Have we hit peak takeover in bars?
From one-night guest shifts to international month-long parties, bar takeovers have never been bigger. But have they lost their way?
The concept of the ‘bar takeover’ is nothing new. Bartenders have been going behind the stick at bars around the world for years. But in 2022 it feels like the takeover has hit new heights. As I sit down to write this feature, an email alert pops up with an invite to New York City bar Lullaby’s two-night takeover at London’s Zetter Townhouse.
Meanwhile, London bar Callooh Callay hit the road for a 22-day UK tour from 1 July; Barcelona’s Two Schmucks kicked off an American takeover tour; while NYC’s Dante finished a month-long programme of takeovers by the likes of London’s Nomad and Buenos Aires’ Florería Atlántico.
Have we hit ‘peak takeover’?
“With lots of people being grounded due to Covid, there’s a real excitement around being able to experience another country’s concept in your own city,” explains bar industry marketeer Rebekkah Dooley.
But the takeover is no longer just confined to a guest shift behind the bar, as Dooley notes: “The guest shift has escalated into full-blown replica bars being built rather than just running a few guest drinks for a night.
“Bars and brands are putting more effort into creating experiential takeover events that people post about on social media, and talk about to their friends.”
This is something that hasn’t been lost on Dante co-owner Linden Pride, who aims to “deliver a full experience”, with live music, bespoke menus and decor.
During Florería Atlántico’s pop-up, his team turned the space into a flower shop to emulate the bar’s speakeasy frontage, and hosted a Latin band.
A tipping point
However, as we reach what feels like a tipping point, there are questions about the role of takeovers and the motivations behind them.
A quick, admittedly not scientific, poll I conducted on Instagram threw up some interesting figures among my non-industry followers.
Out of 50 respondents, 77% knew what a takeover was, but 68% of those said that if a bar had a takeover happening it wouldn’t make them want to specifically visit.
Furthermore, of the 23% who didn’t know what a takeover was, 59% said they wouldn’t go either.
The answers for and against were varied too: for the takeover fans, the experience of trying drinks from bars in far-flung places was a draw, while for those against takeovers, the fact that the experience would lack the ambience of the actual bar was the dominant factor.
The conversation around the appeal of takeovers raised other issues too.
“The most annoyed I was by this was when Tales on Tour came to Edinburgh and brands flew ‘startenders’ in to do takeovers,” said one respondent.
“I thought the whole point was to show off our local bar scene, but it was actually to get startender takeovers to use Edinburgh bars just as venues.”
Others point to industry awards as a driving factor, with one saying: “Some bar takeovers are often about the politics of building relationships with other bartenders, so people get votes in the World’s 50 Best Bars. It is the bar equivalent of politicians kissing babies.”
Another con raised was the continual or sporadic absence of the guest venue’s bar owner or head bartender.
However, there are great benefits for the trade. For Walter Meyenberg, owner of Mexico’s Hanky Panky, takeovers have been a part of the plan from the start, both as a way of putting the bar on the map, as well as exchanging knowledge.
He says: “A good takeover is a great way of showcasing what we are doing but especially what others in the world are doing, giving us the opportunity to also learn from other amazing bars.”
Takeovers also offer a chance for bars in less recognised cities to put their heads above the regional parapet.
“Takeovers are great, especially when you don’t live in London,” says Sam Boulton, managing director of Birmingham’s Pineapple Club. “Takeovers are about accessing audiences you typically wouldn’t have access to. As we are not in a major trade-recognised city (like London), we have to really work hard to convince people to take a day out to visit us.”
However, the tie to brands that predominantly fund takeovers has been the driving factor for Boulton to fund his own events.
“Brands take part in takeovers to show off their products as a marketing exercise, so I viewed it as the same – I wanted to show off my bar in other cities, and marketing costs money,” he explains.
“I wasn’t willing to water down my brand with brand ‘collaborations’ that didn’t realistically reflect what we do.”
It is, of course, financially challenging. Boulton said each takeover costs on average £670 per event for two people outside of London (£400 on travel and accommodation, £100 on staff wages, £20 on menu printing and £150 worth of homemade stock).
For the seven he planned, that comes out at nearly £5,000.
But it means Boulton can give guests a true representation of what the Pineapple Club does: “We have not had to water anything down or change how we do things.”
Someone who has pressed pause on takeovers is Alastair Burgess, owner of Happiness Forgets in London.
“When I opened the bar about 11 years ago, I was having conversations asking why bartenders didn’t make bartender drinks anymore, like they did in the early 2000s. It got me thinking ‘we should celebrate what we have in London’, so I wanted to put drinks on the menu from other bartenders in London.”
He launched Happiness Unforgettables – once a month, a bartender would do a shift in the bar with four of five of their own drinks on the menu.
After the shift, Burgess would pick the most popular drink and keep it on the menu for a month until the next guest bartender arrived.
In recent years, however, the idea of takeovers has become less appealing to Burgess.
“It’s become about getting exposure for bars to other industry people, to get on lists – it has lost the core heart of what a bar is. I find that sad and it’s why I’m a little bit done with doing guest shifts… it has lost its way in the sense of adding to the guest experience.”
Guests’ experiences is one of the biggest talking points when it comes to takeovers, but do consumers really care about them?
Dooley laughs at the question: “In my experience, takeovers attract around 75% industry and 25% consumers. There is consumer excitement around takeovers, but it’s predominantly an industry thing.”
Burgess believes takeovers have become “more about brand promotion – who is paying for everything and how many bartenders they can fit in the bar”.
He notes that consumers get left behind, and are not looked after in the same manner.
When there isn’t a brand tie-in, convincing bars to host is tricky, as Boulton found out first-hand. “The biggest hurdle we had was convincing bars to do it without a financial incentive,” he says.
“The brand supplies bring the evening’s cost down or increase the profit for the hosting venue. Without this stock some bars seem to lose interest very fast. The idea of takeovers as a quick cash grab is beyond me. Hosting a takeover is a great experience for consumers and local trade, it solidifies your reputation nationally and shows you as a national competitor.”
Burgess is less diplomatic when it comes to the topic of bartenders charging host bars: “I think it is disgusting that people are charging to do takeovers. It has become a business in itself; this is supposed to be about a community coming together… call me a grumpy old man but it has become a little too much, and repetitive.”
Yet the allure of the takeover is hard to ignore, and for Dooley, there are some key factors to consider when it comes to organising one, starting with a simple but effective question: “Does this benefit you? When a bar is popping up at a venue, the attention is on that guest bar. It needs to be a mutually beneficial arrangement for all parties involved, otherwise you’re just being used as a billboard for someone else.”