Yes, unscrupulous, unethical bartenders do rip off their employers. And you – the guest. There is a huge problem regarding bartender theft – and it isn’t getting any better.

A bar manager or owner can implement all the policies and controls at his or her disposal to minimize the effect, but it’s still going to happen.

I’m going to discuss 25 Ways Bartenders Rip Off the House. There are more, of course, but these twenty-five seem to be the most popular.

Bartenders are not just ripping off their boss, they’re also stealing from you – the customer. Although his article is all about bartenders stealing from their employers, I have written an additional post about how they rip off their guests entitled 15 Ways Bartenders are Ripping You Off. It’s not pretty.

Some of these methods of stealing are rather basic – others quite ingenious. This list is not all-inclusive as bartenders and servers continue to find new ways to pocket a little extra cash each and every shift. And I have left off or combined some ways of stealing simply because they relate so closely to one of the methods listed.

As I was researching statistics and articles about the theft problem in the restaurant/bar industry, I realized that of the below 25 listed methods of stealing – I had personally witnessed 24 of them at some point in my career. That’s kind of sad, really.

Before proceeding any further, I need to make it perfectly clear that ALL BARTENDERS ARE NOT THIEVES! The vast majority are honest, hard-working individuals trying to provide for their families just like you and me. However, what I have found is that many bartenders simply don’t believe that what they are involved in is theft. They don’t get it.

I’m not going to go into detail on why bartenders are stealing, their excuses for their behavior, or whether or not they should be fired if committing any of these offenses. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. As for why they steal, check out the article I wrote on Why Do Bartenders Steal?

Side Note: The most effective way, by far, to catch dishonest bartenders and servers is to take inventory on a regular basis. And spot-check your bartenders. Spotters can help, and, of course, video cameras can reveal blatant thievery.

Remember that an accurate inventory will reveal the actual gross profit and provide a liquor cost. If it’s ‘off’ or shows less than stellar results – there’s a problem somewhere.  A bar manager can determine that his bartenders are not pouring accurately, or accounting for all liquor poured – but HOW they’re doing this is another story.

One more thing. Really effective dishonest bartenders are very good with numbers. They are masters at adding and subtracting in their head, and it takes one really smart bar manager to catch them.

That being said, let’s look at some of the methods bartenders use to rip off the bar owner.

The Short Pour

Very Colorful Red Cocktail

Short pouring is a very common way for a bartender to make a few extra bucks. Pour 5 drinks with a half-ounce less alcohol in each and you have 2 1/2 ounces left to play with. Most bars pour 2 or 2 1/2 ounces for Martini’s and ‘on the rocks’ or ‘up.’ That’s a Jack on the rocks or a snifter of Hennessey. Simply don’t ring up that 6th drink (they get around to that part which I’ll discuss later), and he just pocketed around $10.00.

Think about it. If he were to short pour a total of just 15 drinks per shift – that’s $30.00 per shift in extra tax-free money. $150.00 per week. $7800 per year in retail sales that he stole from the company and put in his own pocket.

And let’s not forget that he’s also ripping off the customer. I could go into more detail on retail sales, calculating liquor cost, cost variance, etc., and how it affects bar profitability – but I’ll save that for another post. The bottom line is, this is a very effective way for a dishonest bartender to make a substantial income on the side.

The Over Pour

Most bartenders over pour. Period. They just can’t help it. It doesn’t matter if they’re free-pouring or using a jigger, and many times they are totally unaware of it. It’s just plain sloppy.

Many bars give their bartenders pour tests, and that’s great. But it really doesn’t solve the problem as they’re extra careful when the boss is watching.

The best way to eliminate the overpour, as well as the short pour, is to have a very good POS System combined with regular, accurate inventories. And spot check your bartenders.

OK, so sloppy pouring habits can cost the bar money. But what about the nefarious reasons for over-pouring? Bartenders know that providing stiff drinks results in bigger tips – in most cases. But how does the dishonest bartender use this technique to his advantage and not affect liquor cost?

Two ways. First, in order to over pour, he has to short pour in other areas. You can’t consistently over pour and not affect liquor cost. By ripping off other customers, through short pouring, the bartender can keep things evened out, so to speak, and not get dinged for having a high pour cost.

