Small Businesses

Bartender’s Ocean Beach Cafe Takes the Potent Out of Potent Potables

By Becky Lee

Ocean Beach Cafe is a new restaurant on La Playa Street between Balboa and Cabrillo, led by former bartender Joshua James. After 20 years in the restaurant industry, he has finally opened his own place. But this time around, none of the drinks have alcohol. 

The restaurant’s decor feels like a mix between a cafe and a friend’s living room, with a deli counter on one side and a dining room table framed by eclectic art on the other. Glass bottles of all shapes and sizes sit on the countertop, nestled between succulents and pineapples, the Hawaiian symbol of hospitality.

Joshua James stands in front of his new business, Ocean Beach Cafe. The experienced bartender has turned his attention to serving non-alcoholic beverages to his customers. Photo by Becky Lee.

Last year, James made a decision that would change his life. After years of creating craft cocktails, brewing beer, and managing wine bars, he decided to go a full year without drinking. 

“I remember that moment when I was like, a whole year, that’s a long time!” he said. “Let’s do it anyway.” 

His journey started at Friendship House, a rehabilitation program run for and by American Indians in San Francisco. There, he reconnected with his roots and became passionate about destigmatizing addiction recovery and normalizing sobriety. 

He said he “got a new brain.” 

After a few months of sobriety, James felt like he was waking up from a deep sleep. He had all kinds of ideas, from starting a nonprofit to launching a fashion company. He had always been an ideas guy, but his hangovers kept him from acting on them. 

“When I took alcohol out of my life, all of my potential was finally being realized,” he said. 

That is when “Josh The Non-Alcoholic” was born. He had never edited videos before and didn’t know how to set up a YouTube channel or an Instagram account. Undeterred, he told himself he would produce and publish 50 videos. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” James said. “I don’t know if I’m going to make any money off of this, I’m just going to do it.” 

A few months and 30 videos later, James had made a name for himself as a reviewer of non-alcoholic beverages. One day, he walked into Kawika’s Ocean Beach Deli on La Playa Street and met David Kawika, the owner. Kawika is originally from Hawaii – where James had lived for more than a decade. 

Kawika had been yearning to go back to the islands after seven years on the mainland. The conversation led to an opportunity for James to take over the space. He raised $9,000 on Kiva, a crowdfunding platform, and created a business plan for a restaurant with a non-alcoholic beverage program. 

After being turned down by multiple lenders, an individual investor heard about what James was trying to do and provided enough capital to cover the lease and equipment. 

“I got the keys, walked into the place, and was like, ‘this is all mine,’” James said.

In the beginning, he planned to get a beer and wine license in addition to serving non-alcoholic beverages. In the United States, the term “non-alcoholic” applies to beverages with 0.5% alcohol by volume or less. The cafe opened in late January and nearly sold out.

“People are curious,” James said. “They want to know what it tastes like.” 

He decided to double-down on non-alcoholic beverages as part of his brand, though he believes in creating a welcoming space for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. 

The popularity of non-alcoholic beverages has been on the rise. Many consumers have moved toward healthier drinks with fewer calories. According to a 2018 survey from the Center for Disease Control, only 5% of people in the U.S. engaged in heavy drinking in the previous year (defined as  fewer than 14 drinks per week for men, or fewer than seven drinks per week for women). This year’s Super Bowl even featured a Budweiser commercial for Bud Zero, a nonalcoholic beer. 

Still, alcohol consumption is pervasive. Alcohol is marketed as a way to loosen up and have a good time. Drinking is ritualized as a way to close the workday and socialize with friends and family. 

“When someone says they’re sober or not drinking, other people assume it’s because they have a problem, which is so sad,” James said. The real reasons people abstain from alcohol vary widely, from being pregnant or having allergies, to prioritizing athletic activities or simply not enjoying the taste. 

James has a hunch that COVID-19 has actually accelerated the growth of the non-alcoholic beverage market. 

“It was actually kind of like a rehab,” James said. “COVID took people out of their patterns, and now they’re rethinking alcohol.” 

So, what will it take to bring non-alcoholic beverages further into the mainstream? James believes the first step is creating the right setting. 

James hired Josh Alvarez, who also comes from a background in hospitality. Together, they love making great non-alcoholic cocktails that are unpretentious and come with “a conversation, a little education and good vibes.”

The pair often make batches of cocktails large enough for groups to sample together. They enjoy sharing the story behind the brands they carry and creating an interactive experience for their guests. 

Ocean Beach Cafe has all of the energy of a neighborhood bar, without any of the alcohol. And with one of the largest selections of non-alcoholic beverages in the country, drinkers might not even miss it. 

You can follow Josh and Ocean Beach Cafe on Instagram at @joshthenonalcoholic and @ocean.beach.cafe and on Facebook at Ocean Beach Cafe SF. He also has a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/JoshTheNonAlcoholic.

Non-alcoholic drinks are the stars at the new Ocean Beach Cafe. Owner Josh James recently took over Kawika‘s Ocean Beach Deli and has enjoyed early success with his new concept. Photo by Becky Lee.

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