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Marc Much for Eater Chicago

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The Risky Business of Running a Pop Culture-Themed Restaurant

From 'Saved by the Bell' to 'Golden Girls,' entrepreneurs are turning nostalgia into dollar signs

Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional Upper West Side apartment and its early-nineties bachelor pad stylings may have served as the main backdrop for his namesake ‘90s sitcom, but Monk’s Diner ran a close second. Though the restaurant, home to Elaine’s favorite “big salad,” was fictional, the diner exterior used in the show in fact belongs to a real restaurant in Upper Manhattan where countless fans have since snapped selfies.

For Seinfeld diehards, it’s perhaps as close as they’ll get to inserting themselves into the world inhabited by George Costanza — until June, that is, when a San Francisco comedy festival will unveil a pop-up restaurant featuring a full-scale replica of Jerry’s apartment and food inspired by Monk’s and the infamous Soup Nazi. The same event will also feature a recreation of Paddy’s Pub from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and a South Park food court showcasing restaurants from the long-running Comedy Central series.

Fandom is a wildly lucrative business, and themed restaurants mark a particularly evocative way to make fans feel, just for a few minutes, like they’ve entered the universe of their favorite TV series or film. Millions have flocked to Universal Studios to sip Butterbeer inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Disney’s upcoming Star Wars Land is sure to attract hordes of fans eager to rub elbows with galactic bounty hunters at the promised Mos Eisley Cantina.

Gilmore Girls fans line up at a Luke’s Diner pop-up.
Jonathan Phillips for Eater Atlanta

Pop culture-themed restaurants are undoubtedly having a moment, and big networks are noticing: Later this month at SXSW in Austin, Showtime will host a Twin Peaks-themed diner to promote the upcoming return of David Lynch’s cult classic, complete with coffee (of the damn fine variety, presumably), pie, and themed cocktails. Elsewhere at SXSW, AMC will debut a pop-up version of Los Pollos Hermanos, the fictional fried chicken chain from Breaking Bad villain Gus Fring. Meanwhile, a Golden Girls-inspired cafe hit New York City in February, packed with memorabilia from the show and a piano that belonged to the late actress Rue McClanahan.

For superfans, a visit to these establishments serves as a mini-convention of sorts, presenting rare real-life opportunities for them to revel in their pop culture obsessions while surrounded by like-minded people. Last fall ahead of the highly anticipated return of Gilmore Girls, Netflix temporarily transformed hundreds of coffee shops across the U.S. into recreations of Luke’s Diner, the Stars Hollow cafe where characters Lorelai and Rory regularly get their caffeine fix. Fans camped out for hours just to sip coffee from paper cups adorned with the Luke’s Diner logo and eat themed pastries.

And while these stunts serve as genius marketing tools for networks, many of the pop culture-inspired restaurants cropping up are actually the handiwork of enthusiastic fans. But along with such concepts arise plenty of complications, from figuring out how to translate their favorite film or TV series into decor and a menu, to grappling with potential trademark violations and the limited appeal of these highly niche establishments.

FROM ON-SCREEN TO IRL

Zach Neil, the creator of Manhattan’s first (and probably last) Will Ferrell-themed bar, saw what he felt was a dearth in the market for themed eating and drinking establishments: ”You had your Irish pubs, sports bars, your very bland and typical stuff,” he says. Long-time fans of Ferrell’s comedy, Neil and his business partner Brian Link decided to open an alcoholic shrine to the actor. In October 2015, the duo unveiled Stay Classy, a Lower East Side bar decked out in Ferrell memorabilia from movies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights.

News of the place went viral almost instantly, with eager patrons frequently waiting in line for up to an hour for the chance to order cocktails with names like “Glass Case of Emotion” and “Sex Panther.” Bolstered by their success, Neil and Link went on to open a Tim Burton-inspired bar called Beetle House the following spring, a whimsically goth hideaway in the East Village where patrons are frequently entertained by a Beetlejuice impersonator and dine on dishes such as the Edward Burger Hands.

When it came to planning menus, Neil and his team would look to the films for funny lines or notable characters and then work backwards. “There's a line from Anchorman where Vince Vaughn says ‘Dorothy Mantooth is a saint.’ So we thought, ‘What would Dorothy Mantooth drink?’ We were picturing this lady in her 70s, she's very proper, she goes to church on Sunday, but she sneaks a cocktail once in a while. It ended up being a very dainty peach drink.” At Beetle House, a dish called the Edward Burger Hands is made up of a bunch of seemingly random ingredients — ”spare parts,” Neil says — fused together.

Stay classy Saint Diego. @stayclassybar #willferrell #les #ilovelamp

A post shared by Crystal Johnson (@cryjoh) on

In Chicago, a trio of friends stumbled onto similar viral success with a Saved by the Bell pop-up. Derek Berry, Zack Eastman, and Steve Harris had worked together for years throwing ‘90s nights at clubs and saw a pop-up restaurant as a logical way to take things to the next level. They launched a Facebook event page to test the waters and were dumbfounded by the response. “We were overwhelmed... it basically went viral,” says Eastman.

Designed to mimic the Max, the diner where Zack Morris, A.C. Slater, and the rest of the Bayside crew hung out after school, the partners took care to recreate the show’s look in painstaking detail, watching episodes over and over to ensure they got it right. “Granted, we took some liberties — there’s a bar in our restaurant, there was no bar in the Max — but we worked with our designer to really get it down to the last detail, right down to the angle of the front doorway which is a focal point on the show,” Eastman says.

While the menu is rife with expected references to the show and its characters — think “AC Sliders,” “Mac & Screech,” and a Monte Cristo-inspired sandwich called the Kelly Kapowski — the guys behind Saved by the Max wanted to go beyond puns. To ensure the food could stand on its own, they hired chef Brian Fisher, formerly the chef de cuisine at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Schwa, who put his own spin on things with dishes like Korean fried chicken and coconut milk waffles, Lebanese-spiced chicken wings, and blueberry muffin ice cream.

