Everyone is toasting — except the bride and groom

I recently spent a lovely few days in Manchester with my girlfriend and my wife.

Don’t worry, that’s the same person — we were there to get married.

The trip was wonderful, but it did confirm that being treated as both an adult and a non-drinker can sometimes be very difficult.

We held our wedding at Manchester’s beautiful Town Hall. As part of the package all the guests had prosecco for the welcome and for the toast, and wine for the table. In addition we had a free bar.

Now here’s the issue: there were no adult alcohol-free alternatives.

We — I’ll be 13 years sober in June and my wife is 5 months pregnant — had to bring our own. To be fair they didn’t charge us corkage but they claimed no one has ever raised the issue before.

I really find that hard to imagine. Especially as I know how many weddings we supply drinks to at The Alcohol-Free Shop.

Our attempts to eat out at restaurants met with similar frustrations.

First up, big compliments to TNQ and Sweet Mandarin in the Northern Quarter. Both are great restaurants and both had one alcohol-free beer (although Sweet Mandarin didn’t have it listed on the menu — something I hope they’ll fix soon). More choice would be better though, and wine would be perfect.

But two other restaurants were not so good. Gio’s, opposite the Midland where we stayed, is a lovely friendly restaurant where I’ve eaten many times before, but they have no decent options at all.

I ended up with tonic water. It was either that or the horrible J20. They didn’t even sell San Pellegrino — a strange omission for an Italian restaurant. There may be some logic to this, but I have no idea what it is.

Possibly the worst offender though, and one that shows a deeper problem, was Rosso.
Rosso, at the top of King Street, is one of Manchester’s finest restaurants. Owned by ex-Manchester United and England footballer Rio Ferdinand, it’s set in a beautiful converted bank and has a very good reputation.

So on the last afternoon of the trip, before heading off to the airport, we went to Rosso for lunch.
The food was really lovely, and the surroundings beautiful. But, you guessed it, they had absolutely no alcohol-free adult drinks at all.

When I asked if they at least had an alcohol-free beer, I was told they didn’t but that we could take advantage of their lunch-time menu offer of bottles of wine for only £9.99.

When I explained my sobriety and Bea’s pregnancy, we were offered two drinks from the menu (I think they were some sort of apple/cider drinks). The waiter seemed to suggest they were alcohol-free but the menu said they were nearly 5% ABV. So, thanks but no thanks.

They did have San Pellegrino though — one up on Gio’s — but the 330ml drink I ordered from the menu turned out to be a tiny 200ml bottle.

So we ended up with one San Pellegrino each and a bottle of water. The cost of which was roughly the same as the discounted bottle of wine.

This presents two problems. Firstly, it leaves a customer like myself feeling slightly cheated that other diners are enjoying a bargain bottle of wine for only £9.99, whilst I’m paying the same for soft-drinks.

But more worrying is it actively encourages people to drink a bottle of wine (or more, I believe the offer is not limited to one) during lunch time.

Of course, there are times when it’s fine to drink at lunch. I’m not a prohibitionist and people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t affect other people.

Some of the customers were clearly people who don’t work (at least not 9 to 5) and were on a day out in Manchester from Cheshire or so. Apart from the question of getting home safely, what’s the harm?
But others were obviously having a working lunch.

When you price soft-drinks at the same price as a bottle of wine, you are — possibly unwittingly — pushing people towards that option.

At the very least, offer a similar discount on the soft drinks. Or better yet, stock some decent alcohol-free adult alternatives.

The idea that people won’t buy them doesn’t wash anymore. List it, promote it, and you’ll sell it. We have customers telling us this all the time. In fact we conducted a survey recently and from over 400 responses we found 66% said they would eat out more if restaurants offered alcohol-free beer or wine.

The food at Rosso was great but — given the choice between eating great food at Rosso with soft drinks, or great food at TNQ or Sweet Mandarin with an alcohol-free beer — I know where we’ll be going next time. And if any of them start listing an alcohol-free wine — bonus points. I’ll be spending even more.

Funnily enough, many years ago we were invited by the then manager of a previous restaurant where Rosso is now to take in some samples of our alcohol-free drinks. We arrived to find the head sommelier refusing to see us on the basis ‘he would NEVER stock any alcohol-free drinks’. We weren’t even allowed past the entrance, despite being invited by the manager!

Look, it’s simple. There are lots of options these days. And especially the restaurants in Manchester. We — The Alcohol-Free Shop — are just a few minutes away up Oldham Road.

