In 1882, on a hot summer day in Boston, customers shuffled into Charles Eaton’s saloon—one after the other—to sample a golden, delicious beverage with a foamy head and sharp tangy finish, called the Thompson’s Spa Phosphate. He purportedly sold 1,200 of these drinks a day, along with an array of beverages with names like Next Morning and Moxie Nerve Food. But in contrast to popular whiskey or gin concoctions of the time, Thompson’s drinks didn’t contain a drop of alcohol.
Fast forward more than 140 years, and Eaton’s success may soon repeat itself in non-alcoholic or dry bars throughout the country. Walking through the door of Hekate in New York City, an eye-catching purple drink called The Healer sits atop the bar. Customers enter in droves to try it, along with a wide selection of other booze-free cocktails, teas, spritzes, and non-alcoholic beers.
Owner Abby Ehmann didn’t always envision herself running a sober bar. In addition to Hekate, she’s also the proprietor of Lucky, a traditional dive bar across the street that has served alcoholic drinks since 2016.
Hekate was born in 2022 as a solution to a problem that arose at Lucky. Two of Ehmann’s longtime regulars had to change their drinking habits. One had a stroke and was told to drink less by his doctor, and the other became sober. And while both still frequent Lucky, a whole new crop of customers is showing up at Hekate that hail from all walks of life.
“People at Hekate are totally different, not necessarily people who have been hanging out at bars—people who are Muslim, people in recovery, people not 21, a very interesting selection of people,” says Ehmann.
Ehmann admits that the success of her bar owes in part to the fact that it’s one of a kind. For the time being, Hekate remains the only full-time, dedicated dry bar in New York City, which gives it a definite advantage. For others, running sober bars, or dry bars, has presented novel challenges.
The Hospitality School of Hard Knocks
Billy Wynne had a very different experience opening Awake in Denver, Colorado. For Wynne, things started exceedingly well when he opened the space in 2021. “The initial response from the community was overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “We had incredible earned media coverage in pretty much every meaningful state and local news outlet, from print to TV to radio.”
But then certain operational problems arose, including shortages of experienced staff and issues with the supply chain. The location proved to be a challenge as well, with a lack of parking options and visibility.
Customers also presented their own unique demands. “The challenge we ran into was that, while most of the guests we encountered expressed tremendous gratitude for our space and shared openly about their [alcohol-free] journey…many were very focused on whether the beverages had any trace alcohol at all,” says Wynne.
Legally, products labeled as non-alcoholic can have a maximum of 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). While some common foods like bananas or burger rolls can possess such trace amounts of alcohol, sober customers were not convinced.
Wynne, who doesn’t drink alcohol himself but didn’t consider Awake a “sober bar,” was stymied by the requests. “I appreciate the grave sensitivity many people have but, as the proprietor of the space, it did make our job a lot harder,” he says.
After 18 months, Awake served its last non-alcoholic drink. The operational issues, location, and Wynne’s own lack of experience working in hospitality—he is a health policy consultant by trade—led to flagging sales and no apparent path forward. However, Wynne hopes to revive the concept in the future. “I would love to see Awake reopen and return to the Denver community,” he says.
Fancy AF Cocktails
By contrast, Jeff Gustin of Inmoxicated Dry Bar & Bottle Shop in Racine, Wisconsin leveraged his industry experience to make a success of his non-alcoholic concept. “I have a background of bartending and bar management off and on for many years,” he says. “I was able to apply most of that experience [to] the sober bar. From a management perspective, it’s very similar, just the products are different.”
Ehmann also acknowledges translatable skills from running a standard bar, but points out that there is a new educational component. “In the beginning, there was a large learning curve,” she says. “It’s surprising how much work there is involved in helping people learn what all the products are.”
One factor that has spurred the growth of dry bars is the sheer array of available products. But along with those products comes training and education. Ehmann says that a sharp increase in consumer-based knowledge has helped considerably.
Still, while both Hekate and Inmoxicated offer products such as non-alcoholic beers and canned ready-to-drink options, cocktails are the core of their business. “Things that you can buy at the N/A bottle shops are not what people are ordering at the bar,” says Ehmann. “You can buy your own zero-ABV [drink] and drink it at home. People are ordering the fancy cocktails.”
Hekate charges $12 for drinks such as The Healer, a combination of the functional powder “Blue Me Away” by Apothekary, lemonade, lavender simple syrup, and soda with a rosemary sprig garnish. Most guests end up ordering about two drinks, and her check average is around $24.
Inmoxicated’s check average is slightly higher at $32. But Gustin sees similar ordering trends. “Our biggest selling items are by far our alcohol-free cocktails,” he says.
Building a Booze-Free Community
The other business component that Gustin and Ehmann both agreed on is the need for events. “Because we are alcohol-free, we offer a wide variety of entertainment,” says Gustin. “In a traditional bar, the alcohol is the entertainment.” Inmoxicated hosts live music, game nights, comedy, trivia nights, and karaoke every Thursday. Many of the guests are grateful for social events without alcohol, according to Gustin.
When Hekate first opened, it hosted events five times a week. Since then, the bar has focused almost exclusively on sober-driven events. Notably, many events are now coordinated by the guests themselves. Ehmann was surprised to learn that Hekate was hosting a sober bar crawl for members of New York’s leather kink subculture, having discovered the planned event only after she was tagged by the organizer on Instagram.
“We get all [kinds] of people, which is a side product of being the only [dry bar],” says Ehmann. “I don’t see leather daddies doing a takeover at TGI Fridays.”
“Inclusive, Joyful, Alcohol-Free Spaces”
Though the success of dry bars has been mixed, the community component is not. As Peter Szende and Heather Rule write in a Boston Hospitality Review article about Thompson’s Spa, “One reason people kept returning to Thompson’s Spa was its sense of public service… Many guests became friends with the employees, who even received postcards from traveling customers.”
What Eaton caught on to so long ago, and what many dry bars have found today, is that people remain the most important component of any hospitality space. Ehmann argues that the atmosphere must be warm and welcoming, and not make people feel anonymous.
“I feel like you create an ambiance by hiring people who welcome [others] and make everyone feel like a regular even though it’s their first time,” says Ehmann. “I always wanted to open a bar, the whole idea of Cheers, someplace you can go every night and they know your name. An extension of your living room. That feeling of community.”
Though the reward for running an alcohol-free bar may not be guaranteed financial success, dry bars do fit a definite need, and providing a service for those who have otherwise felt excluded can be a reward in itself. Speaking to Awake’s brief but significant impact on the Denver community, Wynne reflects that, upon walking into his dry bar for the first time, customers were often overcome with joy.
“[The] vast majority of guests we welcomed were incredibly gracious and grateful for the space we were providing,” he says. “I saw many customers in tears over their new opportunity to be in an inclusive, joyful, alcohol-free space.”