Emily Kate on Facing Addiction and Opening an Alcohol-Free Bar One Step At a Time

By Nicole Mitchell
Photos by Whitney Young

When Emily Kate started bartending at 21, it didn’t take long for her to start dreaming of opening her own bar one day. Years later, she’s journeyed to sobriety, but that didn’t squash her dreams to open a bar—instead, those dreams morphed into a concept that matched an alcohol-free lifestyle.

Thousands of people participate in annual Dry Januarys, lent, sober springs, and the occasional “cleanse” from alcohol, but for many, sobriety is more than a month without bar trips and post-work happy hours. It’s no secret that the service industry and alcoholism are closely intertwined.

According to Alcohol Rehab Guide, an informational online guide that provides properly researched resources for anyone battling addiction, the service industry has some of the highest rates of alcohol abuse and addiction of any profession. This includes workers in the hospitality and tourism industry, automotive services, retail workers, and those who work in food services—including servers, hosts, cooks, bartenders, etc.

Kate mixing a non-alcoholic cocktail at her temperate bar Nostalgia Room. // Photo by Whitney Young

“Because of the high stress involved in many of these careers and the amount of time spent catering to the needs of customers, some drink to ease their anxiousness,” states the Alcohol Rehab Guide. “A special problem for many service industry professionals is easy and constant access to alcohol, especially restaurant, bar, and hotel workers.” And don’t forget the acceptance and/or encouragement of alcohol use in these industries.

Kate, started in the food service industry by waiting tables at 17. After realizing her relationship with alcohol had gotten out of hand, she began the path to sobriety in 2020—it hasn’t been an easy path, but Kate is proud of where she has come in the past three years.

When the opportunity came to open a bar, Kate created the concept for Nostalgia Room, a temperate bar in Lawrence, Kansas, where the drinks and cocktails on the menu don’t include any alcohol. Even so, the dry bar offers an incredibly social experience. “I’m trying to show and encourage that we don’t necessarily need alcohol in order to socialize and spent time with people,” Kate says.

Writer Nicole Mitchell enjoying a non-alcoholic drink at Nostalgia Room. // Photo by Whitney Young

Kate’s vision is built into the layout of the bar, where you’ll find chairs facing each other across the room. While you may go with a friend, it’s possible you’ll leave feeling like you truly know everyone else that was there that night.

Like many new ventures, Nostalgia Room had many varieties before it was opened—including a version that included alcohol. “There came a point when I got honest with myself about like ‘You’re gonna be in here by yourself. Do you want bottles of alcohol here?’” she asked. “‘The answer is no.’” After Kate worked through this, it became apparent she could offer a space for people like herself.

Working through this helped Kate learn more about herself. “You are constantly making choices because that’s what sobriety is, what addiction means,” she explains. “Addiction is a disease, but it also is about the choices you make.”

Kate’s relationship with alcohol, sobriety, and bars has changed over the years, but as with any addiction, there are highs and lows. “I remember the same bar stool that I became an alcoholic at,” Kate says. “I still go and sit in that bar stool, but now I sit there and I don’t drink in it. I am really intentional again about how I spend my time there and that’s not safe for everybody.”

Kate mixing a drink. // Photos by Whitney Young

While the service industry factored into Kate’s own experiences with addiction, she still recognizes the positives that come from the industry. “The camaraderie that comes with the service industry, the community, everybody that helped me get to this point—all the helping hands—they all come from the service industry,” Kate says. “One of my very best friends and I met when I was 18 at my first restaurant job, and it’s 12 years later.” 

Even though there is no alcohol at Kate’s bar, Nostalgia Room fosters these relationships well, and the connections that she’s made (and continues to make) in the industry run strong.

The research behind opening a temperate bar in the Midwest began with Kate and her friends. “During the pandemic, I started experimenting with the idea of temperate cocktails at my house when people came over. It was interesting,” she says. “All of my friends that came over and still drink were drinking at some capacity, but it was kind of unspoken. I was watching it happen on my porch where it was like, ‘Nobody has alcohol in their glass, but everybody’s having a really good time and no one cares that there’s no alcohol.’ It was kind of the first bit of market research I was able to do.”

Nostalgia Room was created with sober people in mind, but the connection is really what makes it all worth it. “People’s demons show up, but they show up in a way where we have conversations that are really beautiful about why people are coming here, why they’re seeking this out, and in a way that feels like therapy,” Kate says. “This is the place we kind of practice our recovery.” Kate also mentions that being in Nostalgia Room may be too much for some people who are still in the early stages of their recovery, but that’s okay.

In the end, Kate hopes that Nostalgia Room offers people of all backgrounds a new and comfortable space sans alcohol. “I see people come in who are in recovery or who are allergic or have religious reasons. They ask, ‘What can I have?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you can have everything,’” she says. 

Kate compares it to going to a vegan restaurant. It’s made for vegans (or in this case—people who don’t drink alcohol), but anyone who comes in should be able to find a drink that they’ll enjoy. “That’s where I’ve really tried to like kind of meld the two worlds delicately where it’s like if you still drink, you can still come here,” she says.

After months of hard work, Kate opened Nostalgia Room in October 2022. Now, Nostalgia Room is growing again—with a new location opening at the beginning of April 2023 at 412 E. 9th St., Lawrence, Kansas. Check them out at nostalgia-room.com

Nicole Mitchell (she/they) is a writer and social media manager who graduated December 2020 with a degree in strategic communication. A few of her favorite things include cuddling with cats, listening to Bon Iver, making lattes, and running her book club (even though sometimes she forgets to read the books.)

Whitney Young (she/her) is a photographer, graphic designer, and conceptual artist who currently resides in Kansas City, MO. She is passionate about the environment, local communities, and intersectional feminism, and those values often show up in her personal work. She received her BFA in Design with an emphasis in Photo Media from the University of Kansas. When she isn’t working her day job in marketing she can be found playing video games or bouldering at the local Kansas City climbing gyms. 

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