Did COVID-19 Kill the Zero-Proof Bar?

What does the zero-proof movement look like in the middle of a pandemic?

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Before the coronavirus was a blip on the radar for most Americans, the zero-proof movement was going gangbusters. The shift away from boozy beverages and towards no- or low-ABV options (especially among younger consumers) prompted national news coverage and a deluge of “mocktails” on drink lists.

Sober spaces and events also enjoyed greater visibility, thanks in part to efforts by Bar Zero, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to supporting the sober community. Executive director Emily Schrader launched the organization in 2019 with the goal of opening an lively, upscale restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol. Over the year, the organization refined its fundraising model and launched catering and event planning services to raise funds for its brick-and-mortar space.

“We did about 20 events last year,” Schrader recalls. “Steamboat Food and Wine, a sober rave. We had a booth at Pride.” Bar Zero also hosted a zero-proof cocktail contest and participated in what was slated to be the first in a series of zero-proof cocktail dinners with Denver chefs and bartenders.

Enter COVID-19: In 2020, the organization hasn’t done a single event and the organization was forced to suspend operations in July. “It’s very disappointing it came to this,” Schrader says. “I know we’re not alone. A lot of businesses in the hospitality industry are suffering greatly.” Does she think the zero-proof movement can regain its momentum after months of isolation and stress, as well as the disappearance of many gathering spaces and events? “It’s possible,” she says, noting that people have been finding creative ways to connect online. She points to event planners Sober AF Entertainment and Secret Dance Addiction promoting virtual sober music festivals, raves, and retreats. But Schrader also sees fentanyl overdoses skyrocketing in Colorado, and feels real connection is harder to achieve when the only option is through a computer screen.

When asked about the future of Bar Zero itself, she sighs. “I’m just not sure. It’s really going to depend on what’s happening in the world. Are we going to be able to gather in groups? Are we going to gather in groups and then go back into quarantine again because we’re expecting a second spike?”

“It’s very disappointing it came to this,” Schrader says. “I know we’re not alone. A lot of businesses in the hospitality industry are suffering greatly.”

Chef Nick Kayser, who worked with Schrader at the zero-proof dinner, has a different outlook. Kayser is opening Rooted Craft American Kitchen in Boulder’s new Avanti Food & Beverage, where he’ll only be serving zero-proof beverages. Part of that is logistical (because Avanti has its own bar, food concepts aren’t allowed to sell booze), but Kayser’s committed to the non-alcoholic beverage program for other reasons.

As a drinker himself, he’s nonetheless aware of what he calls the “alcoholic nature of the service industry.” He cites the long nights and physical strain that are always part of the work, plus increased unemployment and anxiety—and increased opportunities to drink during isolation—since March. “I don’t really know [how to keep the momentum of the movement going] besides Zoom meetings,” he admits, “but once [the industry] starts to rebound we need to provide a space and a place for people to have this community.”

To that end, Kayser plans to resume the series of zero-proof cocktail dinners launched last year (a meal scheduled at Potager in April was derailed), and hopes to host weekly groups to educate people about nutrition and mindful eating. Ultimately, he says, he’s dedicated to “providing healthy, conscious beverages with healthy, conscious food,” a trend he doesn’t see going away any time soon.

And meanwhile, the alcohol-free cocktail books for the home mixologist just keep on coming. The newest entry into the fray that we’re excited about: Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason. It’s out October 6, and includes recipes from bartenders around the nation like a salted rosemary Paloma and tarragon cider. Cheers!

Is the zero-proof movement primed for a resurgence or dead in the water? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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