How a Texas Man Built a Successful Nationwide Sober Bar Concept

Sans Bar is an alcohol-free space that's opening pop-ups around the country, and even making a profit. Here's how it's succeeding.

A cocktail garnished with two cherries sitting on a bar in the sunlight. Here's how Austin's Chris Marshall took his sober bar concept Sans Bar nationwide.
Turns out the bar experience can work without the alcohol.
Jakub Dziubak/Unsplash

Two hot trends in bars? Franchising. And taking away the alcohol.

Chris Marshall is finding success in several cities with a sober bar concept called Sans Bar. Sans has a semi-permanent space in Austin, TX, but the bar is now expanding to different cities via some limited-time pop-ups. It’s Marshall’s attempt “to be the Starbucks for the sober-curious era,” as noted by The Hustle.

Marshall, a recovering alcoholic and former counselor, has found early success with his no-booze concept. Up to 300 people turn up to his sober bar pop-ups, where you can find drinks like a Rosemary and Ginger Mule, a habanero-infused Rattlesnake and a cucumber-mint Garden Dandy. Plus, he’s expanded the Sans experience to weddings, college parties and corporate events.

Besides offering a welcome option for those who choose not to drink alcohol, now seems like a good time for a booze-free “bar” experience to thrive. A recent study found a quarter of British 16- to 24-year-olds classify themselves as non-drinkers (but who would most likely still enjoy going out). Other cities are finding success with non-alcoholic watering holes — and even traditional bars are discovering that people are still going out and spending money even when participating in events like Dry January. And most (75%) of Marshall’s customers are actually “sober curious” as opposed to recovering from addiction. The audience is there, but getting people into these bars can sometimes present issues.

One of those issues is economics. Marshall’s plan is interesting in that it bucks some trends in the sober bar space; he charges just a $15 cover for unlimited snacks and drinks. He reportedly makes a decent profit — and is doing well enough to offer a virtual workshop for people interested in opening their own NA spaces.

“These sober drinks are pennies on the dollar. Anyone that’s charging — I saw in Manhattan — like a $15 mocktail, that’s ridiculous,” he says. “No one should be paying that much no matter how great it is. Nobody should be paying $15 for a drink that doesn’t change the way you feel.”

(There’s a counterargument here, at least if we’re simply discussing non-alcoholic spirits. Those bottles cost in excess of $30 each, and losing alcohol means you’re losing your primary vessel for flavor, meaning you’re working with a greater number of ingredients or botanicals. Plus, some of the non-alcoholic brands are going through a similar distilling process as their boozy counterparts.)

Given that restaurants can make up to 75% of their profits from selling beer and spirits, it wasn’t a given that Marshall’s concept would flourish. This is why he’s stuck with temporary hosting solutions for Sans, at least for the time being.

“You’re never going to make enough money to be sustainable going at this full time right away,” he says. “…it’s such an untested concept. You need to build an audience and that’s where the pop-up model comes in.”     


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