LIFE OF THE PARTY
Bartenders Rich Trippler and Aaron Rostad were enjoying some whiskey at the bar at Sycamore restaurant when they came up with the idea for a pop-up cocktail business. That same evening, Rostad came up with the name, CoMingle573, and set up a Twitter account.
“It was kind of a lark,” says Rostad. “We came up with the concept while we were out drinking. I went home and just started to put it together. I was hoping that Rich had been serious about doing it. We could have spent months or years talking about it, but I think that jumping in with both feet created a momentum that helped us to be successful.”
The overnight entrepreneurs used that momentum to seek out support in getting their business off the ground. Trippler says The Club at Old Hawthorne, where he recently left his position as bar manager, allowed him to borrow glassware and use its commercial kitchen to test recipes and store ingredients. Rostad, who tended bar at Sycamore until this summer, says he received similar encouragement from his former employer.
Trippler and Rostad held their first event at Sycamore on April 27, just a few weeks after their initial brainstorming session at the bar. In the five months since, the partners have worked three more pop-up cocktail parties. At 9th Street Public House, Boss Taco served food alongside the brunch-themed cocktails. The event at Dogmaster Distillery showcased drinks made from Dogmaster’s line of craft spirits paired with barbecue from Como Smoke and Fire. An August cocktail party at Craft Beer Cellar featured all beer-inspired cocktails. At each three-hour social, Trippler and Rostad sold 100 mixed drinks to a group of about 40 to 50 people.
“Everywhere we’ve done it, the owner or manager has approached us the same night and asked us to come back and do it again,” Trippler says. “People want to give us their bar when it’s not being used, or it’s being underused. It’s an opportunity for them to make money at a time when they normally wouldn’t.”
The Social Buzz
Rostad says Twitter is the duo’s primary tool for advertising. They also use Facebook and Instagram. A week or two before each pop-up, Rostad posts clues about the date, time and place. He maintains an element of surprise by not revealing the full details until 24 to 48 hours before the gathering happens. He created the #popupcomo hashtag to get CoMingle573 trending on social media.
“I started with Twitter because it is quick, easy and a lot of businesses in Columbia have a presence there,” Rostad explains. “I tweeted at media outlets, local bars and restaurants, and pretty much anyone who had anything to do with the nightlife scene. In the beginning, we were very mysterious about what we were doing. The goal was to create a buzz and to build a following.”
Rostad says it takes about 10 to 15 hours to prepare for a pop-up. The first step is to find a venue. The restaurant or bar must provide the space, alcohol, liquor license and insurance. Trippler and Rostad bring their own equipment, mixers and garnishes. They strike a verbal agreement with management to be freelance bartenders for three hours in exchange for a flat fee or a percentage of the revenue.
“All of the negotiations are done in good faith,” says Rostad. “The benefit to the host establishment is that we will hopefully attract people that haven’t been to their business before.”
Once they secure a location, Trippler and Rostad meet to dream up a fresh slate of concoctions. Each pop-up features five original drinks. The duo purchases seasonal ingredients for their high-end cocktails at Columbia’s farmers markets. They make their own mixers, including syrups, liqueurs and juices. Trippler and Rostad like to experiment with unusual spirits and garnishes, such as espresso-infused tequila and edible flowers.
They also come up with memorable names for their adult beverages. Duck Duck Goose was the moniker for a Grey Goose-based vodka cocktail they topped with miniature rubber duckies. Eighties pop music inspired the tequila-centered Wake Me Up Before You CoMo. Meaghan Olsen, a local artist, designs unique paper menus for each party with hand-drawn fonts and graphics. The menus double as souvenirs for attendees.
“The quirky names and the creative menus get people talking,” Trippler says. “The drinks that are the most ‘out there’ tend to be the ones that sell out the quickest. We only print the base liquor of each cocktail on the menus, because we want people to forget about their preconceived notions of what they do and don’t like. When people ask questions, it gives us a chance to have a conversation with them about the drinks.”
Keep It Simple
CoMingle573’s two-man team likes to keep things simple and streamlined when it comes to running a pop-up. All cocktails are priced at $8, and they only accept cash. They tell their guests that the bar will stay open for three hours or until they run out of alcohol.
“We start to run out of stuff about 90 minutes in,” says Trippler. “We sold out at our recent event at Dogmaster Distillery. It’s clear that there is a niche demand in Columbia for an adventurous experience and funky drinks that aren’t being offered anywhere else.”
Trippler and Rostad have 28 years’ bartending experience between them. Trippler began tending bar in 1999 at a microbrewery in Sioux City, Iowa. When he moved to Columbia in 2003, his first job was downtown on Sixth Street at Grill One 5 where he worked until it closed in 2008. He was the bar manager at Bleu for five years before moving on to The Club at Old Hawthorne. Rostad has been a bartender for 12 years. He came to Columbia in 2014, and started bartending at Sycamore. He and his wife relocated to Stillwater, Okla., in June.
“Rich and I have been behind the bar for enough years that we weren’t surprised by the work and preparation that goes into these events,” says Rostad. “However, we didn’t anticipate how big the crowd would be at the first one. We thought it would be more of a slow burn over time.”
Time To Mingle
Trippler and Rostad often joke that the name of their business sounds like a dating website. But, they say, the true meaning comes from the desire to develop a sense of community and collaboration in Columbia through cocktail culture.
“We’re mingling our different approaches to bartending and both of our skill sets to make something that is spontaneous and unexpected,” Trippler says. “We like that it’s bringing people together to try something new, and it’s mutually beneficial for us and the businesses we work with.”
Despite now living more than 400 miles away, Rostad says he will continue to travel to Columbia for the pop-ups. He and Trippler have a wish list of restaurants and bars they want to work with in the future. They’ve discussed bringing other bartenders into the fold, and they even want to expand to other cities. But, most importantly, they want to keep having fun with their current venture.
“We’re having a blast,” says Rostad. “When it stops being fun, we won’t do it anymore. People always ask us if we are doing this to test the market, but that was never the intention. We don’t know where this is going, but we aren’t closing the door to any possibilities.”