially and the luxury brands arm at Diageo opened Quintessentially Soho, a not-for-profit members' club set in one of London's oldest homeless refuges, the House of St. Barnabas, at the end of

last year.

• Way back in 2008 Moët & Chandon opened Atelier Moët, giving Champagne Charlies everywhere the chance to customise their bottles of fizz with Swarovski crystals.

• Alcoholic Architecture offered gin fans the chance to get drunk on air last year. The bar in London was the brainchild of Bompus & Parr (also behind jelly banquets and scratch 'n' sniff cinema) and involved pumping a mist made of gin into a room and allowing visitors to "breathe responsibly".

• Frank's Café & Campari Bar opened last summer on the roof of a disused car park in Del Boy's old stomping ground Peckham and was an out-and-out hit with the trendy crowd.

• The Double Club was a part-British part-Congolese, half-restaurant, half-club offer that popped up last year, backed by Prada and invented by Mourad Mazouz, the man behind über-trendy Momo and Sketch.

• Salon d'Été. A 1930s-themed restaurant and bar offering live cabaret, burlesque, music and dancing in London this summer.

• Kid-friendly restaurant chain Giraffe launched an outdoor pop-up bar in Manchester last month, which screened World Cup games and other sporting highlights, along with the summer proms and classic films.

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