How Do I Talk With A Restaurant About Serving Alcohol Free Drinks?

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Question:

How would you "politely" demand that bars and restaurant serve alternative alcohol-free drinks (no not water)? Even if I wasn't sober I can't imagine why an establishment wouldn't at least promote responsibility and cater to the DD.

Answer:

That's a great question and one that a lot of folks are talking about now. Not everyone drinks the  (for a variety of reasons). And those of us who don't drink still want to enjoy the pleasures of food and drink, minus the alcohol. More and more restaurants and bars are starting to offer delicious, non-alcoholic options, but generally, it's still more of an exception than the rule. But that's changing. 

This is something we can all take action around, including each time we eat at a restaurant. Here's a little story.

Last Saturday night, my best friend was in town. I live in a city known for its food (Birmingham, Alabama). We went to one of the best restaurants in town. Handed the menus, we scanned for drink options. She occasionally drinks, and of course, I don't. There was an extensive list of alcoholic beverages, but no NA options. She asked (because she's awesome): "What kind of non-alcoholic drinks do you offer?"

Our server responded with the common answer: sodas, tea, etc. To which we asked: could you make us a delicious drink without alcohol? The server immediately responded “Like a mocktail? Yes, our bartender loves to do that! Just let me know what you like and don’t like.”

To which I responded: “Refreshing and not too sweet,” giving him some ideas of what I liked and what I didn’t (specifically: overly fruity and sugary drinks, which are often offered as non-alcoholic alternatives.)

The drinks that were served were excellent, we tipped generously, and enjoyed our meal.

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On this night I didn’t have a lengthy conversation with the server or management about the importance of offering well-thought out and well-crafted non-alcoholic beverages as a staple on the menu. I didn’t share my story of being a sober woman and a person who has written about food and travel for many years, and how when I go to a restaurant and see nothing but alcohol and sodas, my heart sinks. But I often do that as well and try to approach it with facts, kindness, and courage. Because it is difficult to have these conversations. And so we must. 

More tips in a moment. But first, a step back.

We’re in the middle of a sea change involving attitudes toward alcohol, and the restaurant and hospitality industries are right in the middle. This Forbes story from March addressed why the biggest trend in cocktails are non-alcoholic drinks. More and more restaurants and bars are adding non-alcoholic drinks as regular features on their menus. In many cases, these drinks are not inexpensive, which is another story entirely, but addresses the point of "Well, restaurants have to make money." 

 This recent Grub Street story examines this trend, and what’s driving it. 

“…the idea that people want to pay more attention to how they treat their body is very real. Statistics on drinking show that people 19 to 28 are doing less of it. After a decade of excitement over “cask-strength” whiskey and “Navy-proof” gin, low-ABV spritzes and highballs are the drinks of the summer. Zero-proof cocktails at Cindy’s in Chicago make up one of every five orders. And there has been an outpouring of eye-opening research that reveals more than ever the ways in which alcohol can ravage our bodies. As researchers at the University of Michigan reported last month, death due to liver disease jumped 65 percent in the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, disproportionately affecting 25- to 34-year-olds and entirely driven by alcohol consumption. It’s getting harder to convince yourself that a glass of wine each night is actually good for you.”

Restaurants aren't the only ones in on the trend. Alcohol companies themselves are investing in developing NA drink products, which should tell you something. (Aka: they know what's coming.) Also, it's worth mentioning that substance use and addiction are HUGE issues in the hospitality industry, and it's all deeply intertwined. Another conversation for another time.

Let's get back to your question. Just because some folks are catching on doesn’t mean that all restaurants are going to rush out to develop and add non-alcoholic drinks to their menu.  It’s also important to note that a lot of the restaurants mentioned in stories about sophisticated NA drinks are in big cities or cities with a robust restaurant culture.

Which circles back to: What can you do, exactly where you are today?


Here are some suggestions. I got input from a number of folks on this. Special thanks to Marnie Rae, whose passion is making the world a better place one soft cocktail at a time, and whose blog has lots of recipe inspiration.) Also, shout out to Better Without Booze, a food and recipe developer, and writer whose work continuously inspires me -- check out her site. 

This is a working list, and I'd love to hear from others how they have approached this. Leave a comment, DM me, email me: erin@tellbetterstoriesmedia, send a carrier pigeon. To start: 

1. Remember that people don't know what they don't know. Yes, we are frustrated at what to us seems like an obvious need but the bars have been doing business one way for years. Many legitimately don't know there's a need. Remember gluten free? Nobody knew what that was and now it's on menus everywhere. -- Marnie Rae. (Also, consider your audience: you might have a more uphill battle in a neighborhood watering hole with limited ingredients vs. a restaurant with a bar that's equipped for more.)

