Should Bartenders Have to Serve Non-Drinkers?

June  3, 2016

Sam* is a career hospitality operator. He came up in the nightlife sector—he has owned and operated bars—and he’s currently developing a restaurant in New York City, where he's also the representative for a liquor brand. Sam doesn’t drink alcohol.

“Well, I had a two-year period of sobriety previously and I anticipate that I will become a teetotaler,” he says. “In adulthood, I’ve had a complex and difficult relationship with alcohol, which I do admit has been exacerbated by my industry.”

Should bartenders have to care about making this beet tonic spritzer? Photo by Martha Pollay

Because I’ve been pushing for more non-alcoholic beverage offerings at bars and restaurants, I discuss the topic with anyone and everyone I can. That includes Sam, who believes that bars shouldn’t have to think about non-drinkers if they don’t want to.

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“I think making the guest experience more dynamic and interesting for the non-drinker in the restaurant realm is fabulous,” he says. “The bar environment, though, I see a little bit differently. I don’t think the teetotaler should necessarily expect those venues to bend their backs to accommodate them.”

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Top Comment:
“I started a no-proof alternative beverage company because of this disconnect between social gathering spaces and their consumer needs. It's exhausting to figure out options for the professionals, and I hope more bars/restaurants/clubs expand their offerings.”
— Sheela L.

It’s an intriguing argument, given Sam’s unique perspective as a non-drinking member of the hospitality industry. Below, I’ve transcribed his part of our discussion. I’m interested what you all think, so please share your reactions in the comments section.

*Sam prefers that his identity be protected, so my friend’s name—which is not Sam—has been changed to Sam. Because Sam is a cute name.

Photo by Eric Moran

The bar is where we go when we want a drink. As a value proposition, bars are absurd; I can get a six back of Budweiser at the bodega for five dollars and drink one in my apartment or I can pay eight dollars for a Budweiser to drink it in, say, a fancy sports bar. In the most basic terms, the service value add there is just opening the beer bottle. But it’s the other elements that we get in bars: behavioral codes, social cues and interactions, expectations and convention—those things are all different in bars. And those things are predicated on the longstanding social, cultural, and behavioral traditions of the watering hole.

There are lots of environments that exist socially, at the consumer level, for the non-drinker, but the bar is really the standing bastion for the drinker. I say this as someone who recognizes a lot of the social problems of alcohol and who recognizes his own problems with alcohol. Booze’s realm is the bar space. Now, I don’t think venue operators have the right to deny service or access to the non-drinker, but I don’t think they’re necessarily obligated to accommodate those people’s expectations.

As a value proposition, bars are absurd.

To use a somewhat clumsy analogy: Must a steakhouse have menu options to accommodate vegans? A lot do now because it’s good business, possibly, as that portion of the sector grows, and a great many restaurants will accommodate vegan diets or those with food allergies, but the steakhouse isn’t necessarily going to accommodate the vegan. The business model, the social and cultural space, and the key to its identity is this meat offering.

The concept of the third space, particularly in a city like New York, is paramount here. Typically in adulthood we have two primary spaces: our home and our work spaces. Then we make choices as to what our third spaces are, and that’s everything from the café we might go to on the weekend to the gym we belong to, to the church we frequent, if that’s our thing. It just so happens that in the U.S., and particularly in New York, we’re heavily socialized for that third space to be the bar environment—or, at the very least, for drinking to be the primary social activity. Even when you go to a Yankees game or to Madison Square Garden, the expectation as an adult is often very liquid; booze is often inextricably linked. Now, I don’t think that’s healthy—it’s a major social problem—but the bar category is entitled to exist and to stick its flag in the ground and say “we are booze, and we are about booze.”

In that spirit of religious tolerance—“you do your own thing, but don’t give me a hard time about mine”—I kind of feel that way about sobriety, both my own and others’. It has saddened me as a non-drinker, because I love watching live sports with my buddies, which we would do at bars. But you can only order so many sodas. I’ve started watching sports at home. I really miss Attaboy—I love that bar—but that’s not my third space anymore. I’m not drinking.

I also want to draw a distinction between bars and restaurants. For a legitimate, credible restaurant, the transaction, at its core, should be the food. Both bars and restaurants have a lot of other elements—the décor, the service culture, just to name a few—but the heart of the restaurant experience is the food. So restaurants should be just as available to the non-drinker as the drinker.