LAWYER UP

From labor laws to raw shellfish disclaimers, opening a restaurant always comes with its fair share of necessary legal considerations — but things are even more complicated when the concept is inspired by copyrighted material and trademarks.

After news of Saved by the Max went viral, it wasn’t long till NBC Universal came calling. Eastman says the company supported the concept, and the parties were able to work out a deal that was “mutually beneficial” — and included the payment of licensing fees. In exchange, he says, “[The network] gave us some key insights on how to really make [the pop-up] more immersive as far as the set design goes and memorabilia that we have on display.”

Zach Neil and his partners took an “inspired by” approach, which meant they avoided many of the potential legal pitfalls that come along with a more literal interpretation. “At Stay Classy, we don’t use any copyrighted materials. We don’t use anything that’s trademarked. We made sure legally speaking that we weren’t infringing on any copyrights,” he explains. “We don’t tread on the name or likeness of the movies or the actors. We’re doing more of an artistic tribute than a direct ripoff.”

Nonetheless, shortly after Stay Classy opened, lawyers for Paramount Pictures, the film studio that produced Ferrell films such as Anchorman and Old School, came to pay them a visit. “Three guys walked [into the bar] and passed out their business cards, and they were all attorneys for Paramount. And we were like, ‘Ah, shit,’” Neil says. But Paramount was enthusiastic about the concept, asking Stay Classy to host events and giveaways and to help promote another Ferrell film, Daddy’s Home. “There’s no formal agreement with Paramount, there’s no money changing hands,” Neil says. In December 2015, he appeared on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live! along with Ferrell himself.

(Paramount was less enthusiastic about an Anchorman-inspired pop-up bar that was slated to hit Australia last fall: Calling itself Ron Burgundy’s Rich Mahogany Bar, the organizers were ordered to cough up a significant licensing fee or they’d be in breach of copyright; they opted to continue with the pop-up, but nixed the use of the Ron Burgundy name.)

The art installation is coming along! #stayclassybar #stayclassynewyork #mugatu #barsofnewyork #willferrellbar

A post shared by Stay Classy Bar (@stayclassybar) on

According to New York-based entertainment lawyer Steven C. Beer of Franklin, Weinrib, Rudell & Vassallo, anyone who wants to open a restaurant of this ilk should proceed with caution. ”When you open a pop-up restaurant and you have specifically incorporated other people’s intellectual property — for example the images, the names, the characters, even the style of clothes — those all belong to a third-party media company [such as a film studio],” he explains.

“Anytime you’re using someone’s intellectual property in a commercial realm, you have to go to them and ask for permission, a license. That often incorporates payment — oftentimes upfront, sometimes royalties, frequently both.” Beer stresses that it’s not all about making money, though, as themed restaurants also give brands exposure — and that can be good or bad.

“If the restaurant is a terrible restaurant, or if they are not using the brand in a respectful way that’s appropriate, those things could diminish the value of the intellectual property,” he says. “So it’s not just about money, it’s about whether or not the licensee — in this case, the restaurant — would be a thoughtful caretaker of the brand.”

AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED-TIME ONLY

Legal concerns aside, there’s another aspect of pop culture-themed restaurants that makes them particularly tricky: their niche appeal. In the beginning, Zach Neil and his partners thought Stay Classy could potentially become a neighborhood watering hole that just happened to be themed. “Obviously once it got really big we realized this isn’t really going to be for locals because it’s too busy all the time,” he says. “Those people are looking for a quiet place to have an after-dinner drink, not a bar that’s mobbed with 200 people."

Stay Classy shuttered at the end of 2016, but the concept will live on with pop-ups in various cities across the U.S.: It’s already hit LA, and Boston, Miami, and Philly are on the horizon.

Saved by the Max ended up staying open much longer than the one week originally intended. The first several batches of tickets, sold via the Tock system used by high-end restaurants like Alinea and Next, sold out near-instantly, leading Berry and his team to decide to make it a full one-year run. The team credits that, at least in part, to the serious approach they took to the food. “The first six months, [the crowd] was mainly just diehard Saved By The Bell fans,” Berry explains. “But then with [a reputable chef], we were also getting the Chicago foodie crowd in, the people who go out and dine at all the new hot spots.”

Marc Much for Eater Chicago

“Doing this pop-up has really shifted the way we think about building and food and beverage experiences,” says Eastman. “We also see this as a new and different way of dining and going out.” Saved by the Max is now in its “final semester” and is slated to serve its last Kelly Kapowski sandwich in May, at which point it too will go on the road with stops in various U.S. cities.

“I think these places have a shelf life — three months, maybe a year tops,” Neil says. “People aren’t going to go to a Denzel Washington-themed bar to drink every day of the week. It’s more of a kitschy, touristy thing.”

Perhaps, then, slightly more subtle homages are the trick to sustaining a business long-term. At the Breaking Bad-inspired Walter’s Coffee Roastery, which opened last September in Bushwick, Brooklyn, espresso drinks are served in glass beakers and the menu is laid out like a periodic table. But there are no photos of Walt and Jesse on the walls, and no chintzy, blue meth-inspired drinks: Rather, the “coffee laboratory” roasts its own beans and slings Chemex and pour-over, fitting in seamlessly with Brooklyn’s many other third-wave coffee shops. Some patrons may never even realize the coffee shop is inspired by AMC’s drug-fueled TV series — until they find out the wifi password is “Heisenberg,” that is.

Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Look Around The 'Saved By The Bell' Pop-Up, Debuting Today in Chicago [ECHI]


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