As the owner and solo employee at Trickery, a magic & comedy show in Chicago, Aaron Rabkin wears many hats—and not just ones with rabbits inside. To keep the show fresh and maintain his energy, Aaron adopts the motto “less is more,” creating intimate shows for audiences of up to 35 people. Hear from one of these attendees, reviewer Jackie M., about her experience at the show and from Aaron about how his hard work has achieved Trickery a perfect record of 5-star reviews, including Jackie’s.
On the Yelp Blog: Get Aaron’s top three strategies for successfully running a business through word-of-mouth marketing.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.
This week, I’m talking to Aaron Rabkin, the owner, headlining performer, and sole employee of Trickery, a “magical comedy experience” in Chicago’s Lakeview East neighborhood, and reviewer Jackie M, who found Trickery through a birthday outing for a friend.
Jackie admits that a magic show wouldn’t be her first thought when planning a night out with friends, but she had way more fun than she expected. Not only did she get to go out and enjoy time with friends, she was thoroughly entertained.
JACKIE: It was really nice. I didn’t have any expectations for what this show could be. Sometimes when you go into the magic show, it could kinda be cheesy, but I think maybe he got our sense of humor.
He was able to entertain little kids and able to entertain adults too, with his sense of humor and his character and pizazz. I was actually very impressed with the level of performance that he gave. You can go see a super pricey show in Vegas and here’s this one man show guy who’s in Boystown, and he’s able to pull off that caliber.
I didn’t know what to expect and we all walked away nodding our heads and saying, oh wow, that was really good. I think he did it all by himself, so you’re still not sure how he pulled it off.
EMILY: Jackie was impressed enough to leave a five-star review for Trickery and Aaron’s performance. Let’s take a listen.
JACKIE: My friend had booked a Saturday afternoon party event for a birthday at Trickery. The place is cozy and intimate. There’s definitely a moody, mysterious vibe. One room is sort of the lounge, and off to the left lies a smaller room with rolls of seating for the show. Good tongue and cheek entertainment jokes and all. Check out the room near the bathroom. In fact, there’s a lot of little fun photo spots and novelty in the small space.
EMILY: Trickery itself is celebrating its sixth year in business, but Aaron has been performing for most of his life in cities like Los Angeles, where he trained at the famous Magic Castle under some of the best magicians in the world. He spent some time doing street performances there and in upstate New York, before settling down in a corporate job in Chicago.
It didn’t take long for Aaron to feel the pull to perform again.
AARON: I’d always wanted a storefront venue. I loved that idea. And Chicago has a very burgeoning, sort of storefront theater scene as it is.
So it seemed like the right place, and I’d always been scouting out locations just in the back of my head, but that’s when I got really serious about it. That was my shot.
So I put together a business plan and just started pursuing all the licensing and finding a location to where I’m currently right now. I found it I think around like February, March of 2017 and signed a lease sometime in May. It was more of a popup at first when I did shows.
Getting the license in Chicago is a whole thing because I’m under the same rules as if it’s the Chicago Theater or United Center. Something that holds thousands of people, whereas my capacity is barely 35. But regardless, I had to fulfill all these crazy qualifications. So while I was waiting to get officially licensed, Chicago has a loophole that you can be an under a hundred seat venue, and as long as you don’t officially charge, you can put on shows.
And so I basically became this pop-up concept and I started in July of 2017 and I did this for until about mid-November when I finally got the official business license. And I was doing shows every hour on Friday, Saturdays 9, 10, 11, 12, and 1. And they were about 25 minute shows, maybe up to half an hour.
And I was just turning people over. I had the window open to the street so that people could see into the show. I had the door open and I went back to my street performing roots of just drawing a crowd, putting on a show and ‘passing a hat,’ as they say on the street.
If you’re not good, you don’t eat. Nobody has to come to the show. And even if they stop for the show, they don’t have to stay for the show. And even if they stay for the show, they don’t have to give you any money. So it really was a testing ground to get back and re-polish my skill set. Cause I really hadn’t been performing in a while, given that I put it by the wayside. So that was an amazing opportunity to reestablish myself as a performer, refine my voice, but also, and this can bring in Yelp – building some sort of credibility. Because if I had just officially opened and said, “Hey, that’ll be $20,” for what?