Many adults don’t drink these days. And by offering soft drinks or water you’re treating us like children. We’re not. We’re paying adult customers and we deserve to be treated as such.

Visit our web site, give us a ring, or call in to our shop, and we’ll sort you out with some great drinks that will make your customers happy. List them on your menu and you’ll never be able to say ‘no one ever asks for alcohol-free drinks’ again.

(As a footnote – despite it being my ‘honeymoon’ – my very patient wife allowed me to visit Lisa Tse at Sweet Mandarin where we made this video about their lovely restaurant, their range of sauces, and why they stock alcohol-free and gluten-free beer. Enjoy!)

The one where everything changes…

What an amazing year it’s been.

Unless 2017 somehow trumps 2016 (yes, that’s sort of a pun – with him as the ‘leader of the free world’ who knows what will happen), I think we’ll all remember 2016 for a long-time.

We’ve lost some of our biggest cultural heroes. I’ve lost at least two absolute heroes – Bowie and Prince.

What else… anything important… oh, I’m set to become a father for the first time at 45.

Yes. I know.

It’s amazing!

Amazing, exciting, terrifying, and just about every other emotion possible.

I’d given up on the possibility a long-time ago after a number of very painful failed pregnancies with my first wife.

It just became something I accepted. Some people have children, I wouldn’t. There are other things to do in life.

But then I met Bea who is a few year younger than me (she would want me to say ‘quite a lot’ of years younger but she’s not that much younger!)

And, after getting engaged, booking our wedding in the UK, booking the flights for all the Spanish part of the family (Bea’s side), we then find out Bea is pregnant and she wouldn’t be able to travel at that time…

So, eventually, we managed to change the date of the wedding, re-arrange the registrar, tell people the date had changed… except we didn’t check the flights.

And it turns out the flights people were set to take back to Spain on the Sunday evening after the afternoon wedding don’t fly in March…

Anyone got a private jet available on March 19th? 😉

We’ll have to see what we can do. Worst case we’ll have to change the date again, but it’s getting a bit ridiculous.

Work wise, it’s been pretty fantastic too. We’ve seen huge growth, as we have every year since starting in 2006, and despite new entrants to the market, we’ve had our best year ever. We know from customer feedback – rather than just wishful thinking – that this is largely because we are trusted to do a good job, our customer service is a point of pride to us, and customers know we’ve been in the market a long time and for the right reasons. We didn’t just to jump on a bandwagon hoping to get rich quick.

From my point of view, my diagnosis of sleep apnea at the start of the year has made a massive difference. It’s bizarre to think that this time last year I was stopping breathing on average 30 times an hour when I ‘slept’. It meant I wasn’t getting any real sleep and explains why I had so little energy and was falling asleep during the day.

But now I sleep with a CPAP mask and machine (which luckily I love using, unike some users) and my work life has changed dramatically. And as a bonus – I no longer snore, although to be honest they never bothered me that much… 😉

We’ve launched a new version of The Alcohol-Free Shop web site so it is finally mobile-friendly (yes, we’ve joined the 21st Century at last!) and that’s just the start of major improvements to our systems that will improve the working environment for our staff and our customers’ experience.

We’re also working on some amazing developments that will transform our business. More on that when I can talk about it. But I can say they are very exciting and 2017 could be one of those years when things really change dramatically.

So, all-in-all, 2016 has been a bit of a mixed bag globally but pretty amazing personally. I’m really looking forward to 2017!

I hope you and yours had a great year, or at least not the worst, and that 2017 is great for you too!

We’re old enough to drink – why can’t we be grown up enough to accept health advice?

Look, I get it. I really do. Lots of people find alcohol-free beer and wine laughable, some find the very concept offensive.

What I don’t get is why. And, as importantly, why they feel the need to be so vocal about it.

In the 10 years I’ve been running The Alcohol-Free Shop I’ve heard and read it all.

‘What’s the point? Just drink water!’

‘Alcohol-free? I’d rather have free alcohol!’

‘It’s like kissing your sister, it tastes the same but it’s wrong’ (and that’s the polite version of that particular one).

Every time an article is published about alcohol-free drinks, as one was last week in a major UK newspaper, the comments section is filled with similar nonsense.

And Dry January is like the proverbial red rag to a bull. A worrying number of people seem threatened by other people making a choice to take a break from alcohol.