The current trend in restaurants to incorporate interesting non-alcoholic beverage programs is a very welcome and overdue development. But the bar is allowed to live with a different set of rules. If the venue’s primary brand construct and primary offering is liquor and alcoholic beverages, which is the case in bars, then that’s not the third space for the non-drinkers. And that’s okay.

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Julia Bainbridge is an editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Yahoo Food, and Atlanta Magazine and a James Beard Award-nominated writer whose stories have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her book, Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You're Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, was named one of the best cookbooks of 2020 by the Los Angeles Times and Wired and Esquire magazines. Julia is the recipient of the Research Society on Alcoholism's 2021 Media Award and she is one of Food & Wine magazine's 25 first-annual "Game Changers" for being "a pivotal voice in normalizing not drinking alcohol."


Gidget52 October 27, 2022
I think bars should carry a couple of premium, low carb options since non-drinkers also are trying to avoid sugar. They are expensive, just like a good bottle of bourbon. Seedlip is one, there are many botanicals now. Bars have had O'Douls for years for beer drinkers, but for nonalcoholic drinks they are laden with this or that. Social people like to go to bars with friends, and if the bar carried some reasonable alternatives like that, the bartender would also get tips that are comparable to drinks with alcohol. Barstools are prime real estate, and bartenders should get compensated for the cocktails or beverage. Customers would like the "cocktail" atmosphere, but maybe without the alcohol content.
Putin4ever March 17, 2022
I dont see how it is a problem . As long as the customer is spending money what they buy should not matter. When i go to bars in the Philippines i go there to chat with bar girls and foreigners when I see them. I do not really like to drink much and prefer drinking soda. However bars in the Philippines make their money from ladies' drinks and that is how the lady gets paid. If i go to bars during their half off and simply drink soda I tend to spend the same as I would have if i was drinking beer. The best part there is no chance that I will be drunk by the time I leave so that the bar does not have to worry about whether i get into an accident on my way home.
BriH July 31, 2021
Given that bars use a lot of softs in cocktails, yes they should accommodate non drinkers. The alcohol culture we have going on is pretty ubiquitous and there's few places outside bars that are available to friend groups later at night (cafes certainly close early) so it's basic decency to think of non drinkers.
Bryan S. March 1, 2021
Out for the sake of this person's success and growth that from the time that this was first published to now the ideals ideas and sensibilities toward the value and fit of the non-alcoholic consuming market versus the alcoholic alcohol consuming market is a lot less separate than it was even 2 years ago. And the financial gains that can be had from catering to a generation of diners and travelers and consumers who are more focused on health and wellness then getting hammered and hungover are tremendous. I take particular offense at most everything in this article being a five and a half year recovering alcoholic at this point because I like the I like going to bars I like going to clubs I also like to have my non-alcoholic beverages I don't want a mocktail I don't want NA beer as my only option I want a carefully crafted well found out created beverage program with an entire listing of non-alcoholic choices for me I don't want something that's supposed to mimic gin mimic vodka mimic whatever I don't want to Shirley Temple or a kitty cocktail or simply a seltzer water I want to enjoy my adult beverage just without the alcohol along with a very large growing number of the population that I hope this person has started to see in taking into consideration rather than seemingly want to support the segregation of the drinkers from the non-drinkers and be able to make statements that would further perpetuate the once really ugly treatment by restaurant staff and restaurant tours at rest and and club and bar owners of treating non-alcoholic gas like second class citizens not worth the space that they were sitting in because they the non drinkers were looked at as cheap. lastly I have to take issue with the fact that this person points out the problematic nature inherent in bars and clubs with the alcohol situation flowing freely and yet still happens to support an establishments choice or decision to be a liquor serving bar only and not have to oblige the non-drinking crowd so you're not drinking Crowder generally going to be the people that are going to get your wasted drunks home safely when you want to cater those people too?
Sheela L. November 26, 2018
I started a no-proof alternative beverage company because of this disconnect between social gathering spaces and their consumer needs. It's exhausting to figure out options for the professionals, and I hope more bars/restaurants/clubs expand their offerings.
Solo500 June 10, 2016
The non-drinkers come with drinking friends. When you take care of the non-drinker, you're also taking care of your core demographic. You don't have an "obligation" to do so, but it's pretty shortsighted not to stock some decent non-alcoholic stuff.
M June 7, 2016
Another really misleading hed. "Do they have to serve non-drinkers?" is a whole lot different than a discussion about what lengths a bar should go to for non-drinkers.

