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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.