Q&A with Carolyn & Donny of Empath Sober Bar

Carolyn and Donny

We are here to redefine the “go-to” way of how we socialize and celebrate and to provide options for everyone. It is not about just the drinks but about the atmosphere, connection and community that we are looking to create.

Your Names: Carolyn Hilliard and Donny Donovan

Your Age: Carolyn (37) and Donny (29)

Your Pronouns: She/Her/Hers (Carolyn) and They/Them/Theirs (Donny)

How do you describe your identity? We are partners that have been together for 5 years and reside in Stanton Heights. We both are in the Pittsburgh dark indie pop band, Dinosoul and also founders of Empath Sober Bar & Social Events. We both are sober and have been on a journey of self discovery since meeting each other.

Donny – My personal identity has changed over the years. When I was younger I was considered a tomboy, but probably trans if I grew up in today’s society. I then decided I was Bi-Sexual when I was about 14 because I was afraid to be completely gay. Then at about 17, I knew that I was attracted to mostly women. In my 20s I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am. After many revelations and challenges, I realized that I’ve been hiding my masculinity. I now identify as trans and within that umbrella – gender neutral/gender queer/gender fluid. I recently got top surgery because I don’t identify as a woman. I never wanted breasts and really suffered from gender dysphoria.

Carolyn – As I grow and get to know myself, I feel like my identity is constantly changing and also why I’m not a huge fan of labeling myself because I am ever evolving. It wasn’t until I was 32 that I finally embraced my queerness when I met Donny. I was in straight relationships all my life but I always knew something was not right and that there was more to my identity. I came out as a lesbian or bisexual. Really, however people wanted to see me because I couldn’t quite label myself because they did not totally fit. As I became more open by getting to know myself on this journey of self discovery, I realized that I am open to loving and being in a relationship with anyone no matter what their gender, identity or race may be. I learned that this is what we call pansexual. I do still identify as the female gender but as I grow I do feel that this is also being challenged as I do not like to be labeled.

Empath is a company creating pop-up events and working toward a permanent space centering sobriety and socializing. Please tell us about sobriety and sobriety culture. Sobriety to us is choosing to live a lifestyle for whatever reason that does not engage in alcohol or any mind-altering substances. The sobriety culture currently consists of people who are sober or “sober curious” for many reasons. Some of the most common reasons are being in or starting recovery, living a health conscious life, honoring spiritual and/or religious obligations or just not enjoying alcohol among may others. Being that mostly all mainstream social culture revolves around needing alcohol to have fun, the sobriety culture currently has a stigma around it being labeled as “boring, not fun, or having no self control or a problem.” We started Empath to raise awareness and create something that would break this stigma and give folks a fun and safe place to explore making mindful choices when it comes to how they choose to socialize no matter what their lifestyle or story may be. We’re hoping to bridge the gap and create a community for people to support each other and feel comfortable no matter why they choose to abstain from alcohol.

Why did you chose the name Empath? We always yearned for a safe and sober space/bar during our years of being sober and talked often about wishing that there was something that would open. Carolyn read a book called “The Empath’s Survival Guide” by Judith Orloff during the beginning stages of her journey. The book really answered a lot of questions as to why she began using drugs and alcohol at a young age and why she was having such a hard time trying to remain sober in the current culture and society that we live in. Carolyn chose sobriety for spiritual and health reasons and a personal calling to try and get to know herself without using any type of substances or peer pressure. Little did she know how difficult of a journey this would be, especially with the social culture that we’re up against and also not choosing a recovery group such as AA. This made it difficult to find a community of like minded folks for support.

At the end of the book, there was a suggestion to start a support group for folks who also feel the same way as her but she didn’t know who to invite. This got her thinking that maybe she should have joined a support group such as AA but that path still did not resonate with her. She knew that she wasn’t the only one who felt this way and was going through a similar story. She thought about how to grow a community for people who are beginning their sober journey or have been sober for many years but want a community. She thought about having them at her house but felt it was bigger than that. The idea hit her of how her and Donny have been feeling since not drinking and saying “how do we find our people?” She took this to Donny and said I think we should be the ones opening the “sober bar” and name it Empath.

This name to them is about creating a safe space that is about the atmosphere that allows people to open up and connect. It allows them to let their empathic side show yet still have a really fun time. It also embraces the word “path” in it. This symbolized a judgement free zone for people to gather no matter which path they have chose.