Obviously a bar needs to serve non-drinkers if it is following the tenets of responsible drinking, let alone hospitality. Not creating veg dishes in a steakhouse is a world apart from refusing to give someone a glass with water or whatever soda/juice they have without a shot of booze in it.
BriH July 31, 2021
especially since a lot of cocktails have those sodas/juices in them anyway.
As a former bartender for many years I can say that I had no problem making non-alcoholic drinks for those who choose to abstain. I treated our guests as guests--which means I wanted to make them comfortable and add to their enjoyment. And then there was prom night--virgin margaritas?? Yes, in my opinion, ridiculous, but for those kids a great way to help them enjoy a special evening in their lives. Since the article talks about how bars are a third place where we pay lots more for the social and other things : "But it’s the other elements that we get in bars: behavioral codes, social cues and interactions, expectations and convention". So why wouldn't we want to welcome everyone? Here in WA bars must all offer foods, so there is always on hand a variety of ingredients limited only by a bartender's willingness and creativity with which to make a non-drinker comfortable and included. I think this is a tempest in a teapot. Maybe it's different in NYC, but I think my sentiment trumps: we serve all guests and do our best to make them comfortable and to add to their enjoyment of their time with us. Perhaps this unhappiness "Sam" expresses is more about his issues with alcohol and feeling deprived rather than with the bartenders.
Deserie H. June 7, 2016
You can't dance at Starbucks. Well, not without looking somewhat crazy.
I can't drink for health reasons. I'm happy with Diet Pepsi but would probably enjoy a girly drink without alcohol. Truthfully, I don't go to bars much anymore unless my karaoke-loving friend is around. I would love a bar that offered NA drinks, dancing and you could still hear yourself think but I think it's next door to the unicorn farm.
Miss C. June 4, 2016
It's been quite a few years since I tended bar, but I made plenty of mocktails out of on-hand ingredients for various reasons. Believe me, we had as much of a profit margin on them as we did on cocktails.
Bob F. June 4, 2016
Seems like a manufactured controversy to me. Do bars want customers? The more you cater to customers, the more you make.
fiveandspice June 4, 2016
This is a very interesting discussion! I own a distillery and bar, and we're in the category that serves complex drinks with many house made syrups. Because we carefully handcraft everything we make, we are proponents of the idea of drinking less but drinking better, and because of this, we have a wide range of syrups that can be made into fancy mocktails. We love being able to serve designated drivers, pregnant people and people who simply choose not to drink. And those people are usually there with others who are sampling our spirits, so obviously we want to create a good experience - and third space - for everyone in our group. That said, I don't expect a sports bar to be able to make me a Singapore Sling or a Corpse Reviver, so I'm not going to expect them to serve me an NA drink that's fancier than a tonic with lime.
702551 June 5, 2016
Gee, I thought a Singapore Sling was a classic cocktail that had alcohol.

I must be a foolish old man.
BeyondBrynMawr June 7, 2016
Your distillery/bar sounds great! I don't drink much anymore, but when I go to restaurants with impressive mixology programs, I love an interesting, thoughtfully composed nonalcoholic drink. I agree with your sentiments - if the place prides themself on their drinks, and has house-made syrups and bitters and such, I'd hope that they'd be willing to make me an interesting nonalcoholic drink if I pay accordingly. If it's more of a sports bar - average beers and rail drinks, that sort of thing - I wouldn't expect more than a soda (since I would assume they'd at least have coke for rum and cokes, tonic for gin and tonics, etc.). I wouldn't go that kind of bar just for a nonalcoholic drink, but if I were with friends, I would expect that the bartender wouldn't refuse to sell me a soda.
Greenstuff June 4, 2016
Sounds like a scene out of Five Easy Pieces.. "I'd like a gin and tonic, hold the gin."
amigabill June 4, 2016
You want to ban and forbid the DD? Bad idea...
John C. June 4, 2016
Julia, thank you for diving into this end of the pool. I took a two week break from drinking five or six years ago and in that time it has been interesting to watch the change in the bars and restaurants. For me, it comes down to two principles, one business and one philosophical. The business principle is that I'm a customer and serving customers is the reason businesses exists. You don't have to do something for the non-drinker, you want to because they may be willing to pay for a fancy mock tail or a non-alcoholic beer. They may be the designated driver that enables four or five other friends to overindulge. Or they may represent the bleeding edge of where the bar or restaurant business is going.
The philosophical reason is that hospitality is largely about making guests feel comfortable and cared for. You meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. You put their needs above your ego. And you put the same amount of effort into the meal or drink for the person with the special dietary needs as you do for every other guest. Because it's the right thing to do.
david T. June 3, 2016
I never knew tea totalers were considered a nuisance at the bar. I actually only sit at a bar if I have to - ex: all of the tables are occupied; I'll usually have two seltzer waters and leave a $2 tip, or order a meal if it's crowded and leave the usual 20%. I never felt any pressure that I had to make room for the booze hounds. Am I not seeing something?
702551 June 4, 2016
Yeah, you're not seeing the high profit margins on booze sales.

