Dry Wit

How do booze-based businesses welcome sober patrons?

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

“What can I drink there?” can be as big a question for sober folks as it is for anyone else, but our take on the answer is a little bit different. 

I love live music and going to shows, but those activities are often buried in bars, and so many bars and shows keep themselves open through booze sales. The spaces that I love are also the epitome of drinking culture. 

Over the years, I’ve had to find ways to balance two conflicting desires: doing the things I like to do and staying away from places where I might instantly feel awkward, uncomfortable and freakishly out of place.

There are a lot of little things that venues can do to make sober people feel safer and more welcome in their space. An obvious place to start – which is also pretty cheap and easy – is to offer a healthy selection of non-alcoholic beverage options.

Bars and venues can cater to the diversity of people who drink, but they're not going to please everyone all the time in that demographic. Those who love a $12 craft cocktail might have different needs from those who think that shotgunning cheap greasy beer behind the venue is a great way to spend a Friday night.

Of course, not all sober folks are sober for the same reasons, and not all sober folks practice sobriety in the same ways or have the same preferences. Near beer (non-alcoholic beer) can be either a great placeholder or a dangerous trigger for relapse, depending on the individual. 

Some folks love tea, some like soda, some hate soda and sugary beverages in general, some are perfectly content with plain water, some enjoy mocktails … no venue can realistically meet all of these needs.

Offering non-alcoholic drink options is a great place to start for welcoming sober people to a venue, but having a few cans of lukewarm ginger ale under the counter won't win sober visitors over too quickly. Here are a few venues I've visited in the last month who've done a few things right and, intentionally or not, were able to make this sober gal feel right at home.

Everything all the time

In early sobriety, I began to notice how so many social activities seemed to be split into “daytime” and non-alcohol-based things like work and coffee shops, and “nighttime” things like shows and drinking. 

When I stopped drinking, I also stopped marking time the same way I used to. Happy hour lost its importance (or just started to mean a time of the day when I was feeling joy). I gravitated to places that were subtly coded towards “daytime,” because I felt welcome there as a sober person, but I missed my night spots too.

The Good Will Social Club is one of those rare beasts that does both daytime and nighttime, and does them each well. There are Italian sodas, amazing teas, coffee and more available from early morning to late night. For near beer, they also stock Budweiser's Prohibition Ale, which kind of tastes like it was brewed in an empty peach-slice tin, but to each their own.

Because it's also a daytime study spot and meeting place, there are ample opportunities to get a feel for hanging out in the space outside of rowdy drinking-and-music time. Their layout also allows for people to chill out on the quieter side if all the bar activity on the stage side gets overwhelming. 

I doubt The Good Will was designed to include welcoming clues or little reprieves for sober people, but it still does the job well.

Age is just a number

Alcohol is often used to socially mark the entry into adulthood (cue a rant about the term “adult beverage”). 

Bars and venues have to invest a significant amount of energy into making sure their patrons have all reached the legal drinking age, and a lot of spaces where shows happen aren't accessible for those who aren't legally allowed to drink, regardless of whether they choose to or not.

Venues that hold all-ages shows will know that some of their patrons do not or cannot drink – and having this as a starting point can be a great boon for sober folks as well. 

Most of the times I've gone to shows at the West End Cultural Centre (WECC), the volunteers checking ID at the door are pleasantly indifferent to my “oh, I'm not drinking” and give me the “kid” version of their entrance stamp on my wrist without any fuss. 

When I walk up to the WECC bar, I can see at least one full shelf in their cooler devoted to all kinds of juices and Gatorades. They stock the tall cans of Grolsch's near beer (which is one of my family's favourites and is also hefty enough to last pretty much an entire evening).

There's a clearly visible rack of tasty teas on the counter, as well as a pitcher of water and some glasses. Non-alcoholic options are integrated but also showcased front and centre, as if it's a totally normal thing to not be drinking alcohol (which it is, and should be). 

When the lines we draw between child/adult and sober/drinking can be dissolved a little bit by venues, it opens up doors for more of us to participate in events and build community.

Know your sober regulars

Visibility isn't the only clue that a space knows, welcomes and accepts their sober patrons. Sometimes those hints come through in subtle ways, without drawing much attention to it at all. 

When I joined a curling league this winter, my buddy gave me a head's-up that drinking was pretty interwoven into the league's culture. I thanked him for the subtle (and private) notice and decided that I was okay to take the fun of curling along with the adjacent boozing. 

My drink options at the Thistle Curling Club were ginger ale and Molson Excel for a near beer (which is a perfect curling drink, but I doubt I'd enjoy it in most other contexts). A few weeks into the season, they ran out of the near beer, but after I asked about it, they made sure to restock it for me. 

The bartender told me that I'm one of (maybe) two or three people who ever order it, so the effort they make to keep some Excels in the fridge for our small minority means a lot.

A little over a year ago, I went to a show at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club and somewhat sheepishly asked for a cup of tea in a space where I'd only ever ordered whiskey before. It's a tiny bar, but they were happy to plug in the kettle for me at midnight. 

I went back to the Times this week and couldn't quite see their fridge in the dark space, so I asked what else they had for non-alcoholic options. Becks and Grolsch, the bartender told me. She said that they don't sell them often – it's mostly Jay Nowicki who drinks them – but sometimes she's surprised by how fast they go through them. 

Sometimes, it's not even having a plethora of options that can make the difference for sober folks. Serving up a non-alcoholic beverage with the same welcoming indifference as any other drink is a really easy way to signal “you belong here.”

Anastasia Chipelski is the managing editor at The Uniter. She’s easily thrilled and delighted - just help her find some new non-alcoholic beverages to enjoy out in the world. Drinks that fit in her bicycle’s cupholder get bonus points.

Published in Volume 71, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 30, 2017)

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