Club Soda: 'It was still the crap coke and lemonade'

Club Soda: 'It was still the crap coke and lemonade'

Consumers drinking habits are changing. 

One organisation that is keen to support this change is Club Soda, which was set up by Laura Willoughby in January 2015. Its goal is to create a world where no-one feels out of place if they are not drinking alcohol. It is not to promote abstinence but to help both consumers and the trade. 

“There is a lot of stigma around changing your drinking as it sounds like you are either pregnant or you have a problem. Whereas actually most people are wanting to change their drinking because they know it is stopping them getting to the gym, or adding to their weight, and for a lot of people it is also affecting anxiety and stress issues,” says Willoughby.

“All perfectly good reasons to want to change your drinking habits. For a lot of people it isn’t about giving up totally but it is about how they begin to control it.”

Willoughby, a former local authority councillor, set up Club Soda after deciding to give up drinking seven years ago. It became quickly apparent to her that there was little help and options for people that wanted to cut down on drinking alcohol.

“I realised what was missing was something like Weight Watchers but with booze, which helps you do a self-guided journey,” she says.  

“It didn’t have all that stigma attached to the word alcoholic. Everything we know about giving up drinking has been shaped by Alcoholics Anonymous in the past 70 years and actually time has moved on and science has moved on.”

Fast-forward four years and the organisation now has over 35,000 members. And there has been some changes in the out-of-home landscape as well.

“When we launched there really wasn’t anything out there. It was still the crap coke and lemonade,” she says.

“And if you think about it that is quite dangerous for the sector. If there is a growing movement of people choosing not to drink and our only association with the pub is about drinking alcohol, then people are going to absent themselves from the pub. That is a big issue for the future of our social spaces.”

But the industry is moving forward with the launches of alcohol-free beers, spirits, aperitifs and wines.  And this is happening at a national level with operators such as Greene King pubs stocking soft drinks such as Kombucha and non-alcoholic beers now going into pubs on draught.

As well as supporting consumers, the organisation is now working with pub chains and individual premises to highlight when they are not offering enough non-alcoholic or no and low alcohol options. Willoughby says one issue that needs to be addressed is that staff need to stop going to that default lemonade or coke hose.

“What they need to hear is something different. They need to say 'What have I got instead that I can sell to them that not only might make their experience better but may mean they can come back and have a second drink?'” she says.

“Of course that shoving of a hose in a glass and pushing it at you over the bar like you are twelve and are about to go and wait in the car for your dad is not the same experience."

She is urging venues to take the same amount of time thinking about the alcohol-free offer as they do with other options such as the alcohol and food menus.

“If you are going to spend as much time putting vegan food on the menu it is just another dietary preference so don’t sell your customers short,” she warns.

But it is not just pubs that Club Soda is targeting, it is also broadening out in the wider hospitality sector.

“Lots of people say to me we could really do with an alcohol-free bar in Grimsby. I say ‘no’ because an alcohol-free bar basically says ‘this is for people who don’t drink and only people that don’t drink will want to come here’,” she says.

“What Grimsby probably needs is a coffee shop that opens late.  I am well up for cafes having a small alcohol serving so they have that continental feel. And you don’t have to have the same operator running it in the evening as you do in the day.”

One area where Club Soda is seeing much development is in the no and low category, which Willoughby describes as a new category that “doesn’t sit in the soft drinks space.” 

“Soft drinks is a well-developed category, alcohol is a well developed category but what you have is small producers in this no and low space right now,” she adds.

While Willoughby supports the move to low and no alcohol, she admits she was “unsure” about the future of the category, but brewers and drinks companies are showing a commitment, which she describes as "exciting".

“Heineken 0.0 is on draught and so is Adnams Ghostship. What is really important is they haven’t made an alcohol-free drink and called it something else, they have called it the alcohol-free version of their main product,” she says.

The social enterprise is about to run its 6th drinks festival boasting 40 alcohol-free drinks producers attending - from fast-growing brands like Big Drop Brewing CoCEDER’s and Lindeman’s Wines to new experimental drinks.

The Festival will feature Zero to 0.5% abv drinks; beers, wines, ciders, cocktails, spirits and adult soft drinks. There will also be tasting sessions and drinks tours from producers and experts, including cocktail masterclasses in partnership with La Maison Wellness.

“We did our first festival in 2017 and I was afraid no-one was going to come. It was in Bermondsey Square, which does not have a big natural footfall, but even 45 minutes before we opened the doors it was heaving. There was everyone from foodies, more pregnant women than you could shake a stick at, members and people in the local area,”  Willoughby reveals. 

While consumers flock to the festivals many members of the trade also attend. 

“Someone told me that the buyer for pubco Mitchells & Butlers, who now have Big Drop on their menu, found it at the festival and Barworks came across it as well,” says Willoughby.

“The message is don’t stop thinking once you decide on what alcohol you are putting in your bar or coffee shop.”

There is no doubt that consumers are choosing to cut down on their alcohol consumption and there need to be better options in the out-of-home market. Willoughby says the message is spreading. 

“It is filtering through. The people who own this industry are part of this wave of change as well,” she agrees.  



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