How much is the retail (grocery store) price of a six-pack of some microbrew beer? Let's say $2.50 per bottle. What is the bar charging you? $5, 6, 7 dollars for that same beer that they are buying at wholesale? And what's their wholesale cost? Maybe a $1.50?

Bars prefer alcohol drinkers because the profit margins are way higher than non-drinkers.

Let's say you are a nice bartender and you comp the non-alcohol drinker three fountain beverages out of the bar gun. What is your net revenue? Zero dollars. COGS? Maybe $0.25.
702551 June 4, 2016
As a matter of fact, the bar is probably paying less for that beer, especially if it is on tap. It's a bulk purchase and there is no individual retail packaging. Instead, maybe the brewery tosses in a few stacks of coasters as promotional material.
702551 June 4, 2016
Here's another example. Let's say you order an $8 glass of wine at the bar. A whole bottle of that same wine could probably be purchased at $12. The bar is probably paying wholesale $8 per bottle, breaking even on the first 6-oz glass and then just raking in the profits for the next three glasses (a 750 mL bottle is just over 25 fluid ounces).

Heck, they could reduce their margins by charging you $6 for the glass, but they're still making $24 off a bottle that costs them $8: net $16 profit or 200%.
702551 June 4, 2016
"A whole bottle of that same wine could probably be purchased at $12."

Oops, that should read:

"A whole bottle of that same wine could probably be purchased by you at a retail store for $12."
Jade G. June 3, 2016
"I don’t think the teetotaler should necessarily expect those venues (bars) to bend their backs to accommodate them.”
That's pretty vague, Sam. What exactly would teetotalers expect that's so challenging? A non alcoholic drink? Is that beyond the ken of a standard bartender?
Since bars can't legally evict non-drinkers, Sam's opinion is moot. Bars are open to the public, may not discriminate, and outside of dense cities usually house Designated Drivers. Sam can sit home alone if he chooses, but the rest of us non-drinkers are free to request pineapple and mango juice with a splash of bitters in seltzer, and leave a nice tip.
sew719 June 3, 2016
Interesting conversation. I've had periods of extended sobriety throughout my twenties because of a difficult and problematic relationship with alcohol. While I've usually been fine with a diet coke or soda water with a splash of juice, when I was not drinking and saw a couple interesting mocktails at a spot I would make a special effort to return there. A lot of people emphasize how you shouldn't continue socializing at bars when you're early in sobriety, but that's not always easy to do. Knowing that I'm going somewhere that'll I'll have a couple interesting options has made it much easier for me to not white knuckle it through an hour until I can go home. But yeah, no obligation, but it's a really gracious gesture.
Beth June 3, 2016
I was recently pregnant, and I have a number of nondrinking friends, to include my husband. I have many friends who do drink alcohol, but are also on call for work when they visit. For years I have been providing interesting nonalcoholic beverages for my guests. It just seems like the hospitable thing to do. To fail to serve nondrinkers anything beyond fountain drinks seems like a failure of hospitality and cleverness to me. Why would you want anyone to feel second class and your establishment?
Connie June 3, 2016
Hum, I think this is a dangerous road to go down both socially, responsibility wise and as a business model. I think I'm hearing "Sam" say that bars shouldn't be expected to make all sorts of fresh juices, fancy mocktails, and I do agree with that. But not providing space for the non-drinker - that's the danger zone. What about the designated driver or the non-drinking person hanging with friends - yes, there should be a welcome space for them too. There is plenty enough emphasis on alcohol already. All this does is create schism between people and potentially endanger the drinker by not providing a venue for balance. But hey, I'm (a drinker) in rural Utah so what do I know about night life in NYC?