5 Surprising Things I Learned from Opening a Bar Without Alcohol
From cocktails to karaoke, these unexpected lessons show you what changes when you take the booze out of the bar.
Last October, we hosted a 5-day pop-up to launch Listen Bar, New York City’s first alcohol-free bar.
Now, as we gear up for Vol 2, a Dry January happy hour series, I’m reflecting on some of my favorite lessons from Vol 1.
Here ya go, the 5 most surprising things I learned from opening Listen Bar:
1. You’re better at karaoke than you think.
For the final night of our pop-up, we set out to challenge the Holy Grails of drunk nights out: karaoke.
Since it was Halloween (another hallmark of drunkenness), we hosted a booze-free Halloween party, complete with costumed karaoke. And it was an absolute blast.
We had people singing their hearts out. Dancing up a sweat. At one point, they were dancing on tables. Some people left our party to head to boozy ones and CAME BACK because ours was a better time. That night, we stayed open till 4a.m. and actually had to kick people out come closing time. Now I can say with confidence, not all karaoke has to be drunk.
And the funniest thing about it? Almost everyone who proceeded to absolutely crush it behind the mic had one thing in common. About 15–20 minutes before getting up to do it, they told me they couldn’t sing, never do karaoke, or definitely have to be really drunk for it. Uh-huh. If I had a nickel 😉
That night felt like half wild party, half collective trust fall. With everyone else on the same page, we really let it all hang out. I’ll tell you this: coming off that stage, everyone’s eyes had a different sparkle. Like HOLY-SH*T-I-didn’t-think-I-had-it-in-me-and-where’s-the-remote-I’m-gonna-do-it-again.
So YES, we’re bringing karaoke back for Vol 2. 🎉 (It’s our closing night so you miiight wanna RSVP).
And if you tell me you don’t do karaoke, I’ll probably just wink and say, “Come find me in 20.”
2. Alcohol-free *really* is for everybody.
When you put “alcohol-free” next to “gluten-free” and other buzzy words like “mindfulness,” it can feel like a hipster cliché. And yes, we’re a bit bougie — our cocktails are made and priced as cocktails, and we get fancy with things like egg white foam and trendy ingredients (though you’re just as welcome to sip on a delicious Club Mate or Topo Chico, both well under the $10 mark).
What felt really refreshing and validating was how many different types of people Listen Bar brings together. I love the bar as a social space of intersection, where people find ‘their people,’ as well as connect with others who are nothing like them. From the get-go, Listen Bar delivered on that 1,000%.
It was intergenerational — while most people were trendy types in their late-20s-to-mid-30s, we had adorable 17-year-olds who had just seen their favorite rapper play at Baby’s All Right across the street, sitting next to the kind of cool Brooklyn 50-year-olds I hope to someday grow into. We had straight people, queer people, POC, non-binary folks, people who go to Michelin-starred restaurants on the regular and people who prefer hole-in-the-wall dives.
We also delivered on being a judgment-free space. As a booze-free bar, rather than a sober bar, we attracted people from all over the drinking spectrum. According to our Vol 1 survey, about a third of our customers identify as sober. What many might be surprised to hear is that two thirds of our customers do not — and in fact, the majority go to bars several times a week. Rather than dividing the world between drinkers and non-drinkers, we created a third space where you can be social without alcohol. Who cares if that’s your vibe for a night, a round, or every damn day.
There’s definitely a core customer — and she’s a woman, into wellness and self-improvement, and equally down for exploring psychedelics or having a fancy brunch. But while most bars would kill for our girl-to-guy ratio (and the general good-looks-good-vibes of everyone around), I will forever smile at Refinery29 calling us refreshingly “un-Goopy” and really, just a regular bar.
3. People crave options — and guidance.
Most people look at a boozy menu and pick by their “poison” — be it mezcal, whiskey, beer or rosé.
Our menu is a whole new ball game. A mad laboratory of new flavors and textures.
There’s some booze-free takes on familiar drinks (like our delicious Athletic Brewing IPA — which most people couldn’t believe is non-alcoholic). And on the cocktail front, we’ve got a lot of things people have never tried before — or maybe even heard of.
As a sophisticated, aromatic base for some of our favorite drinks, we use Seedlip, the world’s first alcohol-free distilled spirit. Some drinks feature Kin Euphorics, a pretty and pink botanical drink with mood-lifting properties. We’ve got Curious Elixirs, one of the first ever ready-to-serve, booze-free cocktails that you could enjoy right out of the bottle, at a bar or at home. And the list goes on.
