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Giving ‘dry’ a try: Marvel Bar’s effort to expand hospitality and creativity

“It’s been powerful to see the response to this idea of making non-drinkers feel like they are our first thought, rather than an afterthought,” said owner Eric Dayton.

Marvel Bar owner Eric Dayton and bar manager Peder Schweigert
Marvel Bar owner Eric Dayton and bar manager Peder Schweigert both chose to not drink alcohol a few years ago, for different reasons.
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

It’s easy for Eric Dayton to remember the last time he drank alcohol. It was New Year’s Eve 2016, and he was in in Marvel Bar, a popular spot known for its extensive collection of craft cocktails and spirits tucked cozily downstairs from Dayton’s award-winning restaurant, Bachelor Farmer.

“I set my drink down at midnight and said, ‘OK. The new year starts now.’” Dayton recalled. With his wife due to give birth to the couple’s second child and a particularly busy year on the horizon, he’d decided to stop drinking alcohol for 12 months and see what happened.

“One friend had bet me that I couldn’t do it,” Dayton said. “That really hardened my resolve.”

The decision to stop drinking alcohol started as, Dayton said, “kind of a curiosity and a little bit of a personal challenge. I had tried in the past going a month here or there without drinking and had always felt a positive change. I just had this curiosity: What would it feel like to go a whole year?”

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While he’d noticed a positive difference when he’d stopped before, Dayton added, 30 days “is not a full lifestyle change. It’s not quite long enough. I wondered what a year would feel like.”

He told friends and family members about his plan: “This way I couldn’t back out. I figured if I told enough of my friends I would create a social pressure to not let them down or let myself down.”

After giving up alcohol, Dayton noticed that he felt — and looked — different. “I lost a bunch of weight with no other lifestyle change, which was nice,” he said. “Then it was this chain reaction of better sleep, more energy, more balanced mood. It was just this domino effect of positive changes.”

When an alcohol-free 2017 passed easily, Dayton decided to keep going the next year. “If it ain’t broke, why go back or why change it?” he remembers thinking. “So I just kept going.” Three years in, he’s still going strong.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever drink again, but right now this is really good for me,” Dayton said. “It makes me better in all the roles of my life. It’s just been across-the-board positive. I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing very much or missing out on a lot to do it, so it’s been an easy decision to keep going.”

If it seems curious that a restaurant and bar owner would choose not to drink, imagine how unusual it is for bar manager to do the same thing. Peder Schweigert, who’s been one of the leaders at Marvel Bar since it opened in 2011, gave up drinking four years ago, looking for a way to “revisit his relationship with alcohol.” He said he now plans to stay sober for the rest of his life.

Because he has “a family history of substance abuse and addiction,” Schweigert said he was concerned that his drinking was starting to get out of control. The constant exposure to alcohol at work felt particularly challenging.

“I couldn’t remember the last day when I didn’t drink some form of alcohol, professionally or personally,” he said. After some thought, he decided to quit drinking for a period of time at least, reframing his relationship with alcohol and discovering what came of it.

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It wasn’t an easy decision. “There was lots of fear involved,” Schweigert admitted. “Would I still like my job if I wasn’t drinking?” Would he enjoy the flavor of non-alcoholic drinks? Would his friends abandon him?

“So much of my day was focused around distillates and fermenting,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what [giving that up] would look like, and I wasn’t sure how it would impact the way I interacted with my friendships and with my colleagues — in the industry we tend to go out after work a lot.”

Once he stopped drinking alcohol, Schweigert said, his after-work socializing “pretty much stopped.” While he missed the opportunity to spend time unwinding with friends and colleagues, he said he soon discovered that the benefits of sobriety far outweighed the losses: “I wouldn’t be in this healthy mindset today without having taken that step. The rewards are so great.”

Creative challenge

Dayton’s and Schweigert’s choices to experiment with an alcohol-free lifestyle no doubt played a role in their bar and restaurant’s decision to launch an “exploration” into the concept of “dry,” consciously reducing Marvel’s focus on the very alcoholic beverages that made it famous and offering an extensive and experimental menu of non-alcoholic drinks.

Though the exploration officially lasts just four months, from January through April, Dayton said he expects the shift in focus to continue for much longer. While many bars and clubs have jumped on the “Dry January” bandwagon of late, what’s happening at Marvel Bar represents a true shift, he says.

“For us,” Dayton said, “this is bigger than the idea of ‘Dry January.’”

