The Brolly - Pop-up bars reinventing the guest experience

The pandemic sparked in many the desire to innovate & test new ideas: businesses took this occasion to reinvent the way they operate & engage customer

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand has been one of the nations who were able to better handle the pandemic. By putting in place some of the strictest travel restrictions and an effective track and trace system, the nation managed to keep the virus under control.

Photo by Brolly on stuff.co.nz

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand has been one of the nations who were able to better handle the pandemic. By putting in place some of the strictest travel restrictions and an effective track and trace system, the nation managed to keep the virus under control.

Despite the strict measures, some areas of the country could not avoid local restrictions and lockdowns. The city of Auckland, in particular, has been the most heavily hit by the restrictions, experiencing repeated lockdowns over the winter months. The restrictions on social gatherings together with the lack of international tourism have impacted the activity of many businesses, with the hospitality sector being the most impacted one.

In this context, many hospitality businesses such as bars and restaurants had to rethink their operations and innovate in order to survive. The restrictions have impacted the whole concept of service delivery within the hospitality sector: the lockdown has made delivery service the only viable option, and even when restrictions were lifted, venues still had difficulties to operate at full capacity and resume operations.

Photo by Brolly on stuff.co.nz

Despite the somehow dramatic situation, not everyone gave up. The pandemic has sparked in many the desire to innovate and test new ideas: many businesses took this occasion to reinvent the way they operate and engage with their customers. Many pivoted digitally, making online delivery the new core of the service, others instead downscaled operations in order cut costs, wether some others instead decided to experiment with entirely new concepts.

The concept of pop-up bars and restaurants, which is not something completely new in New Zealand, has been adopted by many businesses to tackle the new challenges of the market. Brolly, a small pop-up bar overlooking the harbour of Auckland is an excellent example of a resilient business who took the pandemic as an opportunity to apply the pop-up model to experiment and innovate.

Opening a bar in the middle of a pandemic

When the lockdown restrictions struck Auckland, Adam Neal the 33-year-old owner of the rooftop cocktail bar Parasol & Swing Company, had no choice but to close. Located directly on the harbour, the cocktail bar is a popular spot for enjoying a freshly made cocktail with a stunning view of the harbour. Even after the lockdown restrictions were lifted, the lack of tourists and a significantly lower number of guests made it unprofitable for the bar to reopen.

But Adam, confident that it was still possible to do something to bring customers back, started to look for new ideas to make its bar popular again. Conscious that the rooftop bar could not operate at full capacity, and that there would be an inevitably lower number of guests, he came up with the idea of opening a pop-up bar within the same premises where the rooftop bar is housed.

The pop-up bar, with its low implementation and operating costs, seemed to be the perfect solution to start a cautious reopening: in fact, its smaller size and more efficient operations could fit best the downsized demand.

Photo by Brolly on stuff.co.nz

On early December 2020, Adam opened up the Brolly, a small bar and restaurant with a twenty-seat dining space and takeaway located right below the rooftop bar. Overlooking the boardwalk and harbour, the small bar offers ready-made cocktails and locally sourced dishes. The bar also operates as a bottle shop, selling a selected number of organic wines and craft beers from New Zealand and Australia.

For Adam, the Brolly wasn't only an occasion to restart with his business, but also, and perhaps more, an opportunity to experiment with new ideas. During the lockdown, Neal was thinking about a new model for his bar, that would include a reduced but more focused and authentic offer. In particular, he became conscious of the importance of highlighting local produce using the best that the territory could offer. This is when the idea of the Brolly was born.

The pop-up philosophy

Starting to spread in the 2000s across Britain and Australia, pop-up bars and restaurants have been growing fast in popularity over the last decade. Born within the context of outdoor events and festivals, pop-ups are now being adopted in a variety of occasions.

Pop-up bars can be either on-site or mobile. On-site pop-ups can be created in locations such as warehouses, disused properties and even within already existing restaurant space. Mobile pop-ups on the other hand are more agile and lighter in structure and can be moved more easily across different areas, following, for example, events and fairs.

