Mixing Healthful Elixirs with Social Inclusion

Photo credit Brenda Gonzalez Rayo, @photobybgr and photographer

Substance use disorders represent an urgent and increasing public health crisis in America. From tobacco to cannabis, opioids to alcohol – the negative effects can be liver-poisoning, brain-frying, cancer-causing, and both emotionally and literally heartbreaking.

Overcoming an unhealthy dependency on any substance can be a tough hill to climb. People have different levels of susceptibility, and individual responses may vary to different methods of intervention. There are 12-step programs, hotlines, nicotine patches, methadone, meditation practices, exercise programs, acupuncture, counseling and so much more.

There also are mocktails.

In Tacoma, Washington, a 20-something entrepreneur has combined her faith, her culture, her business training and her commitment to healthy living to launch Aafiya Lounge. Currently, Raihab Baig is running her enterprise as an event mocktail catering service, searchable online via Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, but her aspiration is to open a bricks-and-mortar nonalcoholic venue in Tacoma sometime in the next year.

In a recent Zoom interview, Baig says her vision for this business began percolating the summer after she graduated from college. “I thought of it as a way to have an alternative for people like me who don’t like to drink or who want to respect their religious values and stay away from alcohol.”

Baig’s family immigrated from Pakistan to the United States when she was just a baby, and she was raised in a Muslim household. As she was growing up, the family would take trips back to Pakistan to visit relatives, giving her the opportunity to consider the two cultures her family navigated between – the different levels of prosperity, the individualistic American culture in contrast to the collective Pakistani culture, and the different approaches toward socializing and hospitality.

As a teenager, she says, she lost touch with her faith, but by the time she was in college she started digging deeper into Islamic values. She began praying five times daily, and started wearing a hijab.  “I still had diverse friends,” Baig says. “They accepted me for who I was and we had each other’s backs in different situations.”

During those college years of intensive studies and going to parties to blow off a little steam, she developed a good sense of “when it was time to leave” – and she served as the designated driver on many occasions. But she thought a lot about how alcohol-fueled, American-style partying contrasted with the Pakistani form of hospitality, “where they all want to conversate and have fun – you have a whole meal and feast – your guests mean everything to you – that kind of hospitality shaped the way I wanted to be.”

Baig had always been interested in exploring beverages from a health and wellness perspective – “I was never a fan of soda, so I made smoothies, and it was a hobby of mine just to learn about herbalism.”

But it was a few years after she got out of college that she realized some of her friends were really struggling with an inability to control their alcohol intake. This is when, guided by her religious principles and embracing her heritage, she began to imagine the role she could play in providing a safe and welcoming place – a place “with positive and lively alternatives.”

A mocktail lounge, she realized, could be one piece of the puzzle for people seeking to move beyond unhealthy chemical dependencies and toward sobriety. The name she chose for her lounge, Aafiya, is an Arabic word meaning good health and freedom from grief.

Baig applied and was accepted into the Spaceworks Incubator program, a 12-week program that provides coaching and connections to creative entrepreneurs seeking to become part of Tacoma’s business community. Others within her cohort wanted to learn how to market their vegan jerky, expand their paddleboard rental business, or sell handcrafted candles, but they all supported one another as they pursued their individual goals.

Baig already had begun developing recipes for delectable nonalcoholic beverages: Karachi Rose, Coco Lime, Orange Pomegranate Cider, Cranberry Ginger Mule, and more. But as she got into the nitty-gritty of writing her own business plan, she realized that achieving her vision of hosting a physical space was going to take more time than she had anticipated.

And so, with the help of the Spaceworks program, she pivoted to the idea of starting a catering business as a first step. She shifted from planning a physical lounge space to creating online marketing, from whipping up single-serve mocktails to making them in bulk. She needed to figure out everything from storage space to transportation issues to event-scale pricing. She  also developed a “grazing bar” menu.

This revised business model has been well-received, but Baig still hopes to launch a physical space by the end of 2024, raising money through crowd-sourced funding and pitch competitions.

“My main thing about Aafiya Lounge is to have a space that is inclusive for everyone, makes people feel safe, heard, seen and confident in themselves. I want people to know that they are valued for who they are,” she says.

She envisions serving a mix of customers: those who choose to live alcohol-free in accordance with their religious values, people who are on sobriety journeys, pregnant or nursing mothers, or simply groups or individuals who want to enjoy an evening out without having alcohol as a key ingredient.

Along the way, she hopes to be able to share some aspects of her own Pakistani heritage, but mostly she wants people from any background to have access to an atmosphere that contributes to their own self-awareness. “The more that we are able to improve our mental health, and implement healthier habits, the happier we will be. And the happier we will be, the better relationships we’ll have with the people around us.”

Baig smiles and spreads out her hands, “And that will cause the butterfly ripple effect, the way that I see it – and just be able to spread goodness to the community.”

In other words, it will lead to aafiya.


Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.

Photo credit Brenda Gonzalez Rayo, @photobybgr and photographer contact email: photographybybgr@gmail.com






Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

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