The alcohol-abstaining month is over, but bars are still feeling the effects on their bottom lines
Whatever you think about Dry January, it’s over. Everyone is back to freely drinking or not drinking with no hashtags attached. But for many bars, Dry January has left a lasting impact. January has always been a slow time for the cocktail industry, with clientele either resolving to be healthier or just too tapped out from holiday partying to go out. And in recent years, “wellness,” self-care, and being “sober curious” have led millennials and Gen Zers to drink less, and contributed to the rise of nonalcoholic cocktails and beers. But the increased visibility and popularity of Dry January has led some in the industry to blame the practice on slower sales and fewer tips. And bartenders are figuring out how to adapt to this new, drier reality.
As a bartender I want to say, fuck you guys and your dry January
— Ebony Ivy (@DeaPierre) January 23, 2020
For proprietors of bars whose clientele fits that demographic, this January appeared particularly rough. In the U.K., retail sales of alcohol were down 20 percent last month. Zac Hoffman, head bartender at La Jambe in D.C.’s Union Market, says he really noticed a change this year compared to years past. It wasn’t just that people wouldn’t go out, but that when they did, they weren’t ordering alcohol. “People tipped normally, but with a lower check average that meant I was feeling the loss at every seat,” he says.
Dea Pierre, bar manager and bartender at Le Song, says, “I’ve worked in bars that made $40,000 to $60,000 weekly but as soon as January hits, it’s an average of $20,000 to $30,000 if they’re fortunate,” noting that bars’ traditional January struggles might be more to blame. Still, she has anecdotally noticed more of her friends and colleagues participating in Dry January. Rachel Knox, a bartender at MeMe’s Diner in Brooklyn, says this year felt far slower than last January, estimating it was “25 percent less busy” than last year. As a neighborhood restaurant, MeMe’s sales were possibly affected by “healthy” eating resolutions, and Knox is used to slow January sales everywhere. But what shocked Knox wasn’t the slump, but that February 1 was the busiest night they’d had since Thanksgiving, with the highest alcohol sales. “All the staff were like, ‘Oh…was it really [Dry January]?’” she says.
Hoffman stresses that it’s not sober people’s fault that business is strained, but that societal norms dictate that one tips less on a nonalcoholic drink than an alcoholic one. He noticed that nondrinking guests appreciated being able to have no-proof cocktails that were more interesting than yet another Diet Coke, but noted, “often they are surprised to see a comparable charge for the NA drink, or simply refuse to tip normally as if because I didn’t pick up a bottle of liquor ‘it’s not a real drink.’” That, he argues, needs to change. “We want to be supporting good choices for our guests, no matter what those are.”
But ultimately, bars exist to sell alcohol, and anything that threatens those sales threatens jobs. “We are in the business of selling wine and spirits, the entire model is built on that,” says Hoffman. “Seeing a trend like this is going to affect business, and that in turn hurts workers.”
Bartenders may understandably balk at any trend that keeps people from frequenting their business. However, other bartenders aren’t so sure Dry January is solely to blame for January numbers. According to InsideHook, Americans actually bought more beer this past January than in any January since 2015. Elliott Sussman, a bartender working in Pittsburgh, says that Dry January hasn’t changed much in his business. January has always been a time when people have tried out “healthier” resolutions and reined in spending after holiday shopping and partying. Also, it’s gross outside. “You can double down on this with the weather not being as kind in January, musicians/events not touring/happening for fear of the weather not being as kind, and general lack of stimulating events,” he says.
Bartender Sarim Al-Rawi says January is always “shit for bars,” and that the economy and the election news cycle may be affecting sales, as not many bars are the type of place where you want to watch a debate. Dry January is also more likely to affect sales in bars that cater to people who have heard of Dry January. Marc Butcavage, who manages Nobody Told Me on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and who has worked around New York since 2013, tells Eater he serves a far more diverse clientele now than he did in the East Village, which means less Dry January influence. “I find the Dry January approach to be a largely millennial construct, and a lot of our older guests probably aren’t drinking enough to feel they need a whole month off, and are more likely to be financially secure and to not need to do it for economic reasons,” he says.
If Dry January does affect sales, it’s because the project is also affected by larger trends, namely stagnant wages. One of the oft-touted benefits of Dry January is saving money, and whether people are explicitly participating in Dry January or not, it’s easier to just say no to going out in January. However, Butcavage says bars love a scapegoat: “Even though it’s probably indicative of a larger economic issue, that’s not as easy as blaming a broad movement in the zeitgeist.” And for Pierre, there’s always a bounce back. Despite everyone’s well-meaning resolutions, “all it takes is Valentine’s Day in February and St. Patty’s in March for that to go all out the window.”
Complaints about Dry January, whether it is the cause of bars’ woes or not, belie a bigger issue. Dry January is a symptom of the longer-term change many people are looking to make regarding alcohol culture. But any long-term change is bound to cause short-term problems. Drinking less, as a society, means fewer drinks bought in bars. Stagnant wages means fewer dollars being spent on “frivolous” things like cocktails. This means bars have to get more creative. Hoffman says he’s looking to change up his menu to include more inventive mocktails. Pierre says bars often cut back on staffing, or offer more discounts for the month. Industry sites have recommended bars host trivia nights and watch parties to boost January attendance. But some bartenders resent the idea that they have to change their business. “At the end of the day, you came here for one thing only — this is a bar,” says Al-Rawi. “You don’t go to a tire shop for sneakers.”
To keep business afloat, the culture around service also has to change. While someone who is not drinking may be used to accompanying their friends to a bar and sipping on a $2 Diet Coke, Hoffman says that when the nonalcoholic menu is as thoughtful and creative as the cocktail one, it’s important to remember “the service being provided is in no way different from someone who is imbibing,” and that customers can’t balk at prices on five-ingredient drinks just because there’s no liquor in them. A bar is a place to socialize and commune, to relax and read or avoid your roommates, a home outside of your home. That sort of service, at least until rent is eliminated, is worth paying for.