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How sobriety helped one San Franciscan build community through nonalcoholic drinks

Since he was a teenager, Joshua James knew he wanted to be a bartender.

On the outside, James was a young, fun and skilled bartender. But internally, he was battling an addiction to alcohol.

"For years I tried to stop drinking," he said. "I would make it for two or three weeks at a time, but then I would end up going on benders." 

James' moment of reckoning came when his brother suggested that he check into the Friendship House, a San Francisco-based substance abuse recovery program for Native Americans.

After completing the program, James committed to his sobriety by developing a new social media persona: @joshthenonalcoholic. He posted "no booze reviews" to discuss his top picks for non-alcoholic beverages. 

Now it's been a year since James has taken a sip of alcohol, and his passion for building community through sobriety springboarded the concept for Ocean Beach Cafe, a brick-and-mortar business selling non-alcoholic drinks and food that he opened on Jan. 22 after receiving $9,000 of funding through Kiva.

Ocean Beach Cafe is located at 734 La Playa St. in the Outer Richmond. | Photo by Peter Bell

The cafe’s mission? To disrupt the alcohol industry by building the largest non-alcoholic beverage selection in the world. And there may be a need for that: According to data from BACtrack, a San Francisco-based company that produces smartphone-connected breathalyzer devices, Bay Area residents drank 45% more alcohol than usual during the pandemic. 

"There's never been a non-alcoholic beverage culture in America, but now there is, and it keeps leveling itself up,” James said.

James and his staff also craft non-alcoholic cocktails and host hour-long educational tasting events at the cafe's bar, which he calls "#SoBar," for those looking to learn more about the community of non-drinkers.

A selection of non-alcoholic “spirits” at Ocean Beach Cafe. | Photo by Peter Bell

"I want to do business differently and have hospitality at the highest level,” said James. “My favorite thing to do in the hospitality industry is just, like, literally just blow people's minds." 

James knows from first-hand experience that non-alcoholic beverage options alone aren't the key to sober success—non-drinkers are also searching for community and purpose. So when he's not behind the bar, James' focus is organizing Ocean Beach clean-ups twice a month with volunteers. “I don't want to just clean Ocean Beach, but I want to actually keep it clean," he said.

He's also invested in becoming an anchor business by offering his space for community meetings. As a surfer himself, James regularly hosts meet-ups and surfboard swaps at the cafe's 40-foot parklet. He also hires locally—mainly others who are looking to embrace their sobriety.

The cafe by the beach dishes up burritos, salads, sandwiches and non-alcoholic drinks of all kinds. | Photo by Peter Bell

"I felt vulnerable coming into this establishment [with] where I'm at in my journey," said Natasha Koscak, an employee at Ocean Beach Cafe.

"I was like—I want to be able to go to a bar and feel comfortable being around my friends, but how do I go about doing this?” she said. "I believe in what Josh is building and that this is really going to change the culture of drinking." 

James said the community he's creating is safe and inclusive.

"You're not being ostracized for getting a non-alcoholic beverage,” he said. “You can come here, try and enjoy all of these beverages, and still be able to walk away or drive home,” he added.

“It's the coolest thing ever that we can do right now."

Ocean Beach Cafe is located at 734 La Playa St. in the Outer Richmond. To attend a tasting at #SoBar, volunteer for an Ocean Beach clean-up or get more information on a surfboard swap, visit their website

Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at