Schweigert agrees. He said that he and his staff are feeling inspired by the challenge of rethinking the whole idea of what it means to be a bar.

“We’re eight and a half years old and we were looking for ways to challenge ourselves creatively,” Schweigert said. “Constraint is one of the best ways to do that.”

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Constraint, or temporarily removing the central feature from many of the drinks Marvel offers, forces staff to fire up their creative brains, to think outside of the box and develop non-alcoholic options that are just as good as — if not better than — alcoholic ones.

“The process of creating drinks without alcohol is really different from creating drinks with alcohol,” Schweigert explained. “It’s a different mindset. You have to create the nuance and depth of flavor without the help of some outside expert. There’s 200 years of brandy knowledge contained in one house’s brandy, for instance. There’s 150 years of whiskey knowledge. Without alcohol, you are on your own. And that’s part of what’s so exciting.”

All are welcome here

While Schweigert and his staff have found the constraint of a reduced emphasis on alcohol to be inspiring, Dayton explained that the central concept of the bar’s dry exploration is actually about becoming less limiting in other ways.

Social pressure around alcohol use can make life difficult for people who choose not to drink. Dayton and Schweigert are hoping that their new, dry-friendly approach to business will make more people feel welcome at Marvel Bar and Bachelor Farmer.

In the years since he gave up alcohol, Dayton said he’s noticed that some social situations can be hard for the sober — or sober-curious.

“There’s the common experience of going around the table when you’re out to dinner and everyone is ordering their cocktail or glass of wine and then it comes to the non-drinker and they end up with a cranberry juice and soda water,” he said. “It is the feeling of being an afterthought, of being the second-class citizen or an outlier. We wanted to make sure that people who choose not to drink can walk in the door here and feel every bit as thought of and considered as someone who is ordering a cocktail or a glass of wine.”

The public response to the dry exploration has been overwhelmingly positive, Dayton added. “I’ve gotten countless emails, just people reaching out, some I know well, some acquaintances. They’re expressing their appreciation for what the team is doing down here. It’s been powerful to see the response to this idea of making non-drinkers feel like they are our first thought, rather than an afterthought.”

The top image features the back of the bar before the dry launch, and the bottom image depicts the bar after the alcohol was removed.
Courtesy of Marvel Bar
The top image features the back of the bar before the dry launch, and the bottom image depicts the bar after the alcohol was removed.
The Lynhall, a bar and restaurant located at 2642 Lyndale Ave. South in Minneapolis, also offers a full range of non-alcoholic drink options.

“We’ve had non-alcoholic pairings for our dinners for a long time,” said owner Anne Spaeth. “We haven’t come out and announced it.” The non-alcoholic options were created in response to the concerns of Lynhall employees who are in recovery from addiction or who have family members in recovery, she explained. “We want to better understand how we can support them and what our environment needs to look and feel like to make them feel welcome.”

In September 2019, in honor of National Recovery Month, The Lynhall introduced Sunday Sober Supper, a substance-free dinner created in collaboration with a local restaurant partner.

“Members from our bar team and members from the partnering restaurant’s bar team create four non-alcoholic parings to go with the courses,” Spaeth said. The first event was so popular that organizers decided to make it a regular occurrence. There was one each month in October and November. After a break for the holidays, a fourth is scheduled for March.

At Marvel Bar and Bachelor Farmer, alcohol is still available, though its presence has been downplayed, at least for the period of the exploration. Could a person in recovery feel comfortable paying a visit to the bar during this period?

“I think that’s a hard question to answer in a universal way,” Dayton said. “I think it is a personal decision. I’ve heard some people say they would now feel comfortable here. I have a friend in recovery, and I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘I still don’t think it would be a good idea for me.’ I don’t want to say that this is now a good place for everyone.”

Dayton added that he thinks this exploration is less about moving away from drinking and more about welcoming people who don’t drink alcohol and “making sure they feel just as welcome here as people who still do choose to drink. There will always be people who do drink alcohol and we don’t want to move away from them. The root of that is really about hospitality, making people feel welcome.”

Influenced by history

Dayton said his decision to quit alcohol in 2017 wasn’t based on concerns that he was becoming an alcoholic.

“I didn’t feel like it was a problem for me; it was more, ‘I wonder how I would feel different if I gave it up,’” he said. “I have addiction in my family. It’s well documented that my dad’s in recovery for alcoholism. I grew up around people who were in recovery, so it was something that I had an awareness of. It was part of our family, part of my world.”

