How a personal journey led Emily Schrader to conjure a new concept for those in recovery. Bar Zero, a restaurant in the making, will be free of alcohol and a place where all will be welcome
by Melanie Taussig
In life there are those “aha moments”, where we conceive of an idea that we think has the potential to change the world. For Emily Schrader of Denver her “aha moment” gave way to a unique idea: to create an upscale restaurant providing everything one would associate with fine dining; quality food, excellent service, and an appealing atmosphere. If you think there is something missing from that list, you are not mistaken. Ms. Schrader’s restaurant will not have a wine or beer list. There won’t even be an option for BYOB. This is because the concept that Ms. Schrader envisioned is a place that will be completely dry. It is fittingly called Bar Zero, the name referencing that this will be a place absent of alcohol, hence the zero.
Bar Zero certainly won’t be the first restaurant to not serve alcohol but its status as a nonprofit, fine dining establishment devoid of alcohol most definitely makes it unique in the industry. Bar Zero is to be a sober bar, one of the first of its kind. At current, it is not yet operational. Ms. Schrader is searching for a physical space near Five Points, a trendy, newly transformed neighborhood not far from downtown Denver. She is hosting fundraisers, submitting grant applications, and seeking investors, all in an effort to secure capital for the restaurant space.
Ms. Schrader plans to open her doors to the sober community, creating an inclusive space that is safe and social. With the focus on food, service, and a premiere dining experience, she hopes the restaurant will draw a broad customer base, not only those who are in recovery. “We want to invite everybody in,” says Ms. Schrader. Connection and community will be the ethos of Bar Zero.
To understand the foresight behind Bar Zero, one must understand the path Ms. Schrader has travelled to get here. As she recounts her story of the past twenty years, Ms. Schrader is poised, confident, and articulate, her goals ahead distinctively clear. There was, however, a time when Ms. Schrader did not have the self-assurance or ambition that she possesses today.
In 1995, shortly after having moved to Colorado, Ms. Schrader started working at local restaurants. It was an environment that she was familiar with, having worked at restaurants to pay the bills during her university days in Pennsylvania. As Ms. Schrader embarked on her career, so too did she begin to experience many of the ordeals that pervade the restaurant industry including excessive drinking, drug-use, and widespread mental health problems. It wasn’t long before she was drinking heavily and using drugs on a regular basis.
Like many employees in the restaurant business, Ms. Schrader adapted to the culture around her, partying hard most nights after finishing her waitressing shift. It was during this time that she decided to return to school, enrolling in a graduate counseling program at the University of Colorado in Denver. Despite spending most nights surrounded by alcohol and drugs, she persisted at school, earning a Masters Degree in 2003. Following graduation, she contemplated a career in counseling but the fast-paced lifestyle she had been leading in the restaurant industry had an allure that counseling could not rival; not to mention that she made more money waiting tables than she ever could expect to make as a therapist. Ms. Schrader continued to work at restaurants for several years after completing her graduate degree calling that choice “conducive to my lifestyle at the time”. She recalls thinking that drinking excessively was “easier” than being a therapist and listening to other people’s problems, most likely because that would make it harder to ignore her own.
Surrounded by friends who were also partying around the clock, Ms. Schrader did not immediately recognize the destructive impact her drinking and drug use was creating. “I didn’t feel like I had as much of a problem because I was surrounding myself with a lot of people who were doing to same thing as I was, ” says Ms. Schrader. She speaks to the notion that being in close proximity to those who were engaging in similarly undesirable routines to her own normalized her behavior and at times, even justified it. Ms. Schrader eventually would come to recognize the pernicious influence of her substance use and that she was heading in a direction toward almost-certain calamity.
Not long after that, in June 2005, Ms. Schrader had a moment of reckoning. She packed her car and drove with her dog to the rugged coast of Northern California. She spent time in the wilds of nature and had what she describes as a “spiritual experience”. She reflected on her life, including the problem she had with substances. That revelation led to a definitive decision to quit drinking. When she returned to Colorado, Ms. Schrader entered into therapy and transitioned out of working in restaurants. Soon after, she began using her counseling degree. It was her own journey toward sobriety that served as propulsion for Ms. Schrader’s to start helping others who were also struggling.