Secondly, he’ll combine one or more additional ways, see below, to cover up the over pouring. Using the ‘no sale’ button, bringing in his own booze, tacking on ‘phantom costs’ to another customers bill, etc. There are many ways to cover the overpouring, and it takes a very experienced bar manager to flesh out this bartender’s ‘system.’

Free Drinks

Bartenders have a reputation for giving out free drinks. The average customer sitting on the other side of the bar sees this and wonders how he gets away with it – or why he’s not getting a free drink.

First, understand that the bartender may be allowed to give out free drinks. At certain times, for certain reasons. However, that doesn’t mean that he can give out any number of free drinks every shift.

Usually, he may have some sort of “comp’ sheet where he writes down anything that is given away for free, or spilled, or wasted – for whatever reason, and approved by management.

Effective bar managers will have some sort of accountability sheet available to the entire bartending staff. Bartenders are supposed to adhere to the policies set forth in order to maintain a certain amount of accountability.

Working with a Server – Flat Out Collusion

This occurs most often in a ‘cash and carry’ system. Most often used in Mom and Pop bars with old cashiering systems and lax inventory and accounting systems in place.

Here’s how it works:

  • The cocktail server orders the drinks from the bartender
  • Server pays cash for those drinks on the spot
  • Bartender intentionally ‘forgets’ to charge the server for a drink or two
  • The server collects from the customer and pockets extra cash
  • Either server or bartender keeps track of extra cash and they split the ill-gotten gains after their shift

As I pointed out before, bartenders are very good with numbers. Totaling up drink prices is easy, and simply accounting for this system is easy.

The best way to eliminate this problem is with a very good POS System. The server would have to ring in the drinks first, a ticket spits out at the bartenders POS terminal – and he makes the drinks. Of course, it’s not foolproof, and the server could simply ‘hover’ around the bar station and call out another drink to the bartender.

Again, this will affect the bar’s liquor cost and bartenders know this. They may be combining additional methods of theft to cover their tracks.

Pouring Well Liquor – Charging for Call Liquor

This is very common. The customer orders a Beefeater tonic and the bartender pours the house gin. Then charges for the call liquor. Happens all the time.

You would think that this technique helps the bar with its liquor cost. Well, it does – if the bartender wasn’t pocketing the extra couple of dollars.

Here’s how it works:

  • Customer orders a Beefeater and tonic. The house price for ‘Call’ drinks is $9.50.
  • The bartender pours the house (cheaper) gin.
  • Bartender charges the customer $7.50 for the Beefeater and tonic instead of $5.50 for a house gin and tonic.
  • Bartender hits the ‘well liquor’ key on the POS system instead of the ‘call’ key. (Hoping customer is not watching the cash register).
  • Bartender pockets the $2.00 at some point during the shift.
  • Hopefully, the customer cannot distinguish the difference between Beefeater and house gin.
Bar Customers Toasting with Whiskey

But, the bartender would get caught always putting money into his pocket, wouldn’t he? Yes, you would think so. But there’s a way they get around that.

Dishonest bartenders will keep ‘mental track’ of how many times he pulls this stunt. Generally speaking, most bartenders are very good at simple math and can add and subtract in their head like a speed demon.

From there, it’s a simple matter to add up the times he uses this method to rip off the house, (and customer), and simply extract the total amount of money (from the cash register), at the end of his shift. Simple.

Of course, some bar managers have been known to pull the cash drawer in the middle of the shift – but that’s unusual. Unfortunately. Assigning someone to count out the cash drawer with the bartender at the end of the shift is also another option – but rarely used.

It’s important to understand that this type of theft is usually successful in a bar that has lax accounting and inventory procedures. Really smart bar managers have ways to ‘spot check’ their bartenders to minimize this dishonest method.

Drinking on the Job

Yep. Bartenders drink on the job. A lot of them. How are they accounting for this? If they work in a bar with lax accounting procedures – it’s easy. And, remember that some bar owners are fine with the practice.

Bartenders better understand the consequences of drinking on the job. What if one of your customers gets totally bombed, drives home, and then gets in a car accident on the way injuring another motorist?

You could be in trouble, my friend. Dram Shop Rules could apply, and a bartender could end up being criminally prosecuted. And don’t get me started on a civil trial for damages. Ouch.

Unprofessionalism aside, bartenders that are drinking on the job (illegally, or against House Policy), have to account for the loss of inventory (the actual liquor). They’ll combine any number of the other methods I have listed here to cover they’re drinking. Usually, it’s a simple matter of under pouring or padding a customers bill every now and then.

