Location: Your new Pop Burger outpost, scheduled to open later this month on 58th Street near Fifth Avenue, will span three floors and about 8,000 square feet. That’s a big burger joint—maybe not Times Square-McDonald’s big—but pretty frickin’ big.
Mr. Liebenthal: I originally wanted to take one floor. But the landlord told me, ‘If you don’t take the whole building, you can’t open a burger joint in my building.’ I said, ‘I’ll take the whole thing.’ As the scale of it grew, it became more and more exciting because we were able to emphasize brand identity by having the entire facade.
About the facade: All the globular windows sort of remind me of those on a submarine.
The idea was to almost blow bubbles up the building. It’s evocative of a toy. We wanted it to be very fun and playful.
Fitting for a place across the street from FAO Schwartz.
The stainless steel [storefront] also fits in nicely with Bergdorf Goodman [next door]. To be facing the Plaza, the Apple store, and FAO Schwartz, and to have my brand there, is incredibly exciting. I want to see this whole area littered with Pop Burger boxes.
Tell us about what we’ll see inside. How will this be different from the original Pop Burger in the meatpacking district?
The takeout counter [on the first floor] is fully complete. It’s its own entity. It has a separate entrance. Then the bar and restaurant [upper floors] has its own entrance.
Why the separate entrances?
For uptown, it lays out better for the crowd that will come there. I think people downtown at first were a little like, ‘What is this place?’ When you’re paying the kind of rent we’re going to be paying uptown, we don’t have much time for people to figure it out.
What kind of rent will you be paying?
We’re right off Fifth Avenue. The rent is significant.
Were you eyeballing the Fifth Avenue area specifically for your next location?
A friend of mine had walked by—he’s a real-estate developer—he told me he thought that would be a great location for me. I went up and took a look. I thought, Wow. I knew that financially it would be a very aggressive project. But I thought it was a great idea.
How financially aggressive? What sort of total investment are we talking about with rent and renovations?
Is the word ‘significant’ fair to say?
More than $3 million and less than $5 million.
Meatpacking is a pretty trendy part of town; Fifth Avenue, maybe not so much. Is this pop-arty fast-food-meets-nightclub concept gonna fly up there?
I sure hope so. When I see the success of Abercrombie & Fitch, which is basically a dark nightclub that has retail in it, and how people react to it, that tells me the timing is right to have Pop Burger in that type of real estate.
A lot of what you see [at the original Pop Burger] is a riff on contemporary American art. The light wall [at the takeout counter] pays homage to the contemporary text artist Edward Ruscha. The red metal ceiling sort of pays its roots to Donald Judd. Our pool room is spray-painted with silver aluminum car paint, which Andy Warhol used in his ’63 Elvis paintings.
You’re big on Warhol.
Warhol is my favorite artist. What I liked about him was, he was all about commercial consumption and the ordinary object. It wasn’t only for the intellectual financial elites. That’s what I find exciting about Pop Burger, is creating a product that everybody across cultures—depending on where their finances are—everybody likes Pop Burger.
The original Pop Burger is lined with prints of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. What sort of artworks will we see at the new uptown location?
Five years ago, with the meatpacking district’s whole street industrial vibe and the type of kids I was looking to attract, I thought Basquiat was a great artist. As we take the concept one step further and really try to emphasize the idea of Pop Burger as a product designed for mass consumption, the only artworks in there are Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans—well, prints of Warhol’s soup cans. [Editor’s note: Roughly 30 of them, in fact.]
Are you going to serve Campbell’s soup?
Does the Campbell Soup Company know about this?
[He laughs without comment.]
Will the lounge component be different?
Slightly tailored. The pool room is different in that it’s slightly more luxurious. We thought that in that location it needs to be slightly more luxurious. We feel that each Pop Burger should slowly adapt to its environment without changing the look much. Uptown, the clientele will skew slightly older. So, we raised the height of the banquettes by an inch so people aren’t sitting so low. When you’re old like me, you don’t want to be sitting that close to the floor.
Is the new place also going to be open ’til five in the morning?
Four in the morning.
Same menu. We may have a few more expensive drinks in the pool room than we do downtown.
Apart from your own, what’s the best burger in New York City? Shake Shack?
I’ve never had their burgers. I’m more of a local coffee-shop burger guy. All burgers taste pretty good. Ahem! But none of ’em taste like a Pop Burger.
You started your career in real estate. …
I still dabble in real estate.
Is the restaurant business much different than pure real estate? Is it all about location?
My first restaurant was Café Tabac in 1992. Café Tabac was sort of the first bar lounge. It was in the East Village on Ninth Street. I think the location played a significant role in creating its magic. It was during the whole grunge period. It was sort of the beginning of the era of the supermodel. There were a lot of artists. The East Village was a great backdrop. I think the real estate played a significant role in creating the vibe of Café Tabac—whereas 15 years later, the real estate of 58th and Fifth, with Pop Burger’s ultimate goal of commercial consumption, plays a substantial role.
Are you planning to expand beyond your second location?
Wherever it would work, I would like to see it.
Beyond New York? Chicago? Los Angeles? Philly?
I think it could work on every single college campus in the country.
Maybe not Oral Roberts University.
What, they don’t eat burgers at Oral Roberts?