The benefits of pop-up bars and restaurants

The biggest advantage given by pop-ups is represented by the lower implementation costs and risks compared to a traditional activity. The business model is somehow more 'forgiving' than others, leaving lots of room for experimentation. In fact, because of the flexibility of spaces, pop-ups bars and restaurants allow playing with different dining concepts: a pop-up bar can in fact operate with table service, self-service or even merging the two.

Photo by Jonathan Chai on Unsplash

The smaller space occupied by the pop-up and the usually limited menu choices help to make operations more agile: pop-ups in fact usually require less staff and equipment. This type of offer makes the pop-ups the perfect choice for those who want to focus the offer on fewer but more unique specialities.

In turn, this offer helps to attract a different type of customer, more curious and willing to explore new specialities: the so-called 'foodie'. This is why, to be successful, a pop-up should serve something unique to offer to its customers.

Pop-ups are also very effective to build excitement and buzz and part of their charm is also made by their location.

The Brolly

After conducting a bit of research, Adam realised a pop-up bar would be a perfect choice to restart his business. In an unused space nestled below the rooftop bar, he created the Brolly, in just about a few weeks from the initial idea. From the beginning, Adam was convinced that the location of the new bar would have been key for success: facing directly onto the harbour, the bar is closer to people walking along the pedestrian street and lends itself well to both casual dining and take-away.

Compared to the rooftop bar, the Brolly keeps costs very low. The bar itself can be managed by just one person: with a limited but at the same time varied choice of drinks, among which ready-made cocktails, multiple guests can be served fast and efficiently.

Photo by Brolly

On the other side, the kitchen is focusing on a smaller, but more quality-oriented offer. The dishes use fresh local ingredients and form a short menu that varies according to season and availability of produce. The small menu allows Adam to experiment with ingredients and introduce new dishes according to what's most popular among guests. Also, having a limited menu make operations in the kitchen more agile.

When you’re spending money on a concept you want to make sure it’s hopefully not going to bite you in the ass further down the line. - Adam Neal on stuff.co.nz

Offering a selection of the best organic wines and craft beers from New Zealand and Australia, the Brolly is also a bottle shop. Including a shop within the bar is not a random choice: selling bottles helps the Brolly to expand the customer base and supplement the income outside the typical peak hours. For Adam, selling bottles is almost a "no-brainer" that can really help complement the offer, and can represent a good opportunity to sell to tourists in the future.

Photo by Brolly on stuff.co.nz

Putting passion back in the street

For Adam, the Brolly is not only a bar: it is an occasion to put his passion back in the business. Through many years of working in the hospitality sector, he realised he had somehow lost his passion for the business. The drive that was motivating him at the beginning of his career was somehow lost.

Pop ups always tend to be such cool little passion projects that you don’t quite get with the more polished larger businesses - Adam Neal, on stuff.co.nz

The break of the lockdown, even if dramatic for his activity, gave him the chance to reflect and think on his choices. Having always been a fan of the Kiwi cuisine and products, he developed more and more the idea to bring them closer to his customers. In the meantime he has also realised how the needs of his clients have been slowly changing: customers were increasingly asking for local specialities and were becoming more conscious of the quality of the offer and its sustainability. The brolly was the chance for him to restart into a new direction.

Photo by Brolly

The little pop-up bar becomes the physical representation of this new proposition. Through it, Adam is not only recovering his business but is also boosting customer awareness about the new direction he is taking. Adam believes that in the long term this will be extremely beneficial: when the situation will allow him to reopen the rooftop bar, he will transpose this new philosophy into it.

The Brolly is an example of how opening a pop-up can become the occasion to experiment with new concepts for the main business. Given the small size of the pop-up, testing new menus and offers have a very low risk. If successful these new concepts can drive the future of the business.

Adam's approach has given inspiration to many hospitality businesses in Auckland. Following his example, many restaurants and bars in the town are in fact opening up similar pop-ups, and this proves the success of his initiative.

Key Takeaways

Published on:
June 2020
About the contributor