Alcohol-free bar in Texas fuels the growing 'sober-curious' movement

The sale of alcohol-free drinks rose to 33% in 2021, according to Nielsen IQ.

February 23, 2022, 12:22 PM

Music, conversation and the sound of glasses clinking are all part of a bar's atmosphere. The Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, offers the same experience with one big exception -- the glasses are not filled with alcohol.

Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in 2017 as a place where people can socialize and have fun without the presence of alcohol. He says the idea was born out of his own addiction struggles, which started when he was 16.

The bar is part of the growing movement known as "sober curious," a phrase coined by author Ruby Warrington in 2016, who also wrote two best-sellers about the concept.

"I wanted to create a term that was non-judgmental and open-ended enough to really give myself permission to explore some of those questions without having to mean anything about my drinking," Warrington told ABC News.

"A lot of the times we think about removing alcohol, we think we're losing out, we think we're not going to be invited. We think that life's going to become boring or not be as fun," Warrington said. "But framing it as 'could my life be better without alcohol?' actually kind of opens the door to all sorts of possibilities."

After going to rehab at the age of 23, Marshall said he decided to give up alcohol and became an addiction therapist.

He said his alcohol addiction got to a point where he began being shunned by friends. Once he got to rehab Chris realized he'd gained a new community of support where he'd never have to feel lonely again.

"When I went to treatment, I was all alone. And I think that my main motivating factor was that feeling of loneliness. And when I got into rehab, the first thing I heard was someone tell me, 'You don't ever have to feel lonely again.' So this space that we're sitting in today is a direct result of that very real statement that someone made to me 15 years ago. Telling me that I didn't have to be alone, that I didn't have to live alone," Marshall said.

PHOTO: “Sober curious,” a term coined by author Ruby Warrington in 2016, focuses on the choice people have to question, or get curious, about the impulse of drinking instead of unconsciously following the dominant drinking culture.
“Sober curious,” a term coined by author Ruby Warrington in 2016, focuses on the choice people have to question, or get curious, about the impulse of drinking instead of unconsciously following the dominant drinking culture.
ABC News

With $200 in his pocket and a few folding tables, Marshall rented a lot in the back of a hair salon and took the first step toward building the foundation of his zero-alcohol bar.

"People started showing up ... People were showing up when we were literally outside because they got the vision of what I was creating. It was not about the drinks -- and people come for the drinks -- but they stay for the community," Marshall said.

The pandemic, however, brought some challenges to the establishment. Without being able to meet in person, Marshall then decided to create virtual happy hours with non-alcohol mixology classes as an opportunity for people to socialize during isolation.

However the pandemic, he said, offered time for people to reflect on their personal choices, including their relationship with alcohol.

"I think a lot of people for the first time in their life were faced with looking at themselves in a way that they had never looked at themselves before," Marshall said.

PHOTO: Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in 2017 as a way to build a community without the influence of alcohol.
Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in 2017 as a way to build a community without the influence of alcohol.
ABC News

A study published in the Journal American Medical Association in September 2021, found that the frequency of alcohol consumption increased 14% during the pandemic For women, binge drinking surged 41%.

In another study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 34% of participants reported binge drinking as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of 832 participants, 60% reported increased drinking habits, while only 13% reported a decrease.

The study cited causes of the rise in drinking during the pandemic as increased stress, boredom and alcohol availability.

PHOTO: Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in 2017 as a way to build a community without the influence of alcohol.
Chris Marshall opened Sans Bar in 2017 as a way to build a community without the influence of alcohol.
ABC News

While the pandemic influenced a spike in the consumption of alcohol among adults, Warrington believes more people are starting to question their drinking habits.

For many, the entry point is at the beginning of each year with Dry January -- a growing tradition for people to abstain from alcohol throughout that month.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said people who experiment with a prolonged period of time without consuming alcohol may find that they feel and function better and could have overall positive results.

"For people who don't have a problem with alcohol use, abuse or dependence who do an experiment in a dry month or a prolonged period of time without consuming alcohol … They've found positive results. That's what life is about. That's what our wellness journeys are about," Ashton said.

"Just because it happens to involve a legal drug that in our culture, in our society, is widespread and can be fine for many people. And it can even be not unhealthy for many people. But it's not one-size-fits-all."

There is evidence that the number of people navigating the sober curious movement has increased over the past year. The sale of alcohol-free products rose to 33% in 2021, according to Nielsen IQ, leading to a larger demand for such products.

PHOTO: The sale of alcohol-free products rose to 33 percent in 2021, according to Nielsen IQ, leading to a larger demand for such products.
The sale of alcohol-free products rose to 33 percent in 2021, according to Nielsen IQ, leading to a larger demand for such products.
ABC News

As people look to cut down their alcohol consumption, Nielsen IQ reported that many are also looking to drink lower-alcohol products. And there is a new category of non-alcoholic drinks called functional drinks, containing non-traditional ingredients such as minerals, vitamins and even amino acids.

Even celebrities like Katy Perry, Blake Lively and Macklemore have started investing in this growing business by creating their own non-alcoholic drinks. Supermodel Bella Hadid teamed up with Jen Batchelor's company, Kin Euphorics, to develop and sell nonalcoholic drinks.

When questioned about her choice to stop drinking, Sarah Wood, a writer for The Cut, told ABC News that finding support from close friends or family is essential during the process.

"For me personally, when I stopped drinking, I became the best version of myself. I became a stronger writer, a more thoughtful sister. You know, all this person that I had always dreamed I would become, I was becoming," Wood said.

"If we can focus on that second part [of what] are you gaining when you're stopping drinking instead of asking, why did you stop? That's where these conversations get more interesting."

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