Looking for a booze-free buzz? This S.F. cafe specializes in non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits

The shelves of bottles inside San Francisco’s Ocean Beach Cafe look like they could belong in any store that sells wine, beer and spirits. Red blends and chardonnays from the Napa Valley stand alongside aperitifs and other ingredients for cocktails.

But one core feature of the Outer Richmond cafe makes it unusual: None of the beverages it sells contain any alcohol.

Ocean Beach Cafe owner Joshua James started the business just one block away from its namesake beach early last year, hoping to share his own love for booze-free drinking with a growing community of like-minded people.

The cafe is among a growing contingent of Bay Area businesses catering to people who want to consume less alcohol or none at all. Numerous restaurants and bars around the region offer alcohol-free options alongside traditional cocktails. Hayes Valley now has a non-alcoholic bottle shop, as does Los Gatos.

At Ocean Beach Cafe, the concept has resonated with customers so far.

In addition to serving walk-ins, James and his staff conduct regular private tastings of alcohol-free beverages — more than 100 of them last year alone — and even host mixology classes in a speakeasy that’s available by reservation only. A monthly subscription club serves about 50 devotees and counting.

James is trying to capture some of the growing enthusiasm for beer, wine and liquor substitutes, many of which look and taste much like their traditional counterparts but without the intoxicating effects. Across the country, non-alcoholic beverage sales totaled about $395 million between August 2021 and August of this year — a 20.6% year-over-year increase, according to NilsenIQ.

James, 40, wants his cafe to appeal to people who have eliminated or reduced their alcohol consumption for any reason.

“The word ‘sober’ has weight to it and stigma … and it’s going toward it being admirable,” James said. “There’s so many millions of people that recently became ready to cut back on drinking or stop altogether.”

Ocean Beach Cafe has its roots in James’ personal journey.

A Native American who grew up on the Tolowa Dee-ni’ reservation along the Smith River at the California-Oregon border, James started working in the food and beverage sector right out of high school and got his first bartending job at age 23. He tended bar for many years in Hawaii but also worked in multiple other states, the last of which was North Carolina, where he was compelled to reckon with his personal alcohol consumption.

After too many four-day benders and two-day hangovers, and losing employment because of his drinking, James said he decided in late 2019 to quit alcohol for one year. By February 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold, he had moved to San Francisco to live at Friendship House, which provides residential substance abuse treatment for Native Americans. He spent several months there before moving to a sober house elsewhere in the city, where he said he was spontaneously inspired to start posting reviews of non-alcoholic beer and other beverages.

He started uploading reviews to YouTube and Instagram and began building an online audience. Then, while looking for a cup of coffee one day, he stumbled upon a deli on La Playa Street that was about to permanently close and learned that the owner was willing to sell. With help from a crowdfunded loan and an angel investor, James was able to purchase the storefront and create Ocean Beach Cafe.

“One of my main focuses as a bartender was hospitality, blowing people’s minds (and) sharing really cool things that I found in my life,” he said. “Now I get to do all of that in the (non-alcholic) world. I got to double up on something that I was so into in the first place.”

James doesn’t run the cafe alone. He’s aided by Danny Meeks, who helps curate the store’s selection of non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits.

Like James, Meeks, 42, also no longer consumes alcohol after a decades-long career in the restaurant industry that included “tons and tons of heavy drinking and all of the nonsense that comes with that,” he said.

Now Meeks spends his time making sure that Ocean Beach Cafe is selling the most enjoyable booze-free drinks possible. When James first started the business, his goal was to offer the country’s largest selection of non-alcoholic beverages, but he and Meeks said there are simply too many options to make that a feasible goal. So their strategy is, instead, to offer the best of the best in one place.

Meeks said he’s been drawn in by the community that’s forming around the cafe.

“My experience with alcohol was that heavy drinking is isolating,” Meeks said. “I felt a lot of drive to meet a new community of people that I could connect with in a safe environment for me.”

James has tried to give back to the neighborhood around him as well, including by helping organize trash pickups at Ocean Beach. He hired a few people he met while he was in substance abuse treatment and the sober house where he lived for a while.

He stressed that working with non-alcoholic versions of beer and wine is “not for everybody,” especially those early in their recovery from addiction. But working at the cafe has been a positive outlet for some, James said, recalling one employee in recovery who told him how much they looked forward to coming to work every day because it was “healthy and fun” for them.

The cafe has also provided back-of-house job opportunities to a couple unhoused people in the area, James said.

“It’s important to me to take care of your block,” he said. “If there was a motivation and an intent to do things for your own block, then we’d have even better neighborhoods.”

James’ work at the cafe was recently commended by Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Outer Richmond. At the Nov. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting, Chan presented James with a certificate of honor as the board honored someone in each supervisor district for American Indian Heritage Month.

“His spirit is just very inspiring,” Chan said of James during the meeting. “He is a really gentle, gentle soul.”

Appearing by video at the meeting, James glowingly told the supervisors about the origins of his business and the positive impact he’s trying to make in his community.

“It’s definitely much more than a cafe,” he said.

J.D. Morris (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris

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