I very rarely drink alcohol because of interactions with medication I take and because I grew up in a family with multiple alcoholics. I also shy away from spaces where people are drinking for these reasons. Is this a form of sobriety or am I appropriating the concept? Everyone’s reason for why they choose sobriety is different like we said above. There is no right or wrong path nor right or wrong reason. This is a very important topic for us to get across. We are trying to bridge the gap here and create a sober community no matter what your story or reasoning may be.

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Describe the types of venues and events where a pop-up sober bar could be a good fit. Do you have any goals or hopes to be invited to a certain event or space? Do you do private events? Will you set up at an event that also serves alcohol? We typically find venues that do not serve alcohol such as tea and coffee shops to hold our own sober social pop-up events. However, we do think that a sober pop-up bar could be a good fit at any event or venue to provide options whether there is alcohol served or not. We have been asked to setup our bar at all types of venues, events and collaborations, both private and public, and also for some companies who are focusing on their employee’s wellness. Some were 100% alcohol free and others included us to provide an alcohol free option in addition to the libations that would be served. So, yes, we are open to setting up at any type of event but our own pop-up social nights are 100% alcohol free and will always be. Our goals and hopes include being invited to any space or event. Really, the sky is the limit for us.

If I saw a specific reference to sobriety or a sober option at an event, I’d be more likely to participate. It is an indicator of the safety and values of the organizers, a reflection of how accessible the event is much like providing information about physical accessibility or bus routes or affordability concerns. Does that resonate with your own experiences individually and as a business? Definitely. This hits home for us in so many ways. When we travel, we are always looking for mindful, safe and sober social options in the cities that we visit because we know that their values and safety are in line with ours, both individually and as a business. Bringing our experience of how we navigated the social scene since becoming sober and how we chose the places to visit has influenced the values and atmosphere that we bring to Empath.

Still, I wonder how a sober bar could be financially viable. I feel like this is tied to the history of queer culture in Pittsburgh, especially the legendary lesbian bars (Wild Sisters, Bloomers, etc) where inclusion was about identity, not behavior (drinking.) Still, sustaining a venue without significant alcohol sales seems challenging. How do you address that resistance? We honestly asked the same question and do see the parallels in regards to both the queer and sober cultures, especially with how they socialize. Hence, why there has to be other bar options for queer folk and now sober and “sober curious” folk. It comes down to making sure that people know what they are getting and that our intentions are pure and not gimmicky. People are ready for a change and are becoming more aware of what alcohol consumption does to their body. We believe that moderation and sobriety are the way of the future and it has certainly been a hot topic. There has been a resistance to this new idea of a “sober bar” because for so long the stigma around sobriety and non-alcoholic socialization has created this disconnect as being “not fun.” Alcohol culture has really been shoved down our throats in nearly everything that we do from “wellness” and sporting events to kid’s birthday parties and everything in between. We are here to redefine the “go-to” way of how we socialize and celebrate and to provide options for everyone. It is not about just the drinks but about the atmosphere, connection and community that we are looking to create. We do feel that those are key when creating something that is sustainable. We feel that this is not just a trend but an option that needs to be provided in every city in addition to normal bars. Ultimately, time will tell if we’re moving in a more balanced direction and if a sober bar is even sustainable but we can’t help but try. It’s not an easy feat but something that is important to us to break and revolutionize for people’s overall well-being, connection and spirit.

Let’s talk about your menu. What are your most popular mocktails? Where do you find inspiration for your recipes? To be honest, all of our mocktails have had their share of limelight. It really just depends on the time of year and the event. We serve both our house-made mocktails that are made from scratch and also mocktails that are made with non-alcoholic spirits such as Seedlip and Skarlett. However, our most popular drinks are our house-made non-alcoholic mixed drinks such as the Life-changing Ginger Lavender Lemonade, Root “Bare”, and Divine Blueberry Protection Elixir. These are quite the names but we feel they really make the drinks come to life and capture their essence.

We get inspired by brainstorming of how a concept and characteristic for a drink would taste, feel and look. Based on that, we come up with ingredients that we feel would capture the essence of the drink and represent the theme. We also infuse our drinks with house-made crystal essences by choosing a crystal that would also represent the properties and vibrations that we feel. For example, our Root “Bare” to us is very grounding and nourishing so we chose the stone Mahogany Obsidian to further enhance the drinks characteristics.