Because of that early foundation, Dayton said that he was always conscious of the specter of addiction. While he said he didn’t feel like he was heading down that path, he added that, “I feel very fortunate I was able to make that decision and that it has been relatively easy for me [to quit] knowing that for so many people it is much more challenging.”

Schweigert said he found that he needed psychological support to help him stick with his decision to quit alcohol. “I had a therapist I worked with who was really supportive and great,” he said. Schweigert said his therapist used EMDR techniques to help strengthen his resolve. “It helped make it easier for me.”

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a therapeutic technique that uses bilateral sensory input to help an individual overcome feelings of trauma or anxiety. It has been shown to be successful in treating people with PTSD and addiction.

Schweigert had experience using EMDR to treat trauma after a car accident when he was 18 years old. “That’s part of why I was so open to trying it with alcohol,” he said. “It replaced what was my go-to, ‘grab the drink’ response with a little kernel of fear that discourages me from drinking alcohol. That kernel of fear is something that I’m protective of and something I cherish.”

Because he grew up in a family “where recovery was present,” Dayton said he always thought that the only reason people choose not to drink alcohol was because they were fighting addiction.

“I’ve seen that up close and I am constantly reminded how difficult that is for people to go through,” he said. “But I also have just as many, if not more, friends and acquaintances who have chosen, not because of an addiction concern, but as a lifestyle change, to drink less or not drink at all. I’m not sure if that’s a generational thing, but it is something I’m seeing more often.”

Because he is a bar manager, Schweigert said he still has to taste alcohol.

“The way I’ve built my relationship with alcohol now, it’s such that I’m happy to taste, but I taste in smaller quantities and when I do, I try to spit as much out as possible,” he said, Even so, “you can catch a buzz from tasting 30 spirits in an hour and a half.” That buzz, he continued, “doesn’t bring me joy anymore. It is more draining than anything else.”

One benefit of quitting alcohol, Schweigert said, is that it has made quitting other habits feel easier.

“Quitting one thing gave me so much benefit,” he said. “I love coffee, for instance. I used to drink a ton of coffee.” But then he said he started having flareups of anxiety. “I was thinking, ‘What could be causing that?’ and realizing that caffeine might be the culprit, so about a year and a half ago I stopped drinking caffeine entirely. Now I’m ready to quit whatever else I can,” he laughed. “Quitting’s my superpower.”

A professional workplace

The hard-living, party-focused environment that permeates many workplaces in the restaurant and bar industry can make for an unhealthy lifestyle. Dayton and Schweigert said that at Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar, they have tried to foster a different kind of workplace, one that expects professional behavior while on the clock.

“The industry as a whole has a long way to go,” Schweigert said. “We’re a pretty special place in that the expectations have been up front that we’re not supposed to drink on the job. We leave here every night with as a clear a head as when we came in.”

Dayton said that the message is that this is an environment that encourages professionalism and discourages excess.

“This is a workplace,” he said. “It never would occur to me that people would drink while they are working. Maybe it’s because I worked in restaurants but I also worked in larger corporate environments. When I opened Bachelor Farmer it was about trying to create a professional work environment. It turned out that meant we have a much healthier work environment than is standard in the industry.”

Schweigert said that the focus on professionalism at Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar is what has made it possible for him to build his career in the industry. “I think there’s the perception with people who work in the service industry that it’s a temporary thing,” he said. “You do it while you are going to school or while you are in transition to another thing. Professionalizing the job creates a space for people like me to really make a career out of it. I love my job. I spent the last 15 years working in restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to do it if that culture wasn’t present.”

Dayton said that Schweigert’s perspective is a big reason why the bar has been so successful — and why they’ve been able to retain employees.

“Peder helped open Marvel Bar,” Dayton said. “He’s one of the people who’s been here since the very beginning.” The more traditional, hard-living lifestyle that still permeates many restaurants and bars is, he continued, “not a sustainable lifestyle. That’s what makes us different from the overall industry. The more prevalent work environment is one that makes people burn out or develop issues. It’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable.”

Schweigert said that these days he likes to look at his work from a holistic perspective. His job is about more than mixing drinks: It’s about creating an engaging, welcoming atmosphere for his customers — and for his employees.

“I think the culture of service is the area that I lean to the most when I’m looking to find a reason for wanting to show up every day,” he said. Having opportunities “like this four-month dry exploration is a good example of a healthy work environment. We can take chances that really pay off for everyone, and we can stay healthy while we’re doing it.”