In 2017, Beth Sandbower Harbinson, now 63, was backstage at Merriweather Post Pavilion with friends. It was a big night out and she was ready to party. Her friends, who drank alcohol, “got these really cool drinks,” Beth said. However, she stopped drinking alcohol in 2005. So, when she got to the bar, wallet in hand, and asked for something non-alcoholic, she was offered water, soda or Red Bull. None of those choices sounded very festive. “It’s not an equitable choice,” Beth said. “Back then, there were not many non-alcoholic (NA) adult beverages available.”
That’s when Beth got an idea. She created Sobar, a non-profit specializing in providing non-alcoholic cocktail service. “I pitched this idea at a Shark-Tank like event called the Changemaker Challenge sponsored by United Way and The Horizon Foundation and thought why not?”
At the time, Beth was working full-time as the Executive Director of Children’s Scholarship Fund Baltimore. “I don’t know how I did it,” Beth said. “Because we did a lot (at Sobar). It was like having a second job.”
She ran Sobar “part-time” while working at the scholarship fund until this year when she decided to retire August 1. She helped transition a new executive director into the position and then moved onto retirement. “I had come to the conclusion of the substantive work that I had started,” Beth said. She saw that to continue and build Sobar, she would need to work on the project full time for a year and then assess her time commitment.
But the transition to retirement has not been without bumps. “I’m trying to figure out what I want to focus on. I’m wired to work,” Beth said.
“I am liking it (retirement), but I have to teach myself,” Beth said. She is still setting her alarm for 7:30 a.m., whether or not she has a meeting. She said she’s beginning to realize she doesn’t need to wake up at that time anymore except to take care of her four-legged alarm clocks — her 3 dogs.
For Beth, the best part of retirement has been more control over her time. “I’ve been able to prioritize what’s matters to me. I love my morning routine of mediation,” Beth said. “And I love to exercise.”
In addition to Sobar, she sits on the Opioid Community Crisis Council and Local Behavioral Health Authority Board. “We look at behavioral and mental health issues in Howard County and work with agencies to improve services and identify needs. I’m really passionate about dealing with these issues,” Beth said.
However, a majority of time is dedicated to her passion project Sobar. Sobar is a non-profit organization with a very specific mission – to provide and promote innovative beverage options to those who cannot or choose not to drink alcohol. Their current focus includes:
- Creating awareness about the need to have non-alcoholic offerings at events.
- Providing the non-alcoholic bar at large public events, and
- Offering Sobar Certification to businesses and organizations.
Sobar Certification is a partnership Sobar offers to corporations, organizations and event venues that pledge to include equitable, non-alcoholic options at any event they are hosting. “In exchange the organization makes a meaningful contribution to Sobar annually that allows them to use our branding and gives them a direct line to our wholesalers. Nine times out of ten when we approach an organization, they say this makes so much sense, but we never thought about it,” Beth said.
“It’s a market that is rapidly going to expand in this country,” Beth said. “The market has exploded.” There are over 500 non-alcoholic options available according to Beth.
“It certainly helps people in recovery from alcoholism, but think about the other people who don’t drink. You’re pregnant. You’re on a drug for mental health or any medication where the label says ‘do not drink alcohol while on this drug.’ The designated driver. The person who doesn’t drink for religious reasons. Or the growing number of Gen Zer’s who are saying they want to moderate or reduce their alcohol intake – about 65 percent,” Beth said.
In addition to serving non-alcohol options and providing the certification, Sobar has NA options available on its website. They are working in partnership with wholesaler Better Rhodes and because they are a non-profit, a percentage of the sales help support Sobar’s mission.
Beth and her volunteers are unpaid. She does pay a few paid staff members, but the majority of the money goes to pay the “sobaristas.”
Soberistas are the bartenders for Sobar. The majority are in recovery and many of them live in halfway houses or sober living facilities. “Many of those people have a record because they have done things to support their disease, so it’s hard for them to get employment,” Beth said. “We love hiring these folks. I’ve met so many fascinating people.”
The sobaristas make $20 an hour and a minimum of $120 a shift. Beth said, “I think it’s important to pay a living wage to people.”
In addition, she knows many of her employees have lost their license and need to Uber to work. “That’s not inexpensive.”
“At the end of the day, if I help to keep one of my bartenders sober, that’s amazing, “Beth said.
