You may have noticed them in your town or on your Instagram feed. You may even have an annual tradition of visiting one. However you feel about them, one thing is for sure: Christmas bars are everywhere.
These unabashedly kitschy holiday pop-ups spread holiday cheer and plenty of booze in the form of yuletide-themed cocktails. Adorned with an explosion of tinsel, ribbon, and countless other Christmas touches, these bars manage to draw massive crowds dedicated to celebrating in the spirit of the holidays. Even the guy behind the trend, Greg Boehm, is shocked by their success.
Boehm — who is also the founder and CEO of barware giant Cocktail Kingdom and owner of several cocktail bars around New York City — founded Miracle Pop-Up in in 2014. At the advice of his mother, he halted construction on a future cocktail bar on New York’s Lower East Side for the month of December, choosing instead to deck the halls and transform the construction site into his first Christmas bar. The crowds descended, and Boehm never looked back.
Now with hundreds of locations in 37 states and several countries outside the US, one thing is clear: Nostalgia sells. “The diversity of our customers is huge,” Boehm explained. From high school reunions to first dates and company holiday parties, everyone wants in on the action.
In Atlanta, Georgia, there are at least 12 Christmas-themed bars (though not all of them are Miracle popups) this year, a trend Eater Atlanta editor Beth McKibben has watched grow steadily over the past few years. “It’s borderline ridiculous,” she said. But McKibben has a theory to explain their success.
“With the heavy news cycle we’re all in right now,” McKibben theorized, “it’s a place for people to relax for a minute and just be joyous.” And in a city like Atlanta, where many residents are transplants from far away, there’s an element of wistfulness and seeking holiday comforts that permeates the city. “A lot of people are away from their families,” she explained, “I do think these bars spark nostalgia in people and give them a little bit of comfort.”
On the latest episode of Eater’s Digest, hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen talk to Boehm and McKibben about this kitschy holiday trend and where it’s headed.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Amanda and Daniel’s interview with Greg Boehm and Beth McKibben.
Amanda: How many do you have [in Atlanta]? What’s going on, there?
Beth: Right now ... Right now, we have 12. And this is up from eight, last year. It’s kind of ridiculous.
Amanda: When did this start in Atlanta?
Beth: Well, the first bar that we had, here, was Miracle, which is about four years ago. And it was called Miracle On Monroe. And it was brought here by two local bar owners, Eric Simpkins and Darren Carr. I believe Eric used to work at Clover Club, up in New York, so he had some connections, up there. And he absolutely loves Christmas. And so he brought the bar. He talked with the owner of the restaurant, brought the bar there because it was a big enough space. And, four years ago, it exploded. I mean, there were people waiting in line, for two or three hours. Some of them never got in.
Beth: I mean, it was just this weird thing that Atlanta had never seen before. He’s brought it back, again, and did a little crowd control, that second year. But by that second year, there was then a second Christmas bar, which was part of a Tiki bar out in Decatur, which is just east of Atlanta. And they of course deck themselves out in the surfer, tropical, holiday, fun things, and surfer Santas. And, just, it was over the top. And we have a ski house, and we have ice skating on the rooftop of Ponce City Market, with igloos. And we have a Santa’s Bar out in Peachtree Corners, which is north of Atlanta. We have a Christmas Story Bar, up in Marietta, which is on the western side, in the suburbs of Atlanta. It’s borderline ridiculous.
Daniel: And do you feel like Miracle was the thing that proved to all these other bar owners that it was a good move, to convert for the holidays?
Beth: Oh, yeah. I definitely think that. And, actually, I talked to a couple of bar owners about why they chose to do one, and they both kind of said, “We saw the success that Miracle had, those first couple of years, and how many people were waiting in line to get in, and we thought, this seems like a good idea. It’s fun. It’s an escape from reality, for a little while. And we’re going to make a little money.” I mean, and they just went for it. I mean, and so we went from having two, to having 12. So-
Daniel: How does the coverage do, on your end, when you’re writing about them? Are the posts doing very well?