On the day we meet in July 2019, Ms. Schrader has been sober for fourteen years. Over the years in which she got and stayed sober, she has worked as a therapist, consultant, and advocate for those who are battling addiction and mental health issues. By her own account, working with this population has brought great fulfillment to Ms. Schrader, however, she always felt a pull of sorts back to the place where she began her career: the kitchen. Pursuing her dream of opening Bar Zero culminates in the convergence of her love for working in restaurants and her empathic quest to help those in recovery.
A new chapter
Ms. Schrader is committed to making Bar Zero a place that challenges the societal norms, which permeate working in the restaurant industry. She talks about the pressures and challenges that accompany the experience of being a restaurant employee. It was the death of Anthony Bourdain from suicide in 2018 that Ms. Schrader believes was a wake-up call to an industry that has long contended with the tribulations of mental health and chemical dependency. “People were able to see a successful, world renowned chef who on the outside seemed to have such a wonderful life take his own life,” says Ms. Schrader. “The fact of the matter is that nobody is immune to mental health, substance use, or trauma.”
While she acknowledges that there are some restaurants that create a supportive space for their employees, Ms. Schrader describes the overall culture of restaurants as “unhealthy”. She vows that Bar Zero will be a space that is welcoming and inclusive. “We will have a culture where it is ok for people to say I’m not ok”, says Ms. Schrader. She is credulous that a compassionate atmosphere will amount to happy employees and that will translate to an enjoyable experience for customers.
There are infinite aspirations Ms. Schrader has for Bar Zero. She hopes it will be a springboard for its staff, teaching the ropes of working in the restaurant industry while cultivating an environment that encourages collaboration and camaraderie. She is in talks to create an apprenticeship program for individuals in recovery, which would give workers the ability to focus on specialized areas and perfect skills, leading to increased employability following tenure at Bar Zero. Ms. Schrader is also exploring avenues with local jurisdictions for Bar Zero to be a place where individuals can fulfill community service requirements.
While she has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating Bar Zero as a supportive space for employees, Ms. Schrader is equally passionate about bringing her vision to customers. She plans to make the space inviting and stylish, an upscale setting that will be welcoming to everyone not only those who are in recovery. For people who fancy the fancy drinks, Bar Zero has that covered. The restaurant will be serving a variety of chic, alcohol-free concoctions. Often referred to as “mocktails”, they won’t be called that at Bar Zero. “We’re not a mockery,” says Ms. Schrader, “nor are the drinks.” Bar Zero will also offer options of non-alcoholic beer as well as Kombucha, a drink with a trace amount of alcohol that is used for health purposes.
Ms. Schrader speaks about the recent shift in culture that has led people as a whole to be more focused on mental wellness. As a result of this kind of mentality, Ms. Schrader believes that all people, even those who are not in recovery, are being more attentive to alcohol intake. Bar Zero will be a place where people who want to take a night off from drinking can come for a meal. The restaurant will also cater to those who are “sober curious”, a trend that is occurring amongst people who are not in recovery but who have made a conscious decision to abstain from alcohol, usually due to the health benefits.
In addition to the brick and mortar vision that is in the works, Bar Zero has recently started a catering division. This will be yet another way to generate revenue that will go toward securing a physical space for the restaurant. Ms. Schrader is well aware of the dismal statistics of restaurant failures but that is not a deterrent. She is fervent about the idea, ready to put forth the blood, sweat, and tears to make Bar Zero a reality. She is steadfast in her belief that a space like this is needed and speaks about the mission to drive connection amongst people who have long struggled with mental health and addiction issues. When asked why it is the right point in time for this type of innovative concept, Ms. Schrader responds, “I think people are ready.”
For more information about Bar Zero, to make a donation, or to explore volunteer opportunities, visit the website by clicking here.
Emily Schrader, founder of Bar Zero. Photo courtesy of Ms. Schrader.