Kyle Kuehn found inspiration one night while watching the Mark Wahlberg movie “The Fighter.”
“At this time in my life, I was really struggling with alcohol addiction,” Kuehn says. “I was like, ‘Wow, a late-night boxing gym — that would help me get in shape, that would help me put down the bottle, and it would really help me build community.’ “
After polling his friends, he realized he might not find enough people who were interested in after-hours boxing.
“What I was really hitting on was there is a need for community late-night, away from substances,” says the 28-year-old.
Kuehn’s vision for an alcohol-free, late-night business is now in the process of becoming a reality. His forthcoming sober bar, Lights Out, is slated for a fall 2016 opening, with several fundraising events beginning this October. He plans to operate out of The Rabbit & the Dragonfly in downtown Lancaster.
A sober bar, also called a dry bar, is an establishment free from alcohol with the mission of giving people who don’t drink — for whatever reason — a place to socialize and have fun. The movement began in Europe, and in recent years, several sober bars have popped up throughout the country.
The 521 Club, at 2400 Butter Road in Manheim Township, provides a meeting space for those in recovery. The club hosts frequent sober events like dance parties and bingo.
For his establishment, Kuehn fully dedicated himself to the idea last January.
“One night at the bar, one of my friends said to me, ‘If you’re trying to create a place that promotes sobriety but you’re out here getting drunk with us, doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?’ “ Kuehn says.
His friend’s comment inspired him to give up caffeine, alcohol and nicotine for 30 days, beginning Jan. 21, 2015. While he’s since let coffee back into his life, he hasn’t had alcohol or a cigarette since.
His journey to sobriety hasn’t been easy — it’s sometimes lonely, especially when his friends still frequent traditional bars.
“The biggest problem for people in recovery is, you go home and you stare at your ceiling from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. because the only things open are things that you struggle with. … You’re segregated because of your addiction,” Kuehn says.
Potential triggers aside, Kuehn says he now just feels out of place at a bar. He’s able to stay sober by sipping on soda water with lemon; he says this looks like an alcoholic beverage, so he can avoid questions about why he isn’t drinking. But eventually, Kuehn says, he slips into the role of baby sitter to the intoxicated.
The need for a place like Lights Out was clear, he says.
“This is a place where you can come and know you’re safe, and not everyone there is in recovery,” says Kuehn, who wants the establishment to be open to anyone.
Kuehn, who moved to Lancaster at age 18 after living in California, Utah and Washington state, has worked in the bar and restaurant business for a decade. He says the staff at his current employer, Annie Bailey’s, has been supportive of his efforts.
“Working at Annie Bailey’s has been a huge blessing,” says Kuehn, who works as a server. “The Funk brothers — Josh Funk, specifically — has been like coaching me on business things, giving me advice, helping me along.”
Interested in trying out a “mocktail” at home?
When Kuehn first saw The Rabbit & the Dragonfly, he says he was overcome with emotion.
“I walked in and instantly I wanted to scream and cry,” Kuehn says. “I was like, ‘This place is perfect. It should be Lights Out.’ “
The positive feelings became mutual when Jason Zimmerman, president of The Rabbit & the Dragonfly, heard Kuehn’s idea for a sober bar.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, that lines up so well with what’s going on here already,” Zimmerman says.
The space that The Rabbit & the Dragonfly operates out of is leased by Living Faith Church of God. Zimmerman says that the church was looking for ways to occupy the space even more, especially late at night when The Rabbit & the Dragonfly closes.
Kuehn’s sober bar fits into the mission perfectly, Zimmerman says.
The fundraising events that will begin in October will be held at The Rabbit & the Dragonfly, 51 N. Market St.
Although The Rabbit & the Dragonfly is currently BYOB, Zimmerman says he’ll likely end that feature when Lights Out begins operation.
Zimmerman describes Kuehn as “full of energy” and “driven.” He says he looks forward to them working together, even with so many technicalities to be worked out due to sharing the space, like scheduling.
“It’s going to be challenging, but it’s a challenge worth taking on, for sure,” Zimmerman says.
The Other Side, located in Crystal Lake, Illinois, was one of the first sober bars to appear in America. It’s a registered nonprofit organization that operates on admission charges, donations and volunteer support. Its founder, Chris Reed, struggled with heroin addiction before getting clean and realizing the need for a place like The Other Side.
“As a society, no matter where you’re at in the country, there’s a heavy focus put on drinking and drugs in order to have a good time or socialize. ... A certain percentage of those people are going to have an issue with that,” Reed says. “It’s going to cause problems in their life and bring them to a position when they need to get sober.”
In 2013, 16.6 million adults ages 18 and over in the U.S. had an alcohol-use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“When you stop drinking, there’s nowhere to go,” Reed says.
Nic Sims operates Brillig Dry Bar as a pop-up shop out of her husband’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, café. She expected 50 people on opening night, so she was surprised when 350 showed.
“We knew we hit a nerve at that point,” says Sims, who serves inventive nonalcoholic drinks like pomegranate-rosemary soda and Brooklyn egg creams.
As sober bars rise in popularity, their clientele becomes more diverse.
Brillig’s proximity to the University of Michigan attracts more college students than Sims expected.
“I have five or six gorgeous young women come in, dressed up, coming out of the bar because they don’t want to be hassled,” Sims says.
Brillig also attracts many Muslim patrons, who Sims says drive over an hour to come to her shop. Some Muslims choose to abstain from alcohol for religious reasons.
Kuehn encourages anyone to visit Lights Out when it opens, potentially even traditional bar patrons who need a safe place to sober up before driving home.
He also says part of his mission will be giving people under 21 a safe place to hang out.
“What I want to teach the community and teach kids and teach young adults is society has told us that to have fun at night, we need that drink,” Kuehn says. “It’s not true. We can still have fun, and we don’t have to go to bed early. We can still party without that stuff.”