Beth: Oh my gosh, yes. I mean, all eyeballs are on these holiday bars. The comments, I mean, people are freaking out. They’re like, “We need to plan.” I have one reader who was like, “Can you put a crawl together for me, so I know where to go and what time to be there.” And I’m like, good Lord. I mean, it is just nuts. I mean, people just love the kitschiness of it, and that it’s kind of something fun to do. And, with the heavy news cycle, I think that we’re all in, right now. It’s a place for people to just relax, for a minute, and just be joyous.
Amanda: Do you think it does better in southern states?
Beth: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, the weather definitely helps, because a lot of these places have outdoor patios that they’ve also kitted out, for the holidays. So people are out there, under the lamps and everything else. But I do think that- I thought about, well, why is Atlanta so holiday bar crazy? And one of the answers that I kind of kept coming back to was the fact that so many people who live here are not from here. We have people from all over the United States that come here for technology and creative jobs. And so there are people from all over, including all over the world. And so a lot of people are away from their families. And I do think that these bars kind of spark a little nostalgia in people, and it gives them a little bit of comfort.
Daniel: Do you have any crazy stories of people waiting in line or getting wild?
Beth: Yeah, I did see somebody dance on a bar.
Amanda: Do people dress up?
Beth: Oh, yeah. I mean, people come with their ugly sweaters. Last year, there was somebody dressed as Santa Claus. I think it’s just kind of like Halloween. People just want to dress up and be silly, and, who cares, kind of throw their cares away for the evening and just drink crazy cocktails and eat gingerbread cookies. It’s been really, really interesting, watching this. It’s a phenomenon.
Daniel: Wow. Well, Beth, thank you so much for taking the time.
Beth: Well, thanks for having me.
Daniel: So Amanda, it seems like, from at least the Atlanta story, that this Miracle Company started this craze.
Amanda: Oh, yeah.
Daniel: And we actually know that Miracle was founded by a guy named Greg Boehm, who is very involved with the New York bar scene and has a company called Cocktail Kingdom, has a few bars. So we invited him into the studio, to see if we could figure out how Miracle started and just how big it’s got.
Amanda: All right. Now, on the show, we have Greg Boehm, founder and CEO of Miracle Company and Cocktail Kingdom. Greg, welcome.
Greg: Thank you for having me.
Amanda: So you have a business called Miracle. Kind of obsessed with it, because I read the headlines across the Eater Network, every single day. And I started noticing this last year and, even more so, this year, where every city that we have, there’s some headline, around now, where they say, “Here are all the popups, the Christmas popups, that are coming to bars, around the city.” It’s in Nashville. It’s Detroit. It’s New York. It’s everywhere. And they’re all franchising from you.
Greg: A lot of them are... It’s our sixth year, now. So yeah.
Amanda: And I remember when you started this, in New York, but can you explain what Miracle is, how it all came to be?
Greg: Absolutely. About six years ago, I bought a bar in New York called Louis 649, which was a small cocktail bar in the East Village, in Alphabet City.
Amanda: I love that bar.
Greg: And, right when I bought it, we were going to do construction, December. My mother was traveling, in Tibet, and had an idea. And, when she got back to Hong Kong, she called me, by mistake, at 4:30 in the morning. And said, “Stop. Do not do construction in December. Open a Christmas cocktail bar and do construction in January.” And I hung up because it was 4:30 in the morning. But, the next morning, I went, “Wow, that’s a really good idea.”
Greg: And so, that’s how it all started. And then my mom got super nervous. She’s like, “But you never listen to me. What if nobody shows up?” So we started with one location, which later became the bar Mace, which has now moved. And then, the second year, we had four locations. Basically, a couple of friends of ours got in.
Amanda: Explain what a Christmas bar is.
Greg: So Miracle is, first and foremost, a cocktail bar with delicious cocktails. And then we decorate, and we decorate some more, and we decorate some more. And I’ve been working on the playlist for five years, just to tweak it. What sounds good? Because there’s some great Christmas songs that don’t really resonate, in a bar environment.
Greg: So, essentially, Miracle becomes a Christmas experience. And I think, over other people doing other sorts of Christmas things, we get to use all the senses because we also get the sense of taste, as well as they smell good, and they look amazing. They sound amazing.
Daniel: So what did you do to the first one?
