Stumble into Sans Bar in Austin, Tex., on any night of the week, and you feel like you’re in just another watering hole. Low lights, overlapping conversations, the clink of the glasses; karaoke might be yowling from its stage, or small groups with heads together could be murmuring answers to trivia questions. You slide onto a stool and a bartender, drying a glass, greets you from behind a polished wood top. But while everything appears normal, something is off. “Within two seconds,” founder and owner Chris Marshall says, “[people] recognize that this is not a normal bar.”
It’s the smell, Marshall says, or rather, it’s what’s not in the smell: His pub, along with Getaway of Brooklyn, Awake of Denver, and the upcoming Suckerpunch in Portland, is part of a growing number of establishments around the country that offer a completely alcohol-free — and, therefore, alcohol-smell-free — environment in a traditional bar setting. And that, at first, is unsettling.
“They walk into the space, and they’re not sure if alcohol’s served there,” he tells The Manual. “And that’s the highest compliment, because what that says is we are doing exactly what a non-alc space is supposed to do, which is to give you that same sense of community, that same energy in them that you find in any bar in America.”
To be clear, no non-alc space that we found tries to obscure the fact that it’s a dry establishment — in fact, many seem to go out of their way to alert customers to their status, sparing some from frustration and taking mercy on a beleaguered bar staff having to recite the same script again and again. Sans Bar itself has a sign explaining its unique nature at its entrance. But once inside, even a brief scan of its drink menu is disorienting, as it’s stocked with beers, wines, and liquors, along with classic cocktails like old fashioneds, pina coladas, and rum-and-cokes. None, however, contain even a kombucha’s amount of booze.
“I’m not a prohibitionist,” Marshall says, and then says it again to emphasize the point. “We tried that experiment in America. It failed miserably, and I don’t want to repeat that.”
But Marshall, who has been dry since 2007, believes society can learn plenty from the social-life strain — and rise of illegal speakeasies — during prohibition. “There needs to be opportunities to connect when alcohol is not present,” he says.
Founded in 2017, Sans Bar was born out of a bar’s communal nature, minus the liquor. Some in its community are sober or in recovery, but plenty more — whom Marshall calls “sober-curious” — are not. They want a place to hang out without getting wasted. Others have had bad experiences at traditional bars that were tangentially linked to liquor, even if the liquor itself was only a contributing factor. And others don’t drink because of religious, dietary, or health reasons. All come for the community, enjoying a few non-alc drinks in the process. “People love the ritual,” he says. “We try to offer everything along the spectrum of what people may want, because we understand that everyone comes to that space differently.
“There’s a real shift in your brain,” he continues. “You were able to go out and dance and meet new people and talk to someone you found attractive. You have all these things that you normally experience with alcohol, but you wake up the next morning and you remember everything that happened the night before. You start to understand that you can have this great social experience without alcohol, and over time that becomes an option for you. Sans Bar is a classroom where you can learn and unlearn what it means to socialize as an adult.”
The bar industry in general has taken a beating over the last year, but it’s hit the Sans Bar community especially hard. While liquor stores remained open as essential businesses, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were shuttered, and Marshall says he knew two recovering addicts who slipped back into the habit during COVID and died as a result. One was just turning 30.
“[It] was very frustrating,” he says. “I think it speaks a lot to Big Alcohol and the way that it has always pressed itself against the needs and health and safety of the general public.”
Even without having access to bars over the last year, Americans only drank more. In one week in March 2020 alone, alcohol sales in the U.S. jumped 54%, year over year. Granted, to some deep in alcoholism, being suddenly cut off might result in seizures and death, and Marshall, who worked as a counselor and in a detox facility for almost a decade prior to Sans Bar, is well aware of their plight. Still, his heart is with the recovery community and the increased strain they’ve been under over the last year as they’ve been sequestered from their support structure. “So I completely understand it, and at the same time, I don’t understand it,” he says. “That is the power and gravity of alcohol in this country.”
If the pandemic proved anything to many over a year of heavier drinking in the home, it’s that they have a problem. “That’s something they had never accepted until now,” he says. “Now they’re looking for communities to stop and that’s where communities like Sans Bar come into play.”
It’s not just in his words; Marshall is following through on this belief in the power of the non-alc with his actions, and on the day he speaks with The Manual, the first module of his Sans Bar Academy went live. The 10-week course is designed to raise the next generation of non-alc spaces around the country, and individuals from nine U.S. states and three Canadian territories are among its inaugural class. Students are connected to distributors of non-alc spirits, chefs with creative drink ideas, and the business know-how that Marshall has honed over the past four years as a proprietor. Some of them, he says, are coming from within the bar industry, while others are arriving fresh: “There’s something in the air. People are excited about this non-alc space, and there needs to be more physical locations to accommodate the market interest.”
Whether you drink, sometimes drink, or don’t drink at all, Marshall says that everyone can have a good time at his and others’ non-alc establishments. Even those curious “California Sober” folks are welcome. “You don’t have to define that for me,” he says, laughing. “It’s something I’ve heard a lot of.”
His gut tells him that everyone’s journey is their own. “I’m not in the business of suggesting what people should do with their alcohol use,” he says. “I do encourage everyone to examine their relationship to any substance that they put in their body.”
He continues, “I’m more interested in one essential question: Do you feel connected? If the answer is no, then I have a bar for you.”
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