Chris Marshall Created A Bar Where People Can Connect... Without Alcohol

In 2017, Chris Marshall, a former substance abuse counselor, opened up Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, one the first alcohol-free bars in the U.S. As someone who went to rehab at 23 years old and has been sober for 16 years, he has lent his expertise to building a sober community. Studies have shown that those who participate in Dry January ― basically teetotaling for a month ― drink less the rest of the year. However, as Marshall pointed out, the sober-curious movement is more about what’s comfortable for the individual. For this edition of Voices In Food, Marshall told Garin Pirnia why he stopped drinking, how giving up booze gave him a better life and why society needs to stop pressuring people to drink.

The first time I had a drink, I was 16 years old. I was with a group of my friends and I kind of made this decision to not drink alcohol. I got around my friends and I felt, “OK, we’re all doing this.” The first time I drank alcohol, I absolutely hated it. But I loved the almost-instant feeling of being connected to a group of people and the community and ritual of consuming alcohol.

I quickly failed high school after I drank alcohol. I don’t think I passed a single class in high school. I had to do it all in summer school. I got into a car accident the second time I ever drank in my life. I got to college, failed out and had a DUI. It was a very, very rough road, but I could not give up alcohol no matter what, because it was the only way that I knew to be a part of my fraternity, to be a part of my guy friends. It was the only way I knew how to dance or talk to a girl at a bar. Alcohol was a means to an end for me. I wasn’t drinking it for the taste. I was drinking it for the connection. I was drinking it to numb a little bit of pain.

Whatever your relationship with alcohol is, you need spaces and products that make it easier for you to not drink for the night.Chris Marshall

At the height of my alcohol use, I was drinking at least a 12-pack of beer a day and a whole bottle of vodka. I’d drink a six-pack of beer for breakfast, a bottle of vodka in the middle and a six-pack of beer to call it a night. I had to drink alcohol to stay normal. I had to keep consuming alcohol. It was the only way I was able to not have shakes or have a seizure. I think the last straw was my mom. We had just left the emergency room, and the doctor, unbeknownst to me, had told my mom that I was not in good shape and they needed to start making arrangements for my eventual demise at age 23.

My mom said, “Chris, I’ve made peace with the fact that you are not going to live much longer, if that’s your choice.” And it was my choice. I didn’t want to live either. I was just like, “I don’t care anymore. I don’t feel how this is ever going to change. I’m giving up.” And she’s like, “You can give up, but you’re not going to do it in my house. I’m going to change the locks today. And you can either live on the streets or you can go to rehab.”

I got the shakes when I stopped drinking. I had to be medically detoxed. More people need to be medically detoxed than they realize. The reason I stayed sober was because I saw older people in treatment who were saying the same things I was saying, and they were getting ready to go out and get high and drunk the same way I had plans to do. And I realized that I could live a miserable life going in and out of treatment centers for decades. That seemed like actual hell to not be able to stop drinking and to play this in-and-out-of-treatment game or jail for the rest of my life. So that’s why I stopped at 23, on Jan. 16, 2007. My life has been remarkable ever since.

I was a counselor here in Austin and was working with people. It was kind of like mental health fast food. I was in and out, seeing lots of clients. When I was doing that, one of the things that kept coming up in my sessions with clients was this really weird desire to want to live alcohol-free but recognizing that in doing that, they would be giving up the social life ― that was always the chief complaint. I was like, you know what? I could maybe be the first to bring something like this stateside and create a space where people are able to find each other and be able to connect in a way that they can’t in other spaces. People are not showing up at Sans Bar or any of these other spaces because of the drinks. They’re staying for the community. 

I just don’t know any other realm in which someone says, 'I don’t want something,' and there’s this group pressure to make them do something, to make them take the shot.

Whatever your relationship with alcohol is, you need spaces and products that make it easier for you to not drink for the night. So it’s not about removing alcohol from bars; it’s about adding non-alcoholic options. I believe that authentic connection can only transpire when we’re fully present. Alcohol seems to remove our ability to be fully present, to fully hear and see our friends, our co-workers, our family. So in that regard, I do want more people to try sobriety. I want people to try going out for a night and not drinking. 

The best version of ourselves is alcohol-free. And if I do take a drink, no, I’m not starting over. I’m not losing days. It’s not like that anymore. It really is this new thinking that says whatever you do that’s in the best interest of your health, which is a very personal decision, is worth celebrating. I call it the sobriety spectrum, from sober, sober-curious to sober-serious. So if it is complete and total abstinence, great. If it is sober sometimes, that is so good. It’s so subversive because we’re not asking you to give it up forever. We’re just asking you to give it up or try giving it up for as long as you want to. And if you don’t want to be dry anymore, you can return to alcohol use and you’re still a wonderful, great human being. 

I am going to be much more focused in 2023 on the way in which our culture pressures folks to consume alcohol and the way that pressure is normalized. I think that is one of the most harmful things. I just don’t know any other realm in which someone says, “I don’t want something,” and there’s this group pressure to make them do something, to make them take the shot. That, to me, is something that I feel like is kind of up there with consent in our ability to say no to things. And that “no” should be respected, and I feel it is not. 

I really don’t think I could have had this version of my life if I were still consuming alcohol. I’m glad I took that time to get help because it saved my life. I adopted kids with my wife a couple of years ago. The life I have today is unfathomable. I just cannot believe that this is what was on the other side of me giving up alcohol, and I don’t think that that’s such a stretch of the imagination for anyone else. I think this wonderful life is available to anyone who decides to try to drink less or have no alcohol.