Greg: The first one was just kind a rag-tag thing, where we just started ... We were about to do construction. So we used a lot of staple guns and started stapling things to the wall, nailing everything-
Daniel: Mistletoe ... what kind of stuff?
Greg: ... A lot of paper products just stapled to the wall. And we did a little Hanukkah hideaway, as well.
Amanda: Are the bartenders in costume?
Greg: ... The bartenders wear Christmas hats, and they wear a lot of sort of often irreverent Christmas T-shirts and things like that.
Daniel: So you found that the bar that you eventually wanted to renovate, what the bar looked like, normally, didn’t matter, as much, when you’re doing a holiday cocktail-
Greg: Yeah, aesthetically, it doesn’t matter because you’re covering almost every possible surface with something that is glittery and red or green. It did matter, the first year, that we only had one well, and, luckily, one of our bartenders is like 6’ 4”, or 5”. So he was working over a sink. So he had to reach the bar. Now, in that same space, we have two fully-functioning wells. But, yeah, it was interesting because it was fun, and people were really happy. But, day three, we were like, wow, this is going to be more than we expected.
Amanda: So it was immediately a hit?
Greg: Yeah, it was. And one of the reasons I wanted to start the franchise is because you have to be ready for your success. And we now have a whole plan on what to do, when to do it.
Amanda: Before we get into that, can you go back to ... So, year one, huge success, and you were like, let’s do a few more of these. And how did you expand it out from there, in year two?
Greg: So, year two, a couple friends of mine wanted to do a pop-up, based on my success. So one was in Norwalk, Connecticut, in a rented space. And then, also, another bar I owned, called Boilermaker, on First Avenue and First Street, in New York, was a little jealous of our success, in this little, tiny space. So we started working on a second concept, called Sipping Santa, originally called Sipping Santa’s Surf Shack. But, now we’re working with Jeff Beachbum Barry-
Amanda: So it’s tiki-themed?
Greg: Exactly. It’s a tiki cocktail Christmas.
Daniel: So, the first year, it was just basically things that you could buy from any kind of decoration store?
Greg: Absolutely, yeah. A lot of it was vintage stuff, off of eBay, and things you could get in a store, yes.
Daniel: So you really were just like in a- I just want to decorate this place, make a cocktail. It wasn’t like a cohesive thing, yet?
Greg: Correct. It looked ridiculous.
Daniel: And then you did the mulled wine- I mean, not mulled wine, but you did some cocktail or holiday-themed cocktails, as well-
Greg: I was already working with Nico de Soto, who is the beverage director and partner at Mason, a world famous bartender.
Greg: And so he created the cocktails for the first year. So they very much were like the bar, Mace, which are spice-based cocktails. We just used a lot more nutmeg and cinnamon than our regular menu would use.
Daniel: Okay. So huge success.
Amanda: And then year two expands to more of your bars and some friend’s bars?
Greg: Yeah, two other bars. Yeah.
Amanda: And then when do you get to the franchising part?
Greg: Year three, we went to 17 locations-
Amanda: Oh my God.
Greg: ... And so I have a barware company called Cocktail King, and we design and manufacture high-end barware. And, through that, I know a lot of bartenders, bar owners, and so we expanded, again, to people we knew, not necessarily people that I knew well. But, then, it just took off. And it was year four when we hit just over 50 locations, that it became formal, and we had a formal franchise.
Amanda: That’s when you turned into an actual business, where this is how it works?
Greg: Yeah, exactly.
Daniel: But what does it mean to ... What are you actually selling?
Greg: So to become part of the Miracle franchise, first of all, we make sure the bars are capable of creating the cocktails, which are fairly sophisticated cocktails. And, then, they pay a fee to be part of the group. And they get our recipes. We have, of course, a certain design style that we share with them. They get a full packet on how to make all the drinks, how to execute everything. We handle the PR, as well, for all the locations.
Daniel: Okay. To make sure they’re on all the lists and everything?
Greg: Yeah. So we take care of all of that.
Daniel: And what about decorations? Are they getting a big care package?
Greg: So they, then, buy the glassware and some of the decor, from us.
Greg: So we design and manufacture a lot of mugs-
Amanda: God, so smart.
Greg: This year, the new signature mug is a green ceramic dinosaur with a Santa hat on.
