Does an order of “Mac & Screech” with a side of “Mr. Belding’s Fries” cooked by a chef who used to work in a Michelin-rated restaurant sound appetizing to you? Welcome to Saved By the Max.
The 90s called and it kindly wants to remind everybody that it is the best era ever. Case in point: Saved by the Max, a pop-up diner that is directly inspired by the fictional one featured in one of the best TV series of the early 90s, Saved by the Bell.
If the idea of stuffing your face with "Mac & Screech" with a side order of "Mr. Belding's Fries" (washed down with a spiked root beer float to commemorate the show's emotional graduation day) sounds appetizing to you, it might be a good idea to stop reading this right now, catch the first flight to Chicago, and make your way over to Wicker Park.
But brace yourself to wait up to five hours in line if you weren't one of the lucky few who snagged a reservation when the tickets went on sale via Facebook, with no real advertising whatsoever. (Reservations for the entire three-month-long pop-up sold out within the first 15 minutes.)
Naturally, Chicago being the restaurant powerhouse that it is, the food ain't gimmick-quality diner food. Brian Fisher, who used to work for the Michelin-rated restaurant Schwa, is behind the menu. The little touches, like the use of Kewpie mayo in the "Bayside Burger," or the coconut milk-waffle and Korean-fried chicken constituting "Tori's Fried Chicken," speak to that.
MUNCHIES reached out to the visionary behind the project, Derek Berry, to find out what it was like to recreate a completely fictitious diner in real life, and why he placed so much importance on the quality of the food.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Derek. How are you doing today? Derek Berry: I'm doing great. We opened last Wednesday, did our first brunch service over the weekend, and just getting ready for our 5 PM dinner service tonight.
What has the response been with 90s kids so far? It has been amazing. We are sold out for our dinner reservations through the end of August. We've had massive lines down the street for our limited walk-in spots throughout our breakfast, lunch, and dinner services. People have been known to line up for up to five hours to try our menu. Last Saturday, I showed up at 6 AM and there were already 15 people in line. It can get up to a couple of hundred people long. Everything has been amazing and overwhelming.
We've been lucky enough to get everyone in and seated, though sometimes people have to wait a while, unfortunately. Our kitchen is doing triple the amount of food that we had originally planned for. I would say that 30 percent of the people who visit us are coming from out of town. I am actually in the process of marrying a couple who reached out to me from New Zealand in the restaurant. This weekend, I am going to go online, get ordained, and marry them. I might be dressing up as Mister Belding—I'm not sure yet.
Wow. The nostalgia is real. Did you have any idea of how popular your concept would be? Absolutely not. I knew the show was big. I knew that I liked it and I knew that some of my friends liked it, too. I've thrown a couple of 90s parties over the last eight years and they did pretty well with a Saved by the Bell theme, but I didn't see this happening. Our reservations for the entire project sold out in just 15 minutes, a month and a half before we opened the doors. It was wild.
What were you doing when you thought, I want to bring The Max to real life! And while I'm at it, have kick-ass food, too! The whole idea definitely started off just by throwing some ideas around. I think the moment where we realized this whole thing would be wild was when put up the tickets on sale. We were hoping to sell a few hundred tickets. A video that we made for this pop-up got half a million views during its first day. When we saw this, we knew we had a monster on our hands.
I thought it would plateau by now. We are still processing it all.
What was the process of opening up a restaurant based on a TV series from the early 90s? It was a learning experience. NBC licensed us really early in the project. They were supportive and backed our idea. We moved really fast and they helped us plan some strategic moves. This ramped up everything. It took the place from people hoping that it would be the shit to, like, knocking it out of the park.
How much emphasis was placed on the food element of this 90s TV fantasy come to life? We could have done hot dogs and chicken fingers and called it a day, but we went out to get Brian Fisher to come up with an amazing menu. There are people who have come to just try out his food. We are hitting so many levels with this concept. It is a weird culmination of culinary, entertainment, and service. I think that the food is what is going to keep longevity in this project. You can come in one time and take a selfie, but if you come, take a selfie, and also leave with the best taste in your mouth, literally—people will come back.
I met a customer who wasn't much of a Saved by the Bell fan but came in for our food. People are taking desserts to go, even. The brand is timeless and awesome and we tried to have our food be the same thing.
Has any of the show's actors reached out to you at all? Just about every single character on the show, including the writers and producers. We are working on some pretty cool stuff at Saved by the Max. We had the guy who played Max on the TV show—Ed Alonzo—come in during the first couple of days. He helped wait tables and seat people. The fact that he did it in the show and did it in real life was magical.
Is this still a pop-up or are you considering turning this into a permanent restaurant? No actual plans past August 31, but it is looking good. There are enough people talking about. I'm going to be 100-percent transparent with you and tell you that the wait list is as big as the amount of people who we sold tickets to, so yes, we have just started the conversation of how we can extend this.
Thank you for speaking with me.