Food

The “Most Millennial Job Ever:” Building DC’s Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar

Drink Company now has full-time staff devoted to designing and constructing its elaborate themed pop-ups

Adriana Salame-Aspiazu makes adjustments to one of the trees at the Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar. Photography by Jessica Sidman.

Shreds of pink foam are covering the floor. Fake flowers are still wrapped in plastic. Spray paint cans and power tools and glue litter the bar. Godzilla is missing his head.

Come March 1, this craft fest-meets-construction zone will be transformed into the much-hyped Cherry Blossom pop-up bar, which will include an ode to the Japanese monster this year. Drink Company’s Shaw temporary bars have drawn massive crowds willing to wait hours for the chance to sip themed cocktails in elaborate rooms decorated like a Christmas wonderland, the Game of Throne‘s Seven Kingdoms, a haunted forest, or a David Bowie disco. With each new venture, the decor has gotten more elaborate with robots and custom art and props. Now, it’s one step away from a Hollywood production. The budget for decor supplies alone has climbed to around $25,000-to-$30,000 per pop-up. (The Game of Thrones bar went a little bit over that, Drink Company CEO Angie Fetherston says.)

Drink Co’s first pop-up concept—holiday-themed Miracle on Seventh Street—took two nights to set up with the help of volunteers in 2015. Now, the group has two full-time employees devoted to designing and building pop-ups: Special Projects Director Matt Fox and Special Projects Manager Adriana Salame-Aspiazu.

The duo have been working since January 8—with occasional 14 to 15 hour days—to transform the space with the help of an army of volunteers and contractors. It took two weeks just to tear down everything from the holiday pop-up. They’re still trying to get rid of a full-sized sleigh, but in a 180-square-foot storage unit off U Street, you’ll find plastic bins full of ornaments and Christmas lights, trash bags stuffed with ivy and garlands, Santa mugs, light fixtures, swords, and banners. (The famed Iron Throne is currently “on loan” to the National Building Museum.)

For this spring’s bar, the centerpiece is the cherry blossom trees, of course. Pretty much all the pop-ups from Drink Company have included trees: “What really makes it immersive is the canopy piece of it. It surrounds you. A tree is a very beautiful and efficient way to do that,” Fetherston says.

Last year, the Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar was decorated in 11 dozen fake blossom branches. This year, it’s 60 dozen, which Fox has calculated equals around 90,000 individual flowers.

The tree trunks are also one of the most time-intensive components of the decor—this is no simple paper mâché. The team buys giant sheets of Styrofoam at Home Depot normally used to insulate homes, then layers them around wooden frames and carves them into shape using a hot knife and metal horse grooming comb. Then, they plaster the tree in Foam Coat to make it “people proof.”

Meanwhile, the back of the room is being transformed into a garden with 1,300 butterflies, including many that are motorized to make their wings flap. Salame-Aspiazu spent days individually attaching hundreds of plastic flowers to the wall with zip ties.

“My fingers were so dry that I cut myself and it didn’t bleed and I didn’t notice,” she says. “Flower arranging isn’t a joke. I really had to do a lot of takes before I was pleased with it.”

Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, Drink Company, Godzilla
At least 1,300 butterflies are adhered to the light fixtures.

Because the cherry blossoms are a symbol of the partnership between the US and Japan, the bar has tried to integrate Japanese pop culture into the decor. In its first year, that meant a room devoted to Super Mario Bros. This year, it’s all about Godzilla.

Andrew Herndon, a window display artist with a degree in sculpture, is behind the 10-foot animatronic Godzilla, whose body will “rumble” and jaw will open and close. (Herndon also built the smoke-breathing dragon at the Game of Thrones pop-up.) Fetherston and Salame-Aspiazu’s mom (they’re sisters) is making sculpture of Mothra, the nemesis of Godzilla.

Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, Drink Company, Godzilla
Andrew Herndon works on a 10-foot animatronic Godzilla.

Another section of the bar is outfitted with paper lanterns, lit-up storefront signs, and power lines to resemble Memory Lane (also locally known as “Piss Alley”) in Tokyo, a narrow street where you can can find drinks and yakatori.

“That alley in particular, one the reasons it’s popular is because it hasn’t really changed since the 1950s, and that’s when the first Godzilla movies came out,” Fox explains. A wall of old TVs will flash old Godzilla clips.

Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, Drink Company, Godzilla
Artist Andrew Funk spray-paints Japanese signs on the wall.

Before he was designing over-the-top pop-up bars for a living, Fox put together sponsorship promotions for the Washington Capitals and the Wizards, and did sales for a trade association expo. He has long been friends with owners Derek Brown and Fetherston (who his wife had known since high school) and eventually started bartending at their bars and volunteering on the Christmas pop-up. In 2016, he offered to make the Demogorgon for their Stranger Things-themed room. When it was time for the first Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, the owners asked if he’d like to come on for six weeks full-time to build it. They’ve since decided to turn it into a more permanent job.

“I call it the most Millennial job ever,” says Salame-Aspiazu, who’s bartended across Drink Company’s bars. But it doesn’t necessarily mean her degree in lab biology has gone to waste. “If I’m going to apply my degree in anyway, it would be just problem-solving. You come up with these dreams and all these different ideas, but then you physically have to get down and do it.”

Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar. 1841 7th St., NW. March 1 through April 29. Open Sunday through Thursday from 5 PM to 12:30 AM and Friday and Saturday from 5 PM to 1:30 AM. 

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Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.