Ordering cocktails/mocktails can be intimidating if you aren’t taught how and what to order. With mocktails, I’ve found that some servers/bartenders get irritated if I ask for something that doesn’t translate into mocktail easily even though I have no way to know. But I’d like to have a fancy, delicious drink, too, once in awhile. How would a reader learn about mocktails and other drinks that you serve? We do struggle with ordering non-alcoholic drinks also when we’re out. A lot of times before we go out, we’ll peep at the menu to see if they have non-alcoholic drink options. If they don’t have options, they are usually not sober friendly and we tend to avoid those bars and restaurants. However, you can’t always avoid these places so we think that it’s important for the person to have a go to drink that may not be extra fancy but something simple that the bartender can whip up and so that you don’t feel the pressure.

Our drinks are made by our mixologists and they are very well educated about the drinks. We plan on posting a menu on our site in the next few weeks so that our patrons can take a peak beforehand!

Pittsburgh does seem to be growing social cultures for people who don’t want to stay up late, drink or party. We have the In Bed By Ten happy hour dances, the thriving drag brunches and bingo events, SAGE holds tea dances several times a year, etc. What other opportunities exist to disrupt alcohol culture to create space for sober folx who want to socialize? Of course, our monthly pop-up events at Bantha Tea Bar and sober collaborations are disrupting alcohol culture. We have also been involved in the 5Rhythms dance every 1st Friday by providing a sober social after the dance. The Open Road Bar has been throwing sober nights downtown at Creative Coffee and Supply. We don’t know of too many others at this time but we do know this is just the beginning of this movement so keep your ears open for more!

Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh: We have both lived in Pittsburgh our whole life and there are many times that we wanted to leave but something has kept us here. Although Pittsburgh is very much a drinking town that loves to have alcohol at any and every event, we know that there is more to Pittsburgh than how it is perceived. Pittsburgh is very dear to us and there is so much culture and so many wonderful people. We want to stay here to help it grow and become the special, progressive, up and coming city that we know it is.

What Pittsburghers have influenced your work with Empath? Is there anyone with whom you’d like to collaborate? Well, that’s an interesting question about influencers in Pittsburgh. Honestly, the biggest influence in Pittsburgh for us was seeing all of the alcohol involved in everything, especially the music community, and also just being around drunk culture. This really made us realize how something needed to change. And, one of the biggest pushes that made us jump all in and throw our 1st Empath pop-up event was trying to find a venue for our album release for Dinosoul back in early 2018. We were sober at the time but were ok with having it at a bar. We found a venue which is a well known queer friendly space. We were about to sign the papers to hold the date and put a down payment but we were then told that we had to have at least $4000 in alcohol sales in the night else we were liable for the costs. That blew our minds for many reasons. One was the fact that we did not want our attendees to consume that much alcohol and another was that there was no other options really for people that did not drink. We immediately pulled out and decided that we are going to do this DIY and find a sober queer friendly venue. That was when we decided to launch Empath during our album release and the first time that we served our drinks on 4/21/18 at Metta! That was the push that we needed to get this going 🙂

We’d love to collaborate with anyone that shares our values!

Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life.

Carolyn – It was my childhood best friend’s brother. He was the one that introduced me to queer culture at a very young age. He moved to Florida when he was 18 and came out shortly after. There was definitely always an intrigue in my heart but I still wasn’t courageous enough to embrace it until many years after.

Donny – My childhood friend Aiden was the person who impacted me other than my 1st grade girl crush. I’ve known him since I was in about 3rd grade. He came out first in high school as a lesbian and then ended up identifying as man. He was the first person who I personally knew that wasn’t afraid to be himself. I went to my first couple of pride events and gay bars with him. He truly inspired me to take a look into my own life and be okay with who I truly am. Aiden is a brave soul and way before his time.

What is your love song for LGBTQ youth?

Any Tegan & Sarah song! But Nineteen and Closer for sure 🙂

Where can we find you next? You can find us popping up and taking over Bantha Tea Bar in Garfield every 4th Friday for our Sober Social/DJ Night. Our next ones are 2/28 and 3/27.

2/28 Event Details: Click here for the Facebook Event or Our Event Website.

We will be serving our drinks at an album release for Taragape at this really cool venue in Homestead called The Dragon’s Den on 2/22. It’s open to everyone! Click here for event details!

We have some collaborations coming up also:

Sober Dance Night at the sober and safe venue, The Mr. Roboto Project sometime in March, so keep an eye out.

5Rhythms Dance Night with Alyssa Dore most First Fridays in Shadyside at Wightman School Community Building. The next one is 3/6!

All of our events are listed on our website, facebook and instagram!

Where can readers find you on social media?

You can find all of our social media links on our website and also sign up for our monthly newsletter:


Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/empath.pgh/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/empathsoberbar.pgh

Thank you, Empath!




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