‘We are really struggling’: Sober bar Curiosity says 900 South construction is killing business

The nonalcoholic bar in the Maven District offers signature mixed drinks, tea and specialty coffee.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raegan Plewe and Erica Bruin, co-owners of Curiosity, in 2022. The bar has struggled during monthslong construction in front of their business, and they're calling on the community to help.

The co-owners of Curiosity, a nonalcoholic bar in Salt Lake City, are calling on the community for help after sales plummeted during monthslong construction in front of their small 900 South business.

Raegan Plewe, who owns the sober bar along with Erica Bruin, said in a video posted to Instagram last week that if Curiosity didn’t get the help it needed, it might have to close.

“It has been a really beautiful journey, but because we did not start with very much [funding], it has been a struggle,” Plewe shared in the clip. “The last year we have really been in a bit of a survival mode, trying to figure out ways to keep the project going.”

In the video, Plewe announced that Curiosity, located at 145 E. 900 South, had launched a GoFundMe campaign to help keep the business operating through July and August.

“I know that that is not a longterm solution by any means,” she said, “but that will really help to create a cushion for me so that I can have the space and time to restructure the business in a more sustainable way.”

As of Friday afternoon, the campaign had raised about $10,700 of its $30,000 goal. Plewe, who said she doesn’t typically use social media, said the reception for her plea has been “really wild.”

“It has been so beautiful and really a transformative experience for me to get to experience so many people coming in with their support, and letting me know how the business that we’ve created is impacting them and why they want it to stay,” she continued.

A ‘difficult’ year

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Curiosity, a sober bar in Salt Lake City, has dealt with construction near its 900 South doorstep for months.

The past year has been “difficult” for the bar, which opened in May 2022, Plewe said. And she’s heard similar things from other business owners on their block, which is part of the Maven District.

Construction near Curiosity started around October, and things got especially bad when workers started ripping up the street, she said. Their sales were practically cut in half, and people have had a hard time even finding the bar.

“We still do get regulars coming in,” she said. “But a lot of them have expressed frustration [of] not being able to get there.”

Businesses across town in Sugar House on Highland Drive have been struggling because of construction as well.

There, the owners of Black Cat Comics and Bruges Waffles & Frites have said the city isn’t doing enough to mitigate their losses, though the city does offer a $3,000 Small Business Construction Mitigation Grant to businesses affected by construction.

Plewe said Curiosity already received one of those $3,000 grants this summer, but it covers “a very small portion” of their losses, she said.

“It’s definitely helpful,” she added. “And I don’t want to sound like I don’t appreciate it. But it just feels like there has been kind of like a lack of resources.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction along 900 South in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

Construction in front of the business was thankfully wrapping up this week, Plewe told The Salt Lake Tribune; on Thursday, Salt Lake City announced that construction on the 900 South roadway between 900 West and 200 East was complete.

“Construction was hard for businesses, and we hope people will take the time to come back and support their local businesses now that the improvements are complete,” Councilmember Darin Mano said in a statement.

But construction to the east of their storefront, from 200 East to 500 East, will continue through the rest of the year, the city announced, as crews work to finish the 3-mile “9-Line Trail” to connect 9th and 9th and Liberty Park through Central 9th to Poplar Grove and Jordan Park.

And Curiosity still has to recuperate after months of poor sales. At one point earlier this month, the bar also had to shut down for a day because of a construction-related water shut-off, according to a previous post on the bar’s Instagram Stories.

The grant program is fully funded as of July 1 after previously running out of money earlier this summer, said Will Wright, with Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development. New applications are currently being accepted.

“The $3,000 grants are intended to be helpful for enhanced marketing, getting word out, even signage or mapping for customers — just to do whatever we can to help drive customers to businesses during the construction process,” Wright said. “There’s no reporting; the business owners are able to allocate those funds where they see fit, where they feel best serves the business.”

The city offers the grants to businesses that are either located on a street that’s under construction or within a half-block of a construction site. Businesses wanting to apply should go to SLC.gov/ed/constructiongrant/ to start the process.

“We’re hoping that all the businesses take advantage of this opportunity,” Wright added.

‘The magic of a social setting’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large table inside sober bar Curiosity, where patrons can gather.

In opening Curiosity, Plewe created a space that she “really wanted to exist in Salt Lake.”

She said in most social settings, “it just kind of felt like no matter what, everything just ended up revolving around drinking.”

Curiosity has allowed patrons to explore what it’s like to have a bar that offers “all the magic of a social setting,” Plewe said, along with “fancy, beautiful-tasting things” at night, without alcohol. The business is open to people 18 or older.

One comment from a GoFundMe donor this week read, “Utah NEEDS this for so many people in Recovery that need sober connection.”

Proceeds from the GoFundMe will help get their bottle shop back up and running, Plewe said. Curiosity stocks nonalcoholic wine, beer and spirits that people can consume at the bar or take home, and lately, they haven’t had the capital to restock.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Curiosity typically stocks nonalcoholic wine, beer and spirits that people can consume there or take home, but lately, they haven’t had the capital to restock.

Until then, Plewe, Bruin and their three employees are focusing on making drinks and food in-house. Their full menu is available, and includes specialty coffee, tea and matcha as well as signature mixed drinks, which “we put a lot of love and attention into,” Plewe said.

There’s also herbal elixirs, which have “active herbal ingredients that are made to boost your mood in some way,” Plewe said. “So they could be calming; they could be slightly uplifting. We have hemp-based spirits — a lot of fun ingredients that I think a lot of people haven’t tried before.”

The herbal elixirs can be consumed on their own or in a mixed drink. Curiosity also offers charcuterie boards, so people can have something to nibble on while they sip.

In addition to the video, Curiosity posted on Instagram five ways people can support their business:

• “Become a regular: Visit our shop, try our products, come talk to us and learn who we are!”

• “Share your favorite spots with your community!: Bring your friends and family, share your experience on social media, talk about how important it is to support local!”

• “Be in the conversation with us: Help us brainstorm and contribute your set of skills to the community!”

• “Remember to be understanding: Most small businesses don’t have the same amount of resources as big corporations. Sometimes we sell out or can’t get ahold of the products we utilize easily. We are learning and won’t always be perfect!”

• “Be kind!: Don’t forget that behind every business there are humans that appreciate love and support. We are working hard to keep our doors open!”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A person walks amid road construction along 900 South in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.