Metropolitan Bar + Kitchen Owner Proves You Don't Have to Drink to Run a Successful Bar
| 7 min read
Detroit is home to well over 300 bars, very few of which are run by owners who abstain from drinking alcohol themselves. Metropolitan Bar + Kitchen in downtown Detroit is one of the few.
Ashley Price’s unique position as a sober bar owner just sort of happened as life happened. But even before his last drink seven years ago, the longtime food and beverage retail employee was a beverage connoisseur. And not just an alcoholic beverage connoisseur; he was intrigued by all kinds of unique drinks, as long as they were high quality, of course. Price has always wanted to give local and regional beverage producers more exposure while at the same time giving consumers more options. The beginning of the craft beer craze — which started to bubble when Price worked as a grocer at Holiday Market in Royal Oak — marked a pivotal time in his career.
“They had a pretty good, pronounced beer program set and then I just essentially took over and expanded upon that,” said Price, who spent 13 years at Holiday Market. “That allowed us (to meet) new Michigan brewers, and we really took off in the state in that next five-year span. Networking, meeting new people, trying to promote them as much as possible and curating a cool selection in Royal Oak really led to it being much more of a volume-driven and well-known place for buying craft beer. I continued that path until I realized I wanted to do something on my own.”
Price decided to stop drinking in the last few years of his Holiday Market run. There was no pointed origin moment or dramatic story behind his sobriety – he was just tired of allowing alcohol to be a distraction.
“It was a necessary life change,” Price said. “I realized I wasn’t going in the direction that I wanted and I didn’t like the way I felt. Just wanting to not be in the spot that I had always been in. I made a decision right before that time to change everything I was doing, and it led me on a different path. That’s how I was able to do what I’m doing now and maintain the work I’m doing now.”
It's nearly impossible to avoid handling alcohol, being around alcohol and being around people who drink alcohol when you own and operate a bar. These can be complex situations to put yourself in as a bar owner, and Price recognized that from the jump. It was a strange dynamic early on, Price said, to have his personal choices contradict his professional day-to-days. But he thought he could make it work, and he was right.
“Being able to continue working in the industry was always important to me, and I wanted to do be able to do that competently without having to drink,” Price said. “And it became a lot easier than I thought it would be, just because of the relationships that I built and what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years.”
“Pop and water are not good alternatives:” How Metropolitan became another N/A haven for Detroiters
Price opened Metropolitan Bar + Kitchen and the Metropolitan Variety Store in the same building space in 2021, close to five years after he stopped drinking. The variety store is a retail store that sells fresh baked goods, food, candy and of course, a whole lot of different drinks. By the point Price opened his stores in Detroit’s up-and-coming West Village, he had gotten comfortable sourcing and handling alcohol while sober.
“When you become sober that first month up to a year it can be difficult no matter what,” Price said. “When you have the product around you all the time it becomes a little more difficult, too, but for the most part I was always ingrained in it. It was never odd to me. The fact that I didn’t drink didn’t become an issue. If I said I didn’t want a taste, or I didn’t want to go out, it never became an issue. I never really had any negative feedback or comments or problems for anyone.”
He was trending this way anyhow, but Price’s interest in non-alcoholic beverages really piqued when he stopped drinking. When he tried Athletic Brewery’s line of non-alcoholic beers for the first time, not only did he love it personally, but a lightbulb went off in his head that indicated a potential trend for consumers. In his opinion, top-tier N/A beer products replicate regular beer better than most N/A spirit and wine producers mock their respective products.
“I had them ship me a case and I was blown away by the product quality versus the other things that I had had,” Price said. “Their products really stood up and above most everything I had tried. I figured this was something we had to dig into … I was ordering direct from them for Holiday, getting 10, 20 cases at a time and seeing it fly out the door, and realizing there was something there.”
At Metropolitan, the variety store’s shelves and coolers are stocked full of a variety of beverage options. From alcohol to N/A and hop waters to hard-to-find sodas. His side-by-side store concept was always going to feature a wide range of beverages; it just so happened that his sobriety journey made him a little more invested in showcasing a robust selection of N/A products. He carried that over to the bar side of things, in his bar and restaurant next door.
“What we’ve done is we create a basic alcohol cocktail list and then on the back of our menu we have N/A versions essentially of each of those cocktails, except maybe one, that’s available,” said Price, who also experimented with “Dry Wednesdays” for a time this year. “We’ve also added a bunch of different drinks that add to our beverage selection. So, Liquid Death has a bunch of different options, and sparkling waters and teas that are new. I also have hop water available – Lagunitas specifically, because they have three options. Those are always on my menu. And then Jarritos, which is a Mexican soda. Just to have a different vibe versus, you walk up to the bar and ask, ‘what N/A options do you have?’ and they have one thing. Pop and water are not good alternatives.”
“Go try them:” Price encourages drinkers, nondrinkers to give Detroit’s sober curious startups a try
Price said he doesn’t see the market for N/A products dying down anytime soon. He’s noticed a slight dip in sales compared to the early quarters of 2023, but also knows Dry January is around the corner.
“We’ve got enough people who want to be healthy and functional, who will look for ways to live daily life without having to be consumed by alcohol, or, even just to mediate some of their drinking, they want to try different things,” he said. “We have plenty of people come in here and say, ‘oh I’m stopping for a couple of weeks, I want to try some different things,’ and then they’ll go back to it.”
He added that the normalization of N/A options and alcohol-free businesses and events can only serve as a welcome sight for those who may want to quit drinking or cut back, but can’t fathom doing it socially, especially given how huge of a societal force alcohol currently is.
“I think the N/A trend is one that is not going to stop,” he said. “People will constantly evaluate their own mental and physical health and figure out what they can and can’t do to stay feel better.”
Price thinks it’s great to see new dry bars and N/A startups sprouting up across Metro Detroit. He hopes those businesses are supported early on when it can be tough for any new company to find their footing. He also thinks everyone should give them a whirl, at least once. It might help to break down a very real stigma that looms between drinkers and nondrinkers.
“Experience them once, to see what the culture is all about,” Price said. “Because I feel like there’s still some apprehension from drinkers about what they think nondrinkers are like and what those spaces are like. But like, Oak Park Dry and some other places that are having fun and doing comedy nights and non-alcoholic events. There are plenty of them available, and then all the stuff Absence of Proof are doing. I feel like everyone should just go check them out. It’s a really cool thing to just go experience. It’s not even about drinking or not. Just go see what’s going on.”
Metropolitan’s stores are located at 8047 Agnes St. in Detroit.
Photo credit: Ashley Price
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