Looking for a booze-free buzz? This SF pub specializes in non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits

The shelves of bottles at the Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco look like they belong in any store that sells wine, beer, and liquor. Napa Valley red blends and Chardonnays sit alongside aperitifs and other cocktail ingredients.

But a core feature of the Outer Richmond cafe makes it unusual: none of the drinks it sells contain alcohol.

Ocean Beach Cafe owner Joshua James started the business just steps from the beach of the same name early last year, hoping to share his own love of alcohol-free drinking with a growing community of like-minded people.

The cafe is one of a growing contingent of Bay Area businesses that cater to people who want to cut down on alcohol or avoid it altogether. Numerous restaurants and bars in the region offer non-alcoholic options in addition to traditional cocktails. Hayes Valley now has a non-alcoholic bottle shop, as does Los Gatos.

At Ocean Beach Cafe, the concept has so far resonated with customers.

Ocean Beach cafe

734 La Playa St. (between Balboa and Cabrillo streets), San Francisco


In addition to serving walk-ins, James and his staff regularly hold private tastings of non-alcoholic drinks — more than 100 last year alone — and even conduct mixology classes in a reservation-only speakeasy. A monthly subscription club serves about 50 devotees and counting.

James tries to capture some of the growing enthusiasm for beer, wine and spirits substitutes, many of which look and taste much like their traditional counterparts, but without the intoxicating effects. Nationwide, non-alcoholic beverage sales totaled about $395 million from August 2021 to August this year — up 20.6% year-over-year, according to NielsenIQ.

James, 40, wants his cafe to appeal to people who have eliminated or reduced their alcohol consumption for whatever reason.

Danny Meeks prepares a non-alcoholic drink at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco.

Danny Meeks prepares a non-alcoholic drink at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

“The word ‘sober’ has weight and stigma… and it’s getting to the point where it’s admirable,” James said. “There are so many millions of people who have recently been ready to cut down or stop drinking altogether.”

Ocean Beach Cafe has its roots in James’ personal journey.

An Indian who grew up on the Tolowa Dee-ni’ reservation along the Smith River on the California-Oregon border, James began working in the food and beverage industry right out of high school and got his first job as a bartender at 23. years of age. worked bar in Hawaii for many years, but also worked in other states, the last of which was North Carolina, where he was forced to reckon with his personal drinking.

After too many four-day bends and two-day hangovers, and losing his job because of his drinking, James said he decided in late 2019 to give up alcohol for a year. In February 2020, just as the pandemic erupted, he had moved to San Francisco to live at Friendship House, which provides residential substance abuse treatment for Native Americans. He spent several months there before moving to a sober house elsewhere in the city, where he says he was spontaneously inspired to start posting reviews of non-alcoholic beer and other drinks.

He started uploading reviews to YouTube and Instagram and started building an online audience. While looking for a coffee one day, he came across a sandwich shop on La Playa Street that was about to close permanently and learned that the owner was willing to sell. With the help of a crowdfunded loan and an angel investor, James was able to purchase the storefront and create Ocean Beach Cafe.

“One of my main focuses as a bartender was hospitality, wowing people[and]sharing really cool things that I found in my life,” he said. “Now I get to do all that in the (non-alcoholic) world. Got to double down on something I loved so much in the first place.

The Destroyer of Bad Vibes is a non-alcoholic drink at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco.

The Destroyer of Bad Vibes is a non-alcoholic drink at Ocean Beach Cafe in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

James doesn’t run the cafe alone. He is assisted by Danny Meeks, who helps curate the store’s selection of non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits.

Like James, Meeks, 42, also no longer consumes alcohol after a decades-long career in the restaurant industry that included “tons and tons of heavy drinking and all the bullshit that goes with it,” he said.

Now, Meeks spends his time making sure Ocean Beach Cafe sells the best booze-free drinks possible. When James started the company, his goal was to offer the largest selection of non-alcoholic beverages in the country, but he and Meeks said there are simply too many options for that to be feasible. So their strategy instead is to offer the best of the best in one place.

Meeks said he was drawn to the community that forms around the café.

“My experience with alcohol has been that heavy drinking is isolating,” Meeks said. “I felt a lot of drive to meet a new community of people that I could connect with in an environment that was safe for me.”

James has also tried to give back to the neighborhood around him, including helping organize garbage pick-ups on Ocean Beach. He hired some people he met while in addiction treatment and the austere house where he lived for a while.

He stressed that working with non-alcoholic versions of beer and wine “isn’t for everyone,” especially those who are just recovering from their addiction. But working at the cafe has been a positive outlet for some, James said, recalling a co-worker who was recovering telling him how much they looked forward to coming to work every day because it was “healthy and fun” for them. used to be.

Posters on the wall of Ocean Beach Cafe advertise the establishment's non-alcoholic beverages.

Posters on the wall of Ocean Beach Cafe advertise the establishment’s non-alcoholic beverages.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

The café has also provided jobs in the back house of a few people who were out of the house in the area, James said.

“It’s important to me to take care of your block,” he said. “If there was a motivation and an intention to do things for your own block, we’d have even better neighborhoods.”

James’ work at the cafe was recently praised by Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Outer Richmond. At the November 15 Board of Supervisors meeting, Chan presented James with a certificate of honor as the board honored someone in each supervisor district for American Indian Heritage Month.

“His spirit is just very inspiring,” Chan said of James at the meeting. “He really is a gentle, gentle soul.”

Appearing via video during the meeting, James enthusiastically told supervisors about the origins of his company and the positive impact he is trying to make in his community.

“It’s definitely much more than a cafe,” he said.

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