Amanda: So they buy their base, they can reuse every year, and then you’re like, ‘Hey, but don’t you want to check out this new-”
Daniel: The new signature mug?
Greg: We do repeat the mugs, so they can use what they had last year. But a lot of people buy the mugs.
Greg: Because they’re only available for purchase-
Amanda: Oh, the customers buy them from the bar? So they can sell the mugs, too?
Greg: So, both at Sipping Santa and at Miracle, the product is only available at the locations. We don’t retail at any place.
Amanda: Do the bars get a cut of that, too?
Greg: The bars, yeah, they buy it from us, and they resell it.
Amanda: Oh, okay.
Daniel: And so how does the financial breakdown of it work? Are you, they’re just franchising and then what, or are you getting a percentage of what they sell, through the Miracle-
Greg: No, we definitely don’t. That’s not really legal, to share profits from alcohol sales.
Amanda: Can you share the startup fee?
Greg: It depends-
Amanda: The size of the bar?
Greg: ... It depends on the size of the market, the size of the bar.
Amanda: And dive bars are probably not going to do it. It has to be a kind of relatively high-end-
Greg: It pretty much has to be a mixology bar. Or, at least, you need people there that aspire to be that. Which is actually the reason I started the whole thing, or really started pushing it, was because of Cocktail Kingdom. Anything that promotes cocktails, high-end cocktails, or, usually, it’s just delicious cocktails, I say, helps my core business, which is manufacturing barware, Cocktail Kingdom. So ...
Amanda: Do you dictate how much they charge for their cocktails? Or could it be someone that charges $8, or could they charge $30?
Greg: Prices definitely vary. Liquor prices vary, state by state, and we are in 37 States. But we do suggest what they would cost, and we definitely consider how much they cost to make, based on a national average of liquor costs.
Daniel: Has any bar- Because ... just setting your bar up, in putting decorations up, in your bar, doesn’t mean that someone, even if it’s a mixology place, doesn’t mean that someone is taking a shot at trying to copy Miracle. Right?
Daniel: But have you heard of bars that are like, we can do it ourselves. We’re going to go holiday, this year, and then come to you, next year, and be like, it just didn’t work as well, for us.
Greg: Absolutely. I mean there-
Amanda: What goes wrong?
Greg: There’s, I mean, almost everything goes wrong, in a lot of these places. Essentially, the cocktails have to be created in such a way that they can be made in great volume. We’re a PR machine, so, obviously, they may miss out on the press. You have to be ready for the success or ready if, what to do if you’re not as busy as you hoped to be.
Greg: But we really have it dialed in, right now, and working with us- And, also, I mean, same way I’ve run all my businesses, I’m not greedy. It’s not like it’s expensive to work with Miracle. The only problem can be if there isn’t a Miracle or Sipping Santa available, in your city. Because we only partner, with very few exceptions, with one bar, for Miracle, and one partner, for Sipping Santa. If you see that there’s-
Amanda: Oh, so first-come, first-serve-
Greg: ... Three in Atlanta, three Miracles, in Atlanta, that’s our same partner, who has opened multiple ones.
Amanda: Right, right, right. So do you choose- You try to choose bars with many locations? Or do you just... Whoever comes to you first?
Greg: No, it’s out of every- We’re pretty picky about who we work with.
Greg: So, yeah, it helps if they come to us, first. We also do a lot of outreach. We definitely-
Daniel: Want the top places.
Greg: ... We want the top places. I mean, this year, in Cleveland, we reached out to bars, a society lounge that I really wanted to work with, for example.
Amanda: Okay, so people are coming to you, and you’re going out to people?
Daniel: Because the cocktail, in a way, your bar’s become the Miracle Bar. So if someone has a bad cocktail at Miracle, in Cleveland, you never know, they might be like, oh, that Miracle thing makes shit cocktails.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. It does matter to us, however it does. And we actually have people that go in and visit the bars. We do ... Yeah, we have people that show up and try the cocktails and all the different locations. I tried to get as many as I can, but I certainly ... I get to-
Amanda: Yeah, how many Miracles and Sipping Santas do you get to, in one season?
Greg: Last year, I got to 23.
