Seven years ago, Beth Sandbower Harbinson was backstage preconcert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, enjoying a bit of glam. “We were at the VIP Bar, a backlit open bar, and it was gorgeous,” she remembered.
Her friends ordered fancy celebratory cocktails. Harbinson, in recovery from alcoholism, asked the bartender for some nonalcoholic options. “My choices were soda, water and Red Bull,” she said.
At that moment, Harbinson realized the value of her ticket was lower — just because she wasn’t drinking alcohol. “I wondered why the bar wasn’t offering better options for nondrinkers,” she said. “In addition to people in recovery, there are designated drivers, pregnant women, and a growing number of Gen Z people who don’t drink alcohol.”
That’s when Sobar first came to her mind and, in 2017, the idea landed her a Changemaker Challenge grant from the Horizon Foundation and United Way of Central Maryland. She received $10,000 in seed funding and project consultation to expand the idea into a nonprofit organization.
At that time, Harbinson was working full-time as executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Baltimore — a job she kept until July 2022 when she took the leap to operate Sobar full-time.
Right now, she said, she’s still working unpaid. “We don’t have the finances to support a salary for me at this time,” she said.
Instead, she pays 14 part-time “Sobaristas,” her version of bartenders, most of whom are men and women in recovery who are currently living in Halfway Houses, Sober Living Houses, or transitional housing who need to get back on their financial feet as part of their recovery.
“I pay them a living wage because I believe in it personally,” said Harbinson.
Sobar is becoming an increasingly popular choice for festivals, company parties and galas. And with over 500 products available in the nonalcoholic space, it is becoming easier to include exciting, equitable choices at every event — from wine tastings to weddings, and certainly at public social events.
And the scene at Merriweather has changed — at least sometimes. “Howard County hosted an alcohol-free event at Merriweather to honor our heroes in health care,” said Harbinson. “A thousand people came, and we were the exclusive bar. People loved the drinks, and I was just so proud of our county for doing something like that.”
Harbinson believes it’s time to stop automatically equating celebrating, partying, and having fun with alcohol. “We live in an alcohol-centered society,” she said, but adds that Sobar is not an anti-alcohol organization.
“Just include us at the bar,” she urged. “People who aren’t drinking alcohol still want to fit in.”
Sobar is also working to expand its connections to link its Sobaristas to full-time employment when they’re ready.
“The people coming through our doors are such are diverse group,” said Harbinson. “I do think setting up some type of mentoring program and somehow expanding connections to employers would help.”
Their Sobar Certification program launched in 2023 and a growing number of restaurants, bars, nonprofits, and businesses have come on board by making a contribution and taking a pledge to include nonalcoholic beverages on their menus and at events they host. “People are now looking for choice and it is our responsibility to include beverages that make everyone feel included,” said Harbinson.
Jasmine Sonpar, an intern at Sobar, makes a Pop Passion mixed drink Feb. 25 at the Howard County Library System’s fundraiser event at East Columbia Library. (TBM / Jason Whong)
Caption: Beth Sandbower Harbinson, founder of Sobar, mixes a drink. (credit is coming)