During the first quarter of 2020, everything was going great for Chris Marshall. In early March, he was six cities into a 15-city tour to promote Sans Bar, his three-year-old alcohol-free bar. But when he arrived in Portland to prepare for a March 7 event, Oregon moved to ban social gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Marshall suspended the tour and flew home to Austin on a nearly empty plane. Back home, he shuttered Sans Bar, hoping he’d be able to reopen soon.
Sans Bar hasn’t been open since.
Texas began reopening its bars May 1, but instead of joining the many Texas bar owners packing customers in shoulder-to-shoulder, Marshall decided to pivot and find ways to share the Sans Bar experience in a virtual way—while creating a new revenue stream. “This is a space for wellness and community, and as much as we need community right now, we need wellness more,” Marshall says.
Marshall, 37, is a member of a number of communities that are each experiencing unprecedented pressures right now: Black men. Small business owners. Born-and-raised Texans. Recovering alcoholics. Leaders in the sober curious movement. With each conversation and connection, he’s finding ways to navigate a path that makes sense for himself and for the future of his business.
Sans Bar has been holding monthly Sans Bar Where You Are online events that have been attracting hundreds of attendees (the April event attracted more than 250 people). After buying tickets in advance ($25 plus shipping), guests receive event kits that include ingredients for that night’s featured mocktail, as well as other items to enhance the experience. A recent Pride-themed event included all the ingredients for the evening’s drink (recipe card, bottle of DRY Soda, simple syrup from Portland Soda Works, and a fresh lime), rainbow Pride tattoos, and even a QR code for the evening’s Spotify playlist, printed on what looked like a mini LP. “The idea is that the elements in the box will engage all your senses,” Marshall says.
He and his team have been working to make sure the evenings are well worth the attendees’ time. “We’ve been successful at taking these virtual gatherings to the next level,” Marshall says. The June meeting included live music, spoken word, and a panel that included the executive director of Seattle Pride, Krystal Marx. Marshall prides himself on creating a “fun, festive feeling” at his virtual events. Viewers from home are invited to make the drink of the night together, and the panels always include a Q&A from the audience. An event with the New York–based sobriety/recovery nonprofit BIGVISION Foundation featured a DJ and a dance party. “It was nothing like a Zoom meeting, I can assure you,” Marshall comments.
Marshall believes he’s hit on a model that may be a template for others to imbue meaning into virtual gatherings. “This is what entertainment producers and people in other social-focused industries are going to have to do for the foreseeable future,” he says.
It’s a sentiment shared by others who have been a part of the events. Emily Lynn Paulson, who lives in Seattle, was on a recent panel for the Sans Bar virtual event held in April. She enjoyed the conversation, which she found interesting and educational, especially since it included a variety of people with different stories and backgrounds. “I also love that they’re celebrating recovery, instead of only focusing only on the ‘low points,’ which is important, too, but these events are so positive and future-focused,” she says. “I like that the events give people the opportunity to ‘try out’ sobriety by listening to stories of people who love and enjoy life without alcohol.”
Karla Carolina Rosa, who lives in San Francisco, first got to know Marshall through the Sans Bar Instagram account and has now been to two virtual events. “There’s something about the way Chris creates something interactive and fun,” she says. “You can tell he thinks a lot about the flow of an event. He’s creating the space and the platform that feels like home, and that allows people to come together, listen, get involved and feel heard. And by building this community, he’s helping people feel more comfortable about their own choices.”
After Sans Bar was included in a list of Black-owned businesses by Austin TV station KVUE, Marshall began receiving Venmo donations as well as offers of practical help: volunteers have stepped up to do his bookkeeping, redesign Sans Bar’s website, and donate products for the virtual event kits. Many of the donors were white people who had been to Sans Bar. Marshall believes the pandemic has made people more aware of how their behavior has an impact on others, and the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd have raised awareness, particularly among white people, of racial injustice.
“There seems to be true interest in sustaining and growing Black businesses,” Marshall says, “and in becoming allies in action, not just in words. We have a long history in this country of running to put out the flames of a fire without ever addressing what caused the first embers, and I hope that changes.” Discussions about racial equality will be integral to future virtual events; eventually when the bar is finally able to open they’ll continue in person. As a bar owner, Marshall believes it’s his responsibility to create a space for these conversations.
He’s also aware that Sans Bar is a lifeline for many people trying to maintain sobriety in a tense, isolated time. “Even though it’s a welcoming and fun location for those who are sober-curious or who just want to enjoy a night out without alcohol, we’re a special place for people in recovery, who really need routine and consistency in their lives. Losing this gathering place has taken all that away. It’s heartbreaking, but I truly don’t want to put anyone’s health in danger by opening before it’s safe.”
In the meantime, in addition to using the interactive events to build connections and a sense of community, Sans Bar has continued to offer help via social media, where Marshall regularly posts resources for mental health and physical wellness.
“I guess on the one hand I can see what’s happened since March as a downward spiral, but on the other hand, there’s been a massive outpouring of community support, and I can’t deny that it’s a good thing,” Marshall concludes. “Like a lot of people, my life is very much about duality these days—intense frustration on the one hand, and hopeful encouragement on the other. Right now, it’s very clear to me that Sans Bar is surviving because the community is lifting it up.”