Daniel: Wow, you’re like the most festive guy on the planet.
Greg: I actually really enjoy it. The one thing that’s funny is I am going into taste the cocktails and check on the decor and, honestly, mostly just make sure, I mean, the music’s right, and everything I would do with my own bars.
Amanda: Will you go in there and get behind the bar and change the playlist?
Greg: I don’t touch anything, but I definitely comment on playlists. Playlists have been one of the things- I mean, when I say I worked on the playlist for five years, it’s so specific, what works, what resonates, what doesn’t-
Amanda: What song is just a total bomb?
Greg: A lot- all the Elvis Presley stuff.
Amanda: Really? Too slow?
Greg: It’s so sad and depressing.
Greg: Yeah, anything from Elvis Presley, take it off your Christmas playlist, if you’re playing it at a bar.
Daniel: Do bartender- if you’re working with a lot of the top people, do they not want to add their own cocktails, to your menu?
Greg: There can be some ego involved, certain places. There are bars that’ll do one or two local signature cocktails.
Daniel: That’s okay?
Greg: That’s okay. They have to present our full menu, which is- Our menu looks like a greeting card. And it’s well-balanced with the- This is the menu I have, here, in front of me. There’s a stirred cocktail and a shaking cocktail. Always have to have your eggnog.
Amanda: Jingle Bells Nog.
Daniel: So part of the deal is they have to present the Miracle menu.
Daniel: And, then, if they want to offer a couple extras ...
Greg: A couple extras. Although, our most successful locations stick to our menu.
Daniel: Yeah, do it our way, huh?
Greg: Yeah, we didn’t just happen into this. So the cocktails are developed by Nico de Soto, who I mentioned earlier, and Joanne Spiegel, who actually runs Miracle and is a great bartender, as well.
Amanda: So, in year four, you said you had 50? Or is that year three?
Greg: Yeah, wait. It goes one, four, 17-
Greg:... 51, 91-
Daniel: Oh my god.
Greg: ... 138-
Amanda: Oh my god.
Greg: ... And that, those numbers, are combining Miracle and Sipping Santa.
Amanda: Would you do a third concept?
Greg: don’t think so. I think we have it covered with-
Amanda: So, traditional, you have Tiki-
Daniel: What about other- I mean, at this point, you must be looking for another holiday to capitalize on.
Greg: No, I’m pretty good. I’m all right. I have a-
Amanda: Would you do Miracle in July?
Greg: No, I think people should wait for it. That comes up, quite a bit.
Amanda: Oh, really? People are like, “Can I do a summertime Christmas bar?”
Greg: Yeah, I always shut it down. I’m like, “Let’s wait.”
Amanda: Yeah. Let’s wait.
Daniel: So you have many businesses. You have bars. You have, obviously, Cocktail Kingdom, probably the biggest cocktail supply store, and, now, this. Is it financially interesting to you, in of itself, the Christmas or the holiday cocktail bar, or is it just a way of building relationships, in the different cities, and selling Cocktail Kingdom product?
Greg: Miracle has become a financial success of its own.
Greg: So it started with trying to promote cocktails. Whatever’s good for cocktail is good for me, as I was mentioning, before, and really trying to get people to come in and experience mixology.
Greg: But, at this point, it’s become a financial success, and it is a viable business, on its own.
Daniel: I’m just curious. What’s the least you would charge a bar? I mean, to-
Greg: The economics, there, is very specific to the bar, so-
Daniel: Sure, okay. But are we talking like three grand?
Greg: Yeah, it’s nothing prohibitively expensive.
Greg: It’s something-
Amanda: It’s something they can reasonably get into, and then they’ll see the profit.
Greg: Quite literally, it’s one day’s sales.
Greg: I mean, more or less.
Amanda: That’s a good context.
Greg: More or less, it’s one- And I don’t mean a busy Saturday night. It’s like a solid sales for a Thursdays, I would equate, when I’m looking at bars in size. It’s essentially what ends up being.
Amanda: And where do you see it, in five years? It’s just getting to more markets?