The comments that annoy me the most are along the lines of this one I saw the other day – “waste of time. Just drink the proper thing ffs. The good times down the pub will far outweigh the bad ones on your death bed” – which was probably written by someone who has never seen how slow, painful and distressing such a death can be.

Every time I see comments like these I despair. Not just at the fact these people think they’re being original and funny (trust me, you’re not), but because their comments are often based on ignorance.

Established facts such as the link between alcohol and cancer, or a refusal to accept not everyone wants to drink water or orange juice all the time, are ignored.

I’m not saying this attitude is unique to the UK but I spend a lot of time in Spain and there the attitude is incredibly different. Nearly every bar sells alcohol-free beer and it’s just seen as a good-tasting alternative. Germany, home to probably the best beers in the world, has an amazing range of alcohol-free beers and they’re accepted as a viable and tasty option.

For some reason the UK is trailing far behind.

People often accuse us, and others who work in the alcohol-free industry, of being judgemental. Ironically the people who claim this are often the ones passing their ill-informed judgement on those who drink alcohol-free drinks.

I’m not judgemental towards people who drink alcohol. Most of my friends and family – and even co-workers at The Alcohol-Free Shop – enjoy a drink. I will, and do, happily sit in a bar with friends who are drinking alcohol. Why wouldn’t I?

I used to drink. I enjoyed it for many years. But I came to the realisation I could no longer do it. It was affecting my life negatively and I had to stop. I’ll have been sober for 12 years in June and stopping drinking was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – for me.

But I don’t try to force that on anyone else and if people want to drink, that’s absolutely their choice and I’ve never told anyone not to drink.

So why do drinkers feel the need, or think they have the right, to tell those who enjoy alcohol-free they are wrong?

Our customers drink alcohol-free for many reasons. Some – although the minority – because they’re recovering alcoholics. Some because they have other non-alcohol related health issues and have to avoid alcohol. Others because they are pregnant, want to lose weight, need to drive, or just want to cut back on the amount of alcohol they drink and dont want to be limited to fizzy pop and sugary fruit juice.

But it’s right to say they enjoy drinking alcohol-free, otherwise why would then continue to order? We started in 2006 and have grown every year – maintaining and growing a loyal customer base.

The recent guidelines published by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer confirm that there is no safe-level of alcohol consumption.

Some people – including intelligent commentators – have tried to portray these guidelines as ‘limits’ and accused the government of ‘nannying’.

But isn’t it right that people have the knowledge of the damage alcohol can do so they can make an informed decision?

We now know that processed meat carries an increased risk of cancer but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it now and again. I’ve probably cut back a bit since the discovery of the link – and according to reports so have many others, with sales of sausages and bacon falling – but I’m not going to totally stop. I know the risk and choose to manage it. That’s all the alcohol guidelines are for.

Alcohol Concern, the charity behind the successful Dry January campaign, have launched the inaugural Zero Alcohol Awards. We’ve been nominated for some of the categories and customers have been great in supporting us by sharing some amazing stories.

One email in particular stood out. A woman, with two small children, wrote to thank us for the service we provide. Her husband, aged just 39, suffers from hemiplegic migraines – a rare and serious form of migraines.

She told me how ‘utterly terrifying’ his attacks were, and how he had been hospitalised. It took five months of tests to rule out strokes, diabetes and a brain tumour. His condition is severe and he’s been told he should avoid alcohol for the rest of his life because it’s a trigger and he could end up hospitalised again if he has further attacks.

She understands that some people might think not being able to drink isn’t such a big issue, but she explained how her husband has an active social life and enjoys a drink at home. He felt bleak about his future when he was told he should avoid alcohol.

When they discovered there were great adult alternatives available they became regular customers of ours. She wrote to say our shop had ‘dramatically changed my family’s life’ and her ‘husband has not had to sacrifice any aspect of his life but as a family I can rest assured that he is not going to collapse again through even a small amount of alcohol’.

She ended her email saying ‘I am close to tears as I write this as, if you could see the difference that this has made to our family, you would be too.’

These sort of comments are not rare. We receive them often, and each one is touching and re-affirms why we do what we do.

We can’t eradicate stupidity, so I know I’ll always be reading the sort of comments I started the article with but, hopefully, with enough education – and a collective social maturity – we’ll see fewer of them, and fewer people suffering long-term problems caused by alcohol.

First published on The Alcohol-Free Shop blog