2. Research and seek out restaurants that put thought into their non-alcoholic drink options: Look online before visiting a restaurant to check to see what kind of NA drinks options they serve. (This is also helpful if you are new in your sobriety and want to be better prepared in your decision making.) Again, there's a big difference between visiting a restaurant with a "cocktail program" in a metropolitan area vs. a restaurant in a smaller city, etc. (Note: I'm not saying small towns can't have amazing restaurants because there are tons. More specifically, I'm talking about awareness, willingness, and capability to add interesting NA drinks to menus.) 

In addition to NA cocktails, don't forget about non-alcoholic beers. (Beer was never my jam, but it is/was for a lot of folks, and there are some excellent things happening in the NA beer space.) Here's a good piece from The Washington Post about NA beers, which have come a long way, baby. 

3. If a restaurant doesn't offer well-thought-out and well-made NA drinks on their menus, ask them if they can make you something. Try to be specific. 

Ask your server if the bartender can make you something. (Marnie says "Use your best judgment but in most cases, you'll want to talk to the bartender or the manager, not the server.")

Describe what flavors you like and dislike, if there are any ingredients he or she should avoid or include, and other NA drinks you've enjoyed. Not every bar is stocked to make a variety of NA drinks, so the default is often something sugary -- specify if you are looking for a low-sugar option. 

Sample language: "I don't see any NA cocktails on the menu, can you make me an NA cocktail?" For instance "Can you use whatever fruit puree you have behind the bar and some ginger beer and bit of mint?" Open up the conversation about how it would be awesome to see something like this on their menu!

"Marnie adds: One of my friends biggest complaints: when people say 'I don't see anything on the menu, can you just surprise me with something?' My response was: if you just put two drinks on the menu nobody will bother you with that question again. They'll just order what you've got."

Also, aside from NA cocktails, it's good for restaurants to stock sparkling waters. No, club soda from the bar doesn't count. From an IG reader: "I'm pregnant now and I've noticed some places carrying Topo Chico. Even that with lime is delish. Also, really wish bars would start carrying aLa Croix or Spindrift. That would be so much nicer than soda!" 

4. If a server/bartender isn't accommodating, ask to speak with a manager. For real. This matters. You aren't being "high-maintenance," or "difficult."

Marnie says a good intro is "Have you ever considered adding a few NA cocktails to your menu?" And then nicely explain how it seems like they have an opportunity to serve a bigger market - the non-drinkers. You can even give examples of reasons why people don't drink (outside of recovery).

People don't drink for a variety of reasons other than addiction, including health, how it makes them feel, and many more. It's time for restaurants to have serious conversations around non-alcoholic drink offerings. Also, the fact is more than 20 million Americans have dealt with some form of substance use issue, and countless others are redefining their relationship to alcohol, sober-curious, grey area drinkers --- there are a million ways to look at it. 

5. But what about the fact that restaurants make money from alcohol sales?

"When my bartender friend pushed back on price (I can't charge enough), I disagreed (I would gladly pay $7 for a tasty beautiful NA cocktail)," Marnie says.  "I also explained that I am usually so excited to find a place that offers great NA options that I come back and bring my drinking friends."

6. Make sure that your non-alcoholic drink is truly a non-alcoholic drink

This one is tough, but it's a real issue. Even well-meaning bartenders and servers make mistakes. Double check before taking a sip that your drink does not contain alcohol. Share with a drinking friend if you must. 

7. When you find a great non-alcoholic beverage, be it at a restaurant or any other establishment, thank them, tell them what it means to you:

Tell them what it means to you. This makes it personal. 

From Marnie:  "I feel like it's important to talk about why you are choosing not to drink... I think most people don't realize the multitude of other reasons why people choose not to drink alcohol. Maybe they just aren't drinking that night because they have to go home and take care of their kids. It's important that the hospitality industry see that this is a much bigger market than just those in recovery."

Sample language: "it is so nice to be able to go out with my friends and have some great NA cocktail choices. I'm the designated driver tonight and it's nice to feel included in the fun." Or, "thank you so much for having such great NA cocktails! I don't drink because of XXXX and it's always such a let down to have to toast with my pint glass of water." OR "I am so excited about your NA cocktail options! I can't drink tonight because of xxx and I can't even tell you how excited I am that I get to have a 'grown-up' drink with my husband!"

8. Tell The World

Post about your experience to social, tag the restaurant, let them know you appreciate that they offer delicious, NA drinks. It's important that we recognize folks who are ahead of the curve on this. The huge and growing digital community of sober folks, the sober-curious, people who are reconsidering their relationship to alcohol and their allies are listening. We want to go out to eat, and we care about your recommendations. Some hashtags to consider:

#bartender life #drinkmenu @beagoodhost #cocktailtrends #changingtheconversation #hospitalityindustry #restaurants #foodandbeverage

Oh, and of course #tellbetterstories.