Greg: I’m not sure, exactly. I mean, right now, we’re really expanding into the suburbs has been our biggest expansion. And we have a lot of synergy in places where there’s a Sipping Santa and a Miracle, near each other. Yesterday, I went to a heavy metal show because there were two bands I wanted to see. If there was one band I wanted to see, maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn’t have.
Greg: So, again, in a few years, as you asked, it’s hard to say. I think, as long as we keep up the quality and the cocktails are as good as they are, we’ll continue to expand into smaller markets. And I really like markets that don’t have a lot of access to delicious cocktails that are-
Daniel: That’s tougher, right? Because if you’re not going to big city mixology places, it’s harder to-
Amanda: You have to find the partner.
Greg: Well, I don’t know if it’s harder. Because you take a place like Waco, Texas, we have a great partner, there. And so, I mean, you could-
Amanda: Joanna Gaines?
Greg: Yeah. Hopefully, she’ll come by and have a drink.
Amanda: Oh my gosh. I’m sure she’d love it.
Greg: Yeah, exactly. She’ll probably put something up on the wall that says bar. Because I didn’t know it was a bar. So, I think, in the smaller markets, sometimes, it’s almost easier to find the right partners.
Amanda: Because there’s one.
Greg: Because there’s one.
Amanda: Yeah. In the suburbs, now, too, they are getting more good cocktail bars. But there’s usually one in town.
Greg: I mean, for me, it’s such a scary time to be drinking cocktails, right now, which is a whole separate subject. But, essentially, every place feels obligated to have a cocktail menu, even if there’s nobody on staff that can execute it.
Amanda: You mean because they’re so popular. But the quality and talent isn’t there.
Greg: Correct. I mean, if you can’t open a bar restaurant, I mean, unless it’s a true dive bar or, I mean, most especially restaurants, you can’t open and not have a cocktail menu.
Daniel: And, I mean, just from what I hear, you get a lot of people who have worked a shift, at a good New York bar, and then a Hilton, in the middle of nowhere, is like, “We’re going to give you a cocktail bar.”
Greg: I see it, all the time. I go to about, a bit fewer this year, but, traditionally, I go to four or 500 cocktail bars, worldwide, a year.
Daniel: Holy shit.
Amanda: I think one thing that we didn’t really get into, enough, is why people respond to it, so strongly. Why is it such a big success?
Greg: Yeah, I mean, obviously, I’m not 100% sure-
Daniel: It’s the best possible Tinder date, ever.
Greg: It is. And it really does go across ... I mean, we don’t have a specific customer. It’s almost there. I think one of the reasons they’re successful is the age range is huge. The diversity of our customers is huge. And you’re getting people in. And I think the reason we’ve been successful, compared to- This is talking to customers because I actually work at the bars, almost every night. If I’m traveling and visiting a Miracle, I will get out on the floor and help. I work, quite literally, every day, from now until, including Christmas day, until the end of the year. But a lot of the customers who are so happy- Well, because our product is also good.
Greg: It’s just it’s fun, and this is great, and I came in because it was ridiculous. And, wait, that tastes amazing. And we’re doing things like flips, which are drinks with eggs in them.
Greg: And most of our customer base, for Miracle, has never had a flip, before. I mean, of course, I explain to them they’ve probably had eggnog, which had eggs in it too.
Greg: But, in their mind, though, they haven’t had drinks with egg whites in them. And so it’s actually an experience. They learn a little something about cocktails, and the drinks are delicious.
Daniel: That’s crazy.
Amanda: And you could take a date. You could take a group.
Amanda: You could do an office hang.
Greg: One of our busiest hours is 4:00 PM, on a weekday.
Amanda: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah.
Greg: 4:00 PM on Tuesdays. And there’s always a day of the year that you’d always- Your busiest day of the year. December 12th, this year.
Greg: I can already tell. We’re already full.
Daniel: Nostalgia is money, these days, right? Or ...
Greg: It is. And it’s funny. It also came from a really-
Daniel: Genuine place.
Greg: ... Yeah, genuine place. Because this whole thing is based on my grandparents’ basement, in White Plains, New York. And they built their house, in the early ‘50s, and not a thing has changed. And this is kind of what I remember, in terms of our Christmas, what was down there. And so it came from, really, trying to recreate, and, I guess, it resonates with enough people.