Dreamers & Doers

This Austin entrepreneur is shaking things up at city's first alcohol-free bar

The Austin entrepreneur shaking it up at city's first alcohol-free bar

Chris Marshall headshot Sans Bar
Chris Marshall is the man behind Austin's first alcohol-free cocktail lounge. Photo by Richard Leal

Drinking is an integral part of the Austin way of life. Happy? Let’s have a drink! Sad? Let’s have a drink! Tuesday? Let’s have a drink!

Anyone who has stopped drinking — either temporarily or permanently — knows the decision is often met with questions, curious looks, or after-school special-style challenges. It can be enough to make you throw in the proverbial cocktail napkin. But Chris Marshall, the visionary behind Sans Bar, wants to make it easier.

Sans Bar, billed as the first alcohol-free bar in Texas, is inspired by Marshall’s personal and professional experiences watching people struggle with alcohol. He spent years as a substance abuse counselor, witnessing first-hand the damage that alcohol could cause.

"Over and over, I watched clients and friends struggle and relapse, returning to alcohol, in part because they felt socially isolated," he says. "Sometimes, tragically, it ended in death. Seeing this pattern repeat triggered an intense desire to do more than just wish there was a sober bar.”

And so, Marshall created it. Located on East 12th Street, Sans Bar exists to help adults socialize while staying sober. In addition to mocktails, the concept offers entertainment ranging from karaoke to drag shows to live music, but as Marshall notes, “you’ll also remember it in the morning.”

At its core, Sans Bar is designed to make stepping away from alcohol a little bit easier. Between music festivals and work happy hours, boozy baby showers and post-yoga wine dates, it can be hard to socialize in Austin without the sauce. “The reality is that Austin is a very boozy town," Marshall says. "It seems like everywhere you turn all the trendy people are drinking."

The bar's mission also expands well beyond its physical footprint. “We’re also asking people to question the role alcohol plays in their lives at large, like workplace gatherings and the dating scene.” With that mission in mind, Marshall says he hopes to expand Sans Bar to other cities across the U.S. and Canada, and is in the process of creating a line of "upscale sober drinks."

Perhaps ironically, Sans Bar's success comes, at least in part, from having roots in a booze-centric town like Austin. After all, it's his local community, friends, and neighbors who Marshall credits with helping turn his dream into a reality. As for other dreamers, the entrepreneur has three pieces of advice: “Start before you’re ready. Go public early with your concept. And build an audience through meaningful collaborations. You may share the profit, but those local business relationships are critical.”