Tea sommelier Charles Serveau, of Vue de Monde, gets creative. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove
ONLY four days to go. The start of March means the end of febfast, a self-imposed period of alcohol exile for about 12,000 people, and a worryingly dry time for the hospitality industry.
Restaurant and Catering Association's Victorian president Matteo Pignatelli has been jokingly branded a traitor by his industry friends for taking part in the yearly event, in which participants are sponsored for going without alcohol, with proceeds going to charity.
The success of febfast - so far this year it has raised about $700,000 - has left bar owners and restaurateurs complaining that they're in need of some charity of their own.
Mr Pignatelli says the most recent board meeting was peppered with stories about the plunge in drinks profits. Drink takings, critical to a restaurant's bottom line, are down 30 per cent on last February at his North Fitzroy two-hatter Matteo's.
''Most of us have noticed a drop in alcohol sales. It definitely affects business. I only started noticing the effect of febfast last year, and this year it seems to have really taken off.''
Also alarming the industry is the burgeoning calendar of alcohol abstinence that includes not only febfast but Dry July and Ocsober, as well as Hello Sunday Morning.
Winemaker and beef producer (under the Moondarra label) and Chin Chin's ''wine guy'', Neil Prentice, took to Twitter last week to vent his frustration at the fashionable new asceticism. ''FebFast, DryJuly, MeatFreeMonday, FishFriday + 2 AFD's (alcohol free days) a week - I only get to earn a living 3 days a week for nine months a year''.
''I'm taking an anti-wowser stance,'' he says. ''It just ends up encouraging the extreme behaviour you see in March - it's like dieting, where once you stop you just get fatter.''
Febfast might sound statistically small - 6000 people signed up this year, and their own modelling suggests the same number again do it unofficially - but Melbourne is the epicentre.
Almost 65 per cent of participants are in Victoria, according to a report by febfast and VicHealth, and febfasters are more likely than the average Australian drinker to drink at restaurants, bars and cafes.
Concentrated between the age of 25 and 44, they are also more likely to drink bottled wine, regular-strength beer and cider, and less likely to be reaching for the premixed spirits and cask wine. They're the core clientele, in other words.
So what of the so-called ''sober'' dollar? It's the smarter businesses, says Mr Pignatelli, that will offer non-alcoholic drinks beyond boring old lemon, lime and bitters.