They’re like, I don’t know. What is this? How would I know? But by having that time to build a little buzz, and at no expense to the audience, that way they could start leaving reviews, start talking about it, and that way, once I officially was opening, I could then have a jumping off point to see everybody who’s been so far loved it.
It’s not a total far cry to say, maybe you know, this is a show worth paying for upfront.
EMILY: Aaron sounds pretty casual about the idea, but I don’t think he gives himself enough credit for the strategy he used to start getting traffic to his brick and mortar business. Rather than stay closed and wait for licenses, he used his street performing roots to his advantage. In fact, the free show idea in the beginning of building his business might be one of the most genius grassroots marketing hacks of all time.
And to this day, he still doesn’t use paid marketing.
AARON: I just wanna put on a show. That’s all I really want is to put on a show. I think I’ve gotten swept up in all of it in the sense that if you wanna make it as a performer, there’s certain channels that are more traditional. And I think growing up in Los Angeles, I got to dabble in many of those, if not all of them, and learned the true and honest way, it doesn’t go as planned for pretty much 99.9% of people. This was my way of getting creative. Basically I said, look, if no one else wants to produce my show, I’ll produce my show and I’ll kind of do it the scrappy way.
And, the way it is now, I mean, this place has come a long way over the course of years. Where at first it was just very modest and I blocked off most of it. And all I had done was painted some stuff black. But over time it’s now become much more of a robust setup. I’ve done everything, but it’s just kind of piecemeal to get to where it is. I want it to feel like it’s a professional operation, but yet it has no affiliation to any traditional path of what anybody would traditionally do, for like a theatrical. And it even blows people’s minds when I don’t do any marketing. So it’s all, it’s either word of mouth, pass by, or whatever comes up on the internet. Searching for fun things to do on Yelp or just doing an online search.
But that’s my philosophy. I don’t think that if you build it, they will come, is necessarily the classic approach to a business. But I’m really opposed to our current time where there’s a lot of this hype culture. So it’s just like people put a lot of money into these really well produced ads that are eye-catching and people book a ticket and then they go to it and it’s probably not even half as cool as it looked, but too late. We already captured your money. We don’t care if you don’t tell anybody because we just gonna keep advertising.
For me, I wanna put all my bandwidth into the show. I want it to be the best show and experience possible.
And if it’s meant to be seen and experienced, I think people will find out about it. And thankfully, that has worked for me. And it’s only gotten easier over time. The longer I’ve done it, the more people know about it.
So I’m always stressing that this is gonna be, this will be my last week in business. Watch nobody comes this weekend, and then somehow in the last 24 to 40 hours before a show, it’ll just sell out and I’ll be like, okay, dodged this. But it happens every week.
So you think I would’ve learned by now to just be at peace with it. Although there was one weekend at the beginning of June when Taylor Swift was in town. Taylor Swift won that weekend. Hands down, Taylor Swift won. And that was a slow weekend.
EMILY: I think it’s fair to say that over the last 6 months a number of businesses, big and small, have learned that you can’t compete with Taylor Swift. But for many businesses, having a famous performer like Taylor Swift or Beyonce in town means an influx of spending. Yelp actually dug deeper into the impact of Beyonce’s Renaissance tour on local economies. We found that in New York, searches for nail techs were up 178%, in Chicago searches for women owned hotels and travel businesses were up 44%. And when she performed in Philly, searches for LGBTQ owned shops were up 194%. As a business owner you can maximize these types of local surges by offering themed menu items or special offerings.
EMILY: Trickery isn’t a big space — and as Aaron mentioned, capacity is usually topped out at around 35 people per performance. That intimacy is something Aaron uses to his advantage by creating a somewhat personalized performance each time. It also means he has to do multiple performances per day in order to drive enough revenue.
And as a one-man production, that means Aaron had to learn how to balance the demand for shows with his capacity to perform.
AARON: Where I’m located, there’s a really well built-in nightlife. And so I was just trying to piggyback off that and that was my starting point. Then when I got to doing a real schedule, I knew I should probably stay to weekends.
But I did need to have enough shows where I was at least giving myself a chance. Because at first I wasn’t selling out all my seats, so I wasn’t having enough. I needed to have enough shows where that times attendance equaled enough to cover expenses. So that was where I was thinking in terms of probably, I guess Thursday it’s kinda like becoming the new Friday somehow, where people go out on Thursday.