Literally every single ingredient on our menu and every brand partner we’ve brought on board is the best of their kind. We put them on our menu because we want people to know about them and seek them out — not just at Listen Bar, but at every bar.
Where Listen Bar Vol 1 was about giving people choice, now Vol 2 is about making that choice easier.
Because alcohol-free drinks are typically few or forgotten altogether, we wanted to start by blowing up that tiny box and giving people an abundance of options. Drinks that all feel grown-up, complex and exciting. For those who got to experience Listen Bar Vol 1, you got to see how we think about our menu for a permanent space. We heard you, we loved your (overwhelmingly positive) feedback, and we noticed that, when faced with a full menu and a lot of unknowns, you started by asking for recommendations from our bartenders.
So for Listen Bar Vol 2, we’re focusing on making your choices easier. A tighter, more approachable menu that brings back some of the crowd favorites, along with a new seasonal star — our take on the Hot Toddy, crafted by rising rockstar Veronica Correa. We’ve started sharing cocktail photography and their backstories to create a full instagram menu, so you can pick with your eyes, as well as your taste buds.
And of course, we love to give recommendations. Because our menu isn’t trying to be everything for everybody.
But it’s got something for anybody.
4. Curious skeptics are the best.
When I tell people I’m opening a booze-free bar, I typically get one of three reactions.
The enthusiast — “OMG that’s brilliant I was JUST saying I wish a place like that existed.”
The naysayer — “LOL what? What’s next? A restaurant without food?”
And the curious skeptic — “A what? So you’re gonna serve, like, juices?”
Now, of course I get a lot of my energy from the enthusiasts, and frankly without them, Listen Bar would have never become a thing. What Vol 1 taught me, however, is that it’s the curious skeptics who I completely underestimated. While some remain skeptical, or even find evidence for being on the fence about the whole thing — a curious skeptic can become your biggest advocate.
After all, I was a curious skeptic myself.
I figure it’s part of what makes my story so appealing to others in the same boat. I didn’t start out wanting to enjoy not drinking. I tried it for a month, on a dare, and quite reluctantly so. But it snuck up on me, showed me my blindside, and gave me something I didn’t know I was looking for. Now, 95% of the time when I go out, I choose not drinking because I often like it better.
That’s not how I felt five years ago when I first tried it. Not even three years ago, when taking a month off had become a yearly routine. So I have a lot of empathy for people being skeptical, and I never take it personally if Listen Bar just isn’t someone’s vibe. But I’ve come to appreciate curious skeptics more and more.
Here’s my favorite example:
On our first night open to the public, there were two guys sitting at the bar. One was very clearly an enthusiast — when I asked him about their drinks, he shouted out how much he loved his Leather Daddy. The other was a curious skeptic — he was sipping on something he liked but didn’t love, and he was not quite sure how he felt about the vibe overall.
To my surprise, as I kept buzzing about, I saw them hanging, ordering more drinks, striking up conversation in what had become a new clique. I walked by half an hour later to see Mister Curious Skeptic with a big smile on his face and a She Pretty in his hand. He pointed to the drink and all around and told me with a grin, “You know what? This is really growing on me!”
My heart leapt. I loved seeing someone get into the vibe we had created, especially after a hesitant start. I thought to myself, “It’s easy to be a skeptic and stay on the sidelines. It’s a very different thing to actually be a skeptic and still curious. To try the thing you think you might *not* like. Takes some guts and some openness.”
And if it does win you over, it’s that much sweeter.
5. The world is ready for booze-free bars.
“I feel like I just took a Molly,” was one customer’s review.
More likely, she was buzzing from the caffeine in the frozen Coco-matcha, combined with the kick from a glass of Spicy Titties (or maybe the Rhodiola in the Actual Sunshine? We forget.)
Either way — she couldn’t believe she was feeling so great just being out without drinking.
My point is this: we did things in 5 days we weren’t even sure we could pull off ourselves, when we decided to go for it. We learned a lot — and we *felt* a lot. And what we felt, loud & clear, was this: the world is ready.
At least in this little corner of it, the elements converged to give us all goosebumps.
A taste of how good it can feel to have a place like Listen Bar, all the time.
And come find me at Listen Bar vol 2. Every Monday in January, 7–11pm — downstairs at VON Bar, 3 Bleecker St, NYC.