Tiki in 10 days: how to open a popup bar, quick

The owners of Lost Luau, from left: Tom Bulmer, Bryce McDonough, and Chau Tran.
A popup bar is a great way to try out an idea or make use of a space that is going cheap, but just how do you it?

So you want to know how to open a popup bar? First things first: it ain’t going to be easy. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into the process, and that’s something that Tom Bulmer, Chau Tran, and Bryce McDonough — the ownership trio behind tiki popup Lost Luau — found out in their rush to open their venue in 10 days of work.

They opened on the 1st of December last year, and are trading on through to the end of summer, so whilst they had the experience fresh in their memories we asked them for some advice on how to popup and tiki in 10 days.

Make sure the coffee machine is in and switched on
When the Lost Luau trio began work on the project, they realised that there was one thing that could have helped them power through all the sanding back, wallpapering and DIY tiki decor work they’d undertaken: turn on the coffee machine.

“Never doubt how much coffee helps, if we were going to change anything we would’ve installed the machine first,” Bulmer says.


Seriously, this is not going to be easy work. And on second thought, are you sure you even want to do this?

You’ve got the idea, now work out your timeline
“The first thing we did was establish lead times, what takes the longest to get done,” says McDonough. “Things like the liquor licence transfer — as much as they say it takes five days, you never really know. You’ve got other things, you’ve got to sort your business finance and business structure.”

You’re not alone in this project, as you’ll need to rely on others help you to deliver your popup.

“A lot of critical tasks rely on other businesses and organisations,” says Bulmer. “As a group we had to divide up the tasks to make sure that we could actually get each area of the business covered with the time restraints. Especially when it comes to things like licensing and council you really need to ensure you get everything through accurately, because otherwise you can have the best designed venue and be told you just can’t open the doors. Meanwhile a lot of small things can catch you by surprise, as such getting 600 leis to Sydney may take awhile.”

Understand what your landlord — however temporary they may be — will let you do
“Setting up a popup is much like setting up an event,” Bulmer says. “You need to be aware of how much you can and can’t do with the landlord.”

And much like an event, there will eventually be a bump out which means you’ll need to clean up the crap you put in there. But that’s not all you need to go over.

“Checking trading times, building heritage, working equipment, bathrooms, water, even checking you have bin collection are all essentials when negotiating for a site,” says Bulmer. They don’t need to worry too much about the eventual bump out, however.

“For us we got lucky with a lot because the building is going to be completely renovated at the end of our lease, meaning we could make a lot of short term changes without having to return it to the original condition,” he says.

And it’s important, Bulmer says, that when you’re negotiating on the lease you get all the questions and concerns you have on the table.

“Anything you think you should mention or maybe don’t mention just to see how it goes, mention it,” he says. “Talk about it. Realistically those are the things that are going to trip you up later down the track. Get everything in writing and talk through everything. A negotiation is about two businesses trying to make money. Everyone wants to make money.”

A tight sense of concept is essential for a limited run
So your bar is going to be there for a month, maybe two — maybe even the stretch of a season. But just because the bar is somewhat ephemeral doesn’t mean you can get away without a strong identity to the place. It may even be more important than a long-term venture.

“I’ve always believed giving a bar a personality is essential, luckily that’s what tiki is all about!” Bulmer says. “But you can’t just say what it is, you have to show it in every decision.

“Before we started planning and building Chau, Bryce and I sat down and talked about the personality and what Lost Luau meant to us as a name and a venue. Only then we could start planning how to transform the site and plan drinks, food and culture.

“There’s so much you need people to feel when they arrive and you only have one chance. Simple things like the smell of coconut incense or just making people feel welcome as they walk in can sometimes be forgotten. But they are so essential to the culture of your venue. In a popup if you can’t get it right the first time you probably won’t get a chance for a second time.”

Work with brands you like to lighten the load
You’re here for a short time, not a long time, and you’ll need all the help you can get, says Bulmer, and working with brands you like can help.

“We truly couldn’t do popups and events like these without the brands to support it,” says Bulmer. “Getting each brand to support us is really about showing them support as well. Too often venues just focus on getting money from brands and then disregarding them. But really you need to focus on what you can do to support your new partner. Especially if you want to work with them again. Ask brands what is important to them, sometimes it’s about listings but other times it’s just about getting the name out there. Understanding what they find valuable and delivering on it is vital for your business relationship and as well your personal relationship with the brands. Never forget what your business agree to do is a reflection of you as well.