So I was like, okay, Thursday seems reasonable. Sunday, I liked the idea of Sunday as a matinee show. And I also base it on just looking around and seeing what other shows are doing. Whether it be like the Broadway and Chicago series, or Steppenwolf or Goodman or just, there’s a lot of theater in Chicago.
And so I could kind of see, okay, what, when are they doing shows and what times. My times used to be 8 on Thursday, 8, and 10 Friday, 8, 10 Saturday, and 2:00 PM Sunday. With my first, with winter when things picked up and those eight and 10 shows were selling out on Saturday, I remember talking to my sister and saying, I’m selling all the shows. And she was like, what if you added a third show at six, and I was like, oh, I guess I could.
So now I actually usually do 6 and 8 before I add a 10 o’clock show. And then in subsequent winters where things have even picked up more as my sort of snowball has picked up speed. I sell out 6, 8, 10. Then I was like, could I do a fourth show?
So that’s where I was thinking, okay, I need to maximize the shows I can do. So then I added a four o’clock, so I was doing 4, 6, 8, 10. Four shows, which is a lot.
It makes for a long day. Which is weird though, ‘cause now as I’m doing two shows, I’m like, I’m spent, I’m like, how do I do four shows, let alone three? But it’s kinda like somebody who trains for a marathon, you just have to get in the shape for it. And I find the energy.
I feel like it’s not unreasonable to add another showtime and play that gamble cause in essence, I’m also the producer. I’m the writer, the performer, the director. So I’m wearing a lot of hats. So that’s why I always say the art has to thrive so the business can succeed, but the business also has to succeed so the art can thrive.
So the two have to coexist. And it’s very rare that the same person has to juggle these two things with some sort of a theatrical production. It’s a balancing act to wanna give the art it’s room to breathe, but also it has to be commercial enough and all those things.
EMILY: While it might be a one-man show, audiences really don’t know that—by design. Jackie certainly didn’t notice it was just Aaron, and only Aaron, running things at Trickery.
JACKIE: Actually I didn’t know he was a one man show. It was an afternoon event, so I don’t think this is like a typical setup. Usually the shows are in the evening and so because it’s a private show, we got let in early and I think he let us in and we thought he was just kind of the host and so we were just co-mingling in the party and then maybe about 30 minutes in, the show’s about to start, we get seated and he puts on a different jacket and puts on his showtime face. He actually once in a while he’ll refer to someone in the back to help him out, but you never see the other guy behind the stage.
So I’m like, wow, this, I think this guy is really a one man show. He’s like putting on the performance, he’s putting on the music. Maybe the lights and whatever else he does and I don’t see anybody else. I think towards the end I realized I think this guy’s just doing this all by himself. And that’s really impressive.
EMILY: The rest of the business behind Trickery is also a one-man show, which can really burn out a business owner if they aren’t careful. But when it’s handled well, no one has to see you sweat.
AARON: People still even don’t quite grasp what goes into it. Where they’ll say like, oh, so you just do the show. So what’s your day job? Like, what do you do the rest of the week? As if. Right. I just show up. I do a quick performance, I leave. Everything cleans itself up, resets itself. The toilet washes itself, and the phones answer themselves and the emails and all the admin. If I make it look that easy, then, bless your soul. Thank you for the compliment.
I don’t get a weekend in the normal sense, cause I’m doing shows Friday, Saturdays, so I have to get creative on the few Friday Saturdays that I really allot myself in a year, ‘cause I can’t do 52 weeks a year. That’s how you immediately are gonna burn yourself out. So obviously can’t do that.
Even just working on the show. Even people thinking like, how often does the show change? As if I’m just gonna write and polish and install a whole new hour of material and have it be perfect and just throw a whole show under the bus. And I don’t disagree. I’d love to have people come back and I do get a lot of repeat guests where sometimes they’ll come back in the same year and maybe just bring somebody else and they live vicariously through them or they just love it so much. There’s people who’ve probably seen Hamilton a dozen times and not gotten sick of it.
It’s not like you go to Hamilton, you’re like ‘really, Hamilton again? Come on, learn a new song already.’ I just feel like this is trying to be more of a theatrical production where even I’m kind of blown away that I’m still like, that’s my golden rule is I still have to have fun at every show. Because as long as I’m having fun, it’s not unreasonable to expect that.
