The coffeehouse concept as we know it may be evolving, and an Oak Park business may be at the forefront of the evolution. At least in Metro Detroit.
Berkley Coffee and Oak Park Dry opened in 2021 on West Eleven Mile Road as part coffeehouse, part dry bar. The two business legs aren’t on equal footing in terms of money generation quite yet, but owner Kenny Showler knew that’s how things would shake out in the early going.
“The reason we packaged all this together is because opening a standalone non-alcoholic bar would not be easy. It’s too foreign to people,” Showler said, while sipping a Casamara Club sparkling amaro soda, a Detroit N/A brand carried in the retail refrigerators at Oak Park Dry. “That’s probably why you don’t see a lot of brick and mortars yet.”
Showler paired the beverage concepts together because he thinks they complement one another. Long before Berkley Coffee, Showler traveled for work. As he traveled, he collected ideas for a future business. He couldn’t help but notice the way the sober curious movement was elbowing its way into big-city nightlife.
As is often the case with non-alcoholic forward business owners, Showler himself grew a little tired of his own relationship with alcohol, so the sober curious movement struck a chord with him personally.
“I was drinking probably more than I should have been because I was going to all the major cities, traveling, and on a peridium,” he said. “It was just a recipe for problems. Those happen to be the same cities where a lot of these movements are picking up. New York, London, Washington D.C. Some of the biggest products are coming out of the (United Kingdom). I lived in Dubai for two years where some of the earliest non-alcoholic vodkas and rums came from.”
So far, the two concepts have indeed complemented each other well in the Oak Park area. Berkley Coffee and Oak Park Dry is home to live music on a near nightly basis. Since not everyone wants to roll the dice and figure out what caffeine at 8 p.m. will do to their sleep schedule, guests can opt for an N/A mixed drink. Maybe an amaretto sour or a “Shirley Temple Black,” which is a classic Shirley Temple made with chaga concentrate.
“A coffee shop is something that we knew people would come for, and then they might see what else we’re doing and get into it, rather than just making it a destination for the one thing,” he said. “We also know people are going to come for music if we have good enough music. So, whether it’s something from the bar or something from our retail fridge, we think they’ll inevitably explore some of that. If not the first visit, the next visit.”
Harkening back to Oak Park’s roots
Oak Park Dry’s location was no accident. Showler, who lives in nearby Berkley, knows that Oak Park was a dry suburb until recently. Prior to 2013, bars and alcohol service in general were prohibited in Oak Park dating back to the 1950s. While the city is slowly becoming more alcohol-friendly, Showler figured a booze-free business in a community that did without it for so long would make for a good marriage.
“I think there’s probably multiple reasons why people, for however many years, liked that they were living in a dry city,” he said. “They may not like when they hear that a bar moves in on the corner. Especially in a community with a lot of Orthodox Jewish folks. I think that’s why it was dry for so long, it’s such a religious town.
“When we have open mics or concerts, we get a ton of Orthodox Jewish folks hanging out. They bring their friends and we’ve heard them say things like, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’” Showler said. “’There’s no place for us to hangout. We can’t go to the bar.’ So, they love it.”
As Oak Park dry continues to get its feet under it, it would like to do more tasting events in the future and just showcase the dry bar facet of the business more in general. Showler’s hopes align with the hopes of other entrepreneurs at the forefront of Metro Detroit’s sober curious movement – he wants to normalize not drinking in settings that are historically linked to drinking. He thinks the Dry January trend has helped that cause in a major way.
“People should be able to get what they want wherever they’re at,” Showler said. “That way you don’t have to go to some place that’s trying to make a statement by being strictly non-alcoholic in order to have a nice non-alcoholic drink. And that is happening, Dry January has been a huge push the last two years. A lot of products got out in the market and got with the main distributors.(Non-alcoholic spirit) Seedlip got picked up by Diageo, one of the biggest whiskey distributors in the world. Seedlip ended up in some products during Dry January and they stuck. So, those kind of pushes will help normalize good non-alcoholic drinks in the long-term.”
Even more-so than normalizing alcohol-free nightlife options, Showler said he hopes the sober curious push becomes so ingrained in our culture that it’s tolerated by the drinking crowd and vice versa. He’d like to see a day where restaurants, bars and venues sell alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to customers under one judgment-free roof.
“There’s not a lot of gray area, it seems,” Showler said. “There needs to be a little more balance in society. So we don’t all feel pressured to go one way or the other.”
Read more from the AHM sober curious series:
Photo credit: Kenny Showler/Berkley Coffee & Oak Park Dry