What’s the deal with pop culture concepts?

Moe’s Tavern. Moby Dick. The Shining. Mos Eisley Cantina. Luke’s Diner.

What do all these seemingly-unrelated things have in common? They’re all hallmarks of pop culture-inspired concepts that might leverage any of the above to create instantly Instagrammable, buzzworthy restaurant experiences that allow customers to live, breath and eat like their favorite pop culture characters. There are restaurants that leverage nostalgia by taking notes from fan-favorite ‘90s sitcoms (the Saved By the Max pop-up in Chicago was so popular it extended its run several times before setting up shop in Los Angeles once the final bell rang) as well as those that play up consumer interests ranging from comic books to sci-fi to cult TV shows (what Doctor Who fan wouldn’t love dining around a life-sized TARDIS?).

Last month Datassential traveled to galaxies not far, far away to uncover the latest pop culture concepts, culling insights and key takeaways any operator can take inspiration from. Our issue of Creative Concepts: Pop Culture Concepts dives into how restaurants can take their concepts to the next level by capitalizing on anything from movies to books to TV shows (and if there’s any doubt regarding the power of pop culture, just remember the pandemonium that ensued when “Rick and Morty” fans tried to snag the limited amount of Szechuan sauce McDonald’s offered). With the rise of experiential dining and eatertainment, consumers are no longer looking just for great food, but also a completely immersive experience. Here are four pop culture-inspired concepts and how you can learn from them:

  1. The Upside Down – Chicago, Ill.

Chicago’s eatertainment-centric Emporium Arcade Bar operates a dedicated pop-up space that has held events centered on themes ranging from Fernet to hip hop. Last year, Emporium made headlines for its pop-up modeled after the Upside Down, aka the parallel dimension on Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” The bar went all in with its décor, paying homage to iconic elements from the show, from the Byer family couch (complete with blinking lights and letters above it) to a dining table strapped to the bar’s ceiling (the table setting even included real Eggo waffles, a favorite of the character Eleven). With nearly 16 million viewers (Nielsen) tuning into the premiere of the “Stranger Things” second season last fall, there was simply no room for error. As other operators consider capitalizing on pop culture elements with huge fanbases, they might take into account things like copyright (the Upside Down actually caught the attention of Netflix, which in a letter full of “Stranger Things” speak, asked the company to not continue the pop-up past its original end date) or how to handle other issues that arise from becoming uber-popular (the Upside Down actually had to enforce time limits for fans looking to take pictures on the iconic couch as so many people were waiting2..

  1. Grand Army – New York, N.Y.

Leveraging pop culture doesn’t necessarily mean a restaurant has to go all in. Existing restaurants can take a page from New York’s Grand Army, an upscale seafood restaurant that capitalizes on pop culture through its themed cocktail menus. By focusing on creating limited-time, often-changing cocktail menus, Grand Army can attract new audiences (that may flock to the restaurant specifically for “Gilmore Girls” cocktails) without alienating its core consumers or having to worry about things like overhauling the restaurant’s décor or food menu to fit a certain theme. Grand Army has reinvented itself through cocktail menus that have been based on far-ranging themes, from “Star Wars” to Scandinavian rock bands to Brothers Grimm fairytales. If resources are limited, remember that offering limited-run themed events even once a year or special menu items released alongside buzzy happenings (like the Olympics, for instance) can help you stand out from competitors and bring in customers you might not have reached otherwise.

  1. Or, The Whale – Pittsburgh, Pa.

TV shows and movies aren’t the only forms of pop culture entertainment that can be leveraged by operators. At Or, The Whale in Pittsburgh, everything from décor to menu headings to food and beverage offerings are themed around Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Similar to concepts like Chicago’s Elizabeth, which creates themed prix fixe menus inspired by “Game of Thrones,” Dr. Seuss, or Wes Anderson movies (to name a few), Or, The Whale also plays with the juxtaposition of fine dining and themed dining. Customers can indulge in hundred-dollar seafood towers, aged steaks, and other upscale French food while also taking in surroundings that include a two-story whaling mural and décor such as ship ropes, nautical lithographs, and sea blue subway tiling. When it comes to what’s fair game for pop culture-themed restaurants, anything goes.


  1. Drink Company – Washington, D.C.

What’s the deal with all the hype behind pop-up restaurant concepts? For one, they’re basically the LTOs of the restaurant world. Just as consumers might go gaga for special foods or beverages that only come around once a year or only linger for a limited time (McRib or Pumpkin Spice Latte, anyone?), pop-ups can help create a sense of urgency for consumers who are itching to show they were able to snag Szechuan sauce or withstand hours-long lines to get into places like the Upside Down. At Washington, D.C.’s Drink Company, it’s all about pop-up events under its Pop-Up Bar (or PUB for short) concept, which transforms one or more of its existing bar spaces into themed pop-ups. With its PUBs, Drink Company can constantly reinvent itself: one month, they might operate “Game of Thrones” bars complete with weirwood trees and a House of Faces; later in the year, the same bars might be decked out with cherry blossoms, Mario Kart characters, and Godzilla robots for its Cherry Blossom PUB that celebrates two well-known Japanese imports. While Drink Company certainly goes all in with its pop-ups, traditional restaurant operators can still take inspiration from them for creating smaller-scale events. Offer specialty themed menus for specific events (like the hundreds of coffee shops around the country that dressed up as Luke’s Diner ahead of Netflix’s “Gilmore Girls” revival) or funnel your resources and creativity into creating a yearly tradition (many restaurants, like Chicago’s Replay, have dressed up as iconic settings like Moe’s Tavern from “The Simpsons” for Halloween).

For more on immersive pop culture-inspired restaurants and bars as well as other popular concepts trending in the industry from eatertainment venues to next-level breweries, ask about Datassential’s TrendSpotting publications.

Renee Lee Wege is the senior publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase the Creative Concepts: Pop Culture Concepts issue mentioned in the article, contact Datassential managing director Brian Darr at brian.darr@datassential.com.


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