Okay, you were what? You were here three years ago and you came back. Thank you. First of all, thank you so much for your repeated patronage, but also it’s easy to forget stuff. The show is ever evolving enough where the energy’s always ebbing and flowing, and I’m finding little things to tweak, even if it’s the same set list, more or less.
But it is neat when it’s those really unique moments that people, ‘cause that’s part of what makes this live entertainment is every show is technically different, as much as I may say the same lines or do the same movements. In the grand scheme of the moment, it’s an unpredictable situation. Whatever somebody’s gonna say or do or what can happen. So I am very much improvising and ad-libbing and just being present and getting to enjoy that show myself, which is part of the fun of it all.
EMILY: As a regular reviewer, it’s important to Jackie to support local, small businesses, but she admits it’s sometimes the novelty of the business that stands out, as it was in the case of Trickery, which checked both boxes — small, local business with an element of uniqueness and fun.
JACKIE: I’m a person who’s attracted to novelty, so if I see something that looks interesting, then I’ll go check out the place.
Typically I wanna write positive reviews ‘cause I know I wanna support small businesses and if my reviews will help the business owner, and it also helps the people who are reading the reviews saying like, Hey, you know what, maybe the person who’s reading is similar to the other reader and if they’re interested in certain aspects of a business, then hopefully I can highlight that for them.
So the reason why I write reviews is, number one, to keep notes for myself just like you showed me. And then the second part is helping the wider audience kind of narrow down their choices. Some people are hesitant and some the reviews might push them one way or the other.
That’s totally fine. And hopefully at the end, I can. Especially small businesses, the reviews, these reviews will help them out. And do I write everything? No. I write when I feel, I think I’m inspired to write. If it’s a mediocre experience and it’s a place that’s super popular, I’m like, you know what, let’s get your expectations a little bit more normalized. But for the majority of my reviews, it’s mostly focused on the places I find are really good and I wanna go back to them.
EMILY: That support of small businesses is one of the top reasons people write reviews, and it goes without saying it is appreciated by owners. Aaron found out quickly how important they can be to creating a thriving business.
AARON: So before starting Trickery, I maybe would look up reviews for businesses here and there. But I never really thought much of them. But since starting this, it is clearly what drives business. People tell me all the time that they found it, and then they looked at the reviews, and the reviews were so good that they had to come.
So clearly the reviews are mission critical. I could not do this without all of the really positive feedback and that there are landing pages like Yelp for people to go and look it up and have it be pre-vetted – it goes a long way. I do read every review. I actually more than even me, it’s become a game. My dad, he is obsessed with people leaving Yelp reviews for Trickery. Five stars only, of course. If somebody left one right now and I saw it, it would be a matter of hours before he sends me a text going, ‘new five star review on Yelp.’
And he doesn’t have the business profile to even tell him. That means he is manually going into the Yelp app, searching Trickery and seeing if there’s a new one. So he loves Yelp reviews.
EMILY: I love that reviews are something Aaron and his dad bond over.
According to our research, consumers don’t necessarily trust a business that has only glowing, 5-star reviews, and assume they might be fake or coerced, though as Aaron thoughtfully pointed out, Yelp has mechanisms in place to prevent and eliminate fake reviews.
Trickery is one of Yelp’s more rare birds, in that it has 100% five-star reviews. According to Aaron, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
AARON: It’s actually very stressful. ‘Cause then that’s part of where I have this level of expectation that people are coming into. Whether or not they’re even aware of it necessarily, I guess, ‘cause just like I know that I need to live up to this. So part of the stress for me is running this thing and making sure everything goes swimmingly and hits all these marks. And, I have to be consistent and that’s part of why I can’t just have it be a brand new show.
And most of my audiences are their first time. I’m playing to a very small audience. So it’s not like I’m gonna burn through all of Chicago and its tourism community within two months. And here I am, years later, I still meet people who live around the block, live around the corner, and they’re like, oh, we’ve been passing this for years, when we finally decided to come. I was like, amazing. Even just within this neighborhood of Lakeview, there’s a hundred thousand people. Just in this neighborhood, let alone all Chicago Metro, even the Midwest, up to Milwaukee. I meet people visiting from the immediate areas. I mean, people from abroad, people are making this part of their trip to Chicago.
There’s billions of people. I don’t think I’ll run out anytime soon.