Addiction in America
Beth stopped drinking in 2005. She knew that she had a problem with alcohol, but had been reluctant to face it. “It was a crazy, scary time,” Beth said. With encouragement from her family, she went to see a counselor and he suggested a 12-step program. “There are many roads to recovery,” Beth said, but this one has worked for her.
“I call mental health and substance abuse second class diseases,” Beth said.
“You can’t go to a hospital emergency room and get treatment.” When someone does seek help, oftentimes there is a long-wait to be admitted to a program.
“It’s crazy to me that something that is happening at epidemic levels is not more streamlined and mainstreamed in the continuum of care,” Beth said.
“We’re such an alcohol centric society,” Beth said. Sobar seeks to make not drinking mainstream.
When NA options are available “it’s just there. No one has to make a special request.” Beth said. “There is still so much stigma and shame associated with the disease of alcoholism and addiction. By having equitable NA options, hosts can help reduce those feelings.”
Beth works with organizations to promote NA options at events. She consults with organizations on the wording of their invitations to ensure they include information about having alcohol-free options. One example is a recent Bourbon & BBQ event that featured Zero proof counterparts.
“We do about 50 galas a year,” Beth said. Sobar can either set up a non-alcoholic bar or help curate non-alcoholic options for an organization.
“We can set up a bar that looks exactly like a regular bar with zero alcohol and with options that taste great.” Beth said.
Her work setting up these NA bars at events has been rewarding. “Occasionally someone will come up to us during an event and say ‘you helped keep me sober today.’ That makes it all worth it,” Beth said.
Although Sobar does not manufacture NA products, it does work very closely with NA producers and wholesalers. Better Rhodes is their wholesaler. “I like these guys. I like their corporate values and I want to be associated with them,” Beth said.
The public can buy NA products through the Sobar website and Better Rhodes makes a donation to Sobar to support its mission. In addition, first time buyers going through the Sobar website receive a 10 percent discount.
Sobar’s number one drink is their Butterfly Pea Tree Lemonade. “We will probably never do a bar in the spring or summer without including it,” Beth said. “It’s a beautiful drink.” The ingredients combine to make a magenta-colored drink.
“My favorite pre-mixed drinks are Lyres pre-canned drinks from Australia,” Beth said. “One mimics a gin and tonic and it’s 45 calories.”
As further evidence of NA popularity, Beth said, “These products sell out.” She suggests people stock up for the holidays early. In addition to selling products through the website, Sobar will have local events leading up to the holiday season.
“What we’ve decided to focus on this holiday season is selling kits for home parties,” Beth said.
The weekend of November 25 through the 27, Beth and Sobar will be selling cocktail kits at the Kennedy Krieger Institutes’ Festival of Trees. In addition, there will be a Zero-Hour Happy Hour at Georgia Grace in Ellicott City December 8th from 6-8 p.m. There will be samples of the Sobar offerings, drinks and kits for sales as well as live music and Georgia Grace’s great menu.
For information about all their events, go to: https://www.drinksobar.org/
Navigating New Relationship Rules
It may seem as though Beth spends all of her time helping others, but she has made carving out time for herself and her husband Scott a priority as well.
“I’m having conversations with my spouse, whom I love, about what we are going to do together,” Beth said. Her spouse retired a couple of years ago.
Before retirement they led fairly autonomous lives as they both had very busy careers. “We are working with a consultant who works with people through life transitions,” Beth said. Jenn Gruber, a relationship consultant, helps them ask the questions they need to ask during this life transition.
Beth has agreed to do a four-day work week so one day a week they make spending time together a priority. They have bought electric bikes and riding bikes is often a part of their weekday off plan.
The Future Looks Bright
Beth said she knows how lucky she is to have retired early and be able to run Sobar unpaid. She credits her husband Scott with creating a sound financial plan for them. “Thank God I married an MBA,” Beth said.
In addition to promoting the Sobar Certification with organizations, Beth said she would like to have a retail store with a tasting room in the back. She’s not really interested in running a NA bar or restaurant, but is glad that there are more and more of these places opening up. There is an app called “Better Without” that helps people find NA establishments.
“We’re building a culture of celebration that is not so alcoholic centric,” Beth said. “I hope in some way we can shift the conversation.”
If you want more information about Sobar, visit their website: https://www.drinksobar.org/
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