Naren Young on the whys, whats and wheres of startending, pop-up bars & making ‘World’s Best’ lists

Naren presenting at the recent Bar Convent Berlin

Story By Naren Young is the Creative Director at Sweet Liberty in Miami. Catch him @forkandshaker 

Now that travel is somewhat opening up again globally and with it, some of the world’s biggest bar shows are also taking place again, albeit in smaller formats with smaller crowds. I’ve just returned from speaking at arguably the world’s most prestigious industry gathering: Berlin’s Bar Convent. And at each of these events, you can be guaranteed that there’s going to be a myriad of celebrity startenders turning up, all vying for a limited number of hours in the day to do a ‘guest shift’.

You can’t call them a ‘pop up’, as I believe these should be more immersive than someone banging out a menu of 2-3 drinks for a couple of hours, with most people in attendance don’t even know why they’re there or who they’re supposed to be celebrating.

“There are myriad reasons why but in this day and age, as more and more bars, bartenders and bar owners are so desperate to get on the World’s 50 Best Bars list (or the newer Top 500 List, whatever that is), I know that many such people believe that international pop ups are a good way to get noticed. And they wouldn’t be wrong. I don’t think Dante would have taken the top spot in 2019 if I hadn’t been actively traversing the world with the brand front and centre.”

I’ve been deeply involved in global pop ups for years now, some of which were executed over periods of 4-6 weeks. At Dante, our approach was to never do a pop up for a single night or even two. We focused on trying to make more of an impact in each market by always curating our pop ups for no less than five days but ideally a week or more. We did many that were a month long. Of course this takes a lot more planning and a bigger budget, but it begs the question to everyone out there doing these on a small scale: what’s your motivation for doing these in the first place?

There are myriad reasons why but in this day and age, as more and more bars, bartenders and bar owners are so desperate to get on the World’s 50 Best Bars list (or the newer Top 500 List, whatever that is), I know that many such people believe that international pop ups are a good way to get noticed. And they wouldn’t be wrong. I don’t think Dante would have taken the top spot in 2019 if I hadn’t been actively traversing the world with the brand front and centre.

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The difference being that I wasn’t consciously doing them to get higher on that list, though I’m no fool in this game and know that it can and does of course help your chances. I was, sincerely, doing them as a way to promote Dante to the international community. If awards and accolades then come from that then so be it. I’ll take it. For me, it was always about the brand and how we could get the most PR and marketing from each event as my primary motivation. If it made money, then even better. But it was never about awards.

But there’s a big difference between doing a full blown pop up where the idea is to bring an entire experience of your bar to another city to include the likes of music, décor, branded collateral, sometimes food, uniforms, service standards, glassware and of course the drinks. But these days, the idea of a ‘guest bartender’ shift has become so saturated and same-same that they’ve lost their allure. It’s often the same cast of characters popping up at the same bars as everyone else. And most of these cats are my dear friends who are very good at promoting themselves and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But this is the oldest trick in the book when it comes to awards and it goes like this: I’ll invite you to my bar in my gorgeous city and I’ll wine and dine you in the hope that you’ll vote for me in the awards (even though no one actually knows who’s on the judging panel anymore anyway). And then hopefully you’ll reciprocate and I’ll vote for you. Hey, whatever works but I find it a little gross. There’s even a bar in Milan now who recently held their own ‘cocktail week’ and invited, you guessed it, many of these same bars. Will they make it into the 50 Best list this year? Who knows? But their chances are probably exponentially higher now if history is any indication.

For me, these longer pop ups were also a great way to reward our staff by bringing some of them along to work them. Some of these people have never traveled internationally before so to be involved in a bar program that can take them around the world can perhaps create more loyalty from them too.

If you’re only bringing yourself to these events, then it’s really more about you than about your bar. Now I totally understand that sometimes the budgets won’t allow more than one person to attend each pop up and let’s be frank, most liquor sponsors (and there’s always a liquor sponsor), when given a choice on who to bring, they typically want the face or that startender of that bar to be front and centre as it should attract more people and press opportunities.

At the end of the day, just ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? What’s the benefit of this to my brand and my business? Am I looking at this opportunity through the right lens?”

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