The Lucky Saint, a pub in London's Marylebone neighborhood, looks pretty much like any other pub – and that's exactly how Luke Boase wants it. He's the founder of Lucky Saint, an alcohol-free beer brand that took over a 19th-century pub, formerly known as the Masons Arms, earlier this year. The aim was to make it feel like any other drinking experience – normalizing alcohol-free drinking, rather than making it a novelty. ‘You walk in and there's no Lucky Saint branding – it isn't M&M's World,’ he says.
Lucky Saint isn't the only no/low-alcohol brand putting its name to a physical drinking space. Non-alcoholic beer brand LOAH just opened a taproom under an archway in east London, while in Tokyo, Sumadori-Bar Shibuya, operated by beer brand Asahi, has been serving no/low options for a year.
No/low bars aren't new, but non-alcoholic brands opening drinking establishments is a far less common business model. There's a lot of room for experimentation and interpretation, but it could be the next step for the industry to prove that it can hold its own with alcoholic counterparts.
‘What if we owned our own pub?’
Initially, Lucky Saint was just looking for an office. ‘We were nomadic as a business,’ says Luke. ‘We thought that maybe we could rent a room above one of our pub customers. That snowballed into: what if we had our own pub? A physical manifestation of our brand where our customers can come and understand what our values are and what our version of hospitality looks like.’
A no/low brand owning a pub might sound like a contradictory proposition, but it's increasingly reflective of how people go out. Nearly one-third of pub visits are alcohol-free, while the number of people who semi-regularly consume no/low alcoholic drinks is increasing.
Lucky Saint has made an effort to blend its brand with the tradition of the pub – it restored historical features, but added in huge windows to create a brighter feel. Inside, you'll find branding only on its assigned tap – which sits comfortably alongside a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. ‘We want it to feel like a great pub, not a branded experience,’ he says. ‘As a result, what we've seen is lots of people coming back and remembering it.'
Since opening, Luke's seen people pop in to do a few hours of work (the bar also serves coffee). It's a common spot for office workers, who seek a place that's comfortable for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. Promoting that mix is key for growing no/low brands, those in the industry say.
‘I've never been a fan of non-alcohol-only spaces,’ says Laura Willoughby, founder of no/low community Club Soda, which has a shop and tasting room in London's West End. ‘I believe quite strongly that the whole ethos should be about positioning your brand around being normal.’
Designed for non-drinkers
In east London, Hugo Tapp, founder of LOAH, wants to focus his brand's taproom on the idea of creativity. ‘The premise for this place is that all great ideas start in the pub, but better ones start with a clear head,’ he explains. ‘It's based around creativity and what you can achieve without alcohol in a creative space.’
There are plans to host clay workshops and art exhibitions in the 20-seat space, while a large wall will be offered to illustrators and artists for takeovers. There'll also be a record shop. The Lucky Saint has a podcast-recording studio (a nod to the pub being the BBC's historic watering hole).
Being flexible with business hours to accommodate different lifestyles is another key point. ‘There's no real precedent for a non-alcoholic taproom, so we have no yardstick to go against,’ Hugh says. ‘We'll be here [from] 8am to 10pm every day. We'll see what the ebb and flow is like. We don't want the door to be closed if people want to drink non-alcoholic beer on a Wednesday.’ Already, there have been adjustments: the taproom now opens Wednesday to Sunday, with hours from 12.30pm to 9pm.
Thinking beyond beer
So far, many of the pioneers have been beer brands. Why not spirits? Or wine? Beer has the majority share of the non-alcoholic drinks category (65% – compared to wine at 26% and spirits at 9%). But there's another reason why brands could be steering clear.
‘The margins on alcohol-free drinks are pitiful. So, if [additional] no/low brands want to make it work, [they] may find it hard to have a solo proposition,’ Laura says. But that doesn't mean that brands don't value space for people to gather and try their drinks. ‘We wouldn't be able to do the shop if it wasn't for the fact [that] brands are investing in our space. They've put a big chunk of money [into] the shop to be sampled and have big displays.’
But, for Luke, the success of his pub is evidence that he's onto something.
‘It's absolutely incredible when you walk down at 5pm and the pub is buzzing – the bar's packed, it's noisy, the atmosphere is amazing,’ he says. ‘Seeing all that is an amazing reflection of where the category has got to.’