Drinks for Food

Employees in the food and beverage industry are usually pretty tight. Most places offer a very good discount for their employees for food. Maybe it’s even free.

Bartenders can easily offer the cooks, or food servers, free drinks if they can provide them with free food. Happens all the time. This is where the house gets the double whammy. Free food. Free drinks. Ouch.

Remember that they still have to somehow account for the free drinks to other employees. They’ll use one of the other methods listed here to do this.

Diluting Liquor Bottles

This is a good one and happened a lot in the old days. Simply popping the bottle pourer, grabbing the soda gun and splashing in some water (or some type of soda), and you just made up a few ounces of ‘lost’ liquor.

Think about it – if a bartender did this just once a night, with two bottles of liquor, that’s 3-5 drinks a night. Or more. $25.00 in his pocket and no one the wiser. A good camera system might be able to catch this.

Inventory won’t detect this, as the volume in the liquor bottle hasn’t changed. And, the bar manager is probably not checking the ‘proof’ of each bottle of liquor. I’m not aware of too many bars using a hydrometer or alcoholmeter to gauge proof.

The Bartender Under Ring

The under ring occurs when the bartender rings in the charge for a soda or a ‘well’ drink instead of the correct charge for a ‘call’ or ‘top shelf’ drink. He simply pockets the difference.

This is a very popular method of ripping off the house. But, how does the bartender account for this and pocket the difference? See ‘Pouring Well Liquor – Charging for Call Liquor’ in a previous section above.

The Bartender No-Sale Ring

I have busted bartenders and servers for doing this very thing – so many times I can’t count.

  • Bartender charges the customer $5.50 for a vodka tonic.
  • Instead of ringing up the charge under the ‘well vodka’ key, he simply hits ‘no sale.’
  • Register opens and bartender makes change.
  • Bartender keeps track of the amount throughout the night (he’s probably doing this multiple times a night).
  • Bartender adds up and extracts extra cash at the end of his shift.

But, won’t the bar manager notice all of the ‘no sales’ on the cash register tape? Yep – if he’s on top of things. Unfortunately, many managers simply fail to understand that there’s theft going on in their bar.

Industry Reciprocation Between Bartenders

If you’ve been in the food and beverage industry for any length of time, you’ll get to know bartenders, servers, bouncers, and managers from other bars. It’s very common to throw free drinks to your fellow bartenders – and receive free drinks when you frequent their bars.

This is another method of stealing that falls under the category of free drinks. It happens all the time. And it’s not just the drinks. Free food – and cover charges waived. However, it’s not just the bartenders and servers doing this.

Managers are notorious for doing this very same thing. Sure, it’s management making the call, but aren’t they also stealing from the owners? You make the call.  There’s nothing wrong with ‘local promotion,’ and accounting for it, but it can, and will, get out of hand.

Cash Register Modifier Abuse

This is a very effective way of putting a few extra dollars in a bartenders pocket. Remember that techniques like this rely on either sloppy accounting procedures on the part of the bar owner and, possibly, the additional use of one or more other methods to make up the theft.

Here’s how it works:
  • Customer orders a Jack Daniels on the rocks
  • Bartender collects the appropriate amount: $7.00
  • Customer hands bartender a $20 bill
  • Bartenders rings up $5.75 – which is the cost for a Jack Daniels and Coke
  • Bartender returns change ($13.00) on the $7.00 charge to the customer
  • Bartender pockets $1.25

The bartender is hitting the POS key for ‘Jack Daniels.’ With most POS systems, each brand of liquor usually has it’s own key somewhere. There are also ‘modifier’ keys the bartender can select – such as ‘on the rocks,’ or a ‘call’ or ‘top shelf’ key to upgrade a house margarita to a Gold margarita, etc. You get the picture.

Generally speaking, call drinks like Jack Daniels cost around $6 – $8. One and a half ounces of liquor is poured. Ordering a drink ‘on the rocks’ is usually poured heavier (2 – 2 1/2 ounces), and costs a few dollars more. It’s a good deal, and regular bar customers know this.

On the flip side, a bartender can pour a regular Jack Daniels and charge the customer for a Jack on the rocks. He DOES use the modifier key. This is an OVERCHARGE. He’s simply ripping off the customer, instead of the house, and covers for his over pouring or other nefarious actions.

Here’s an example of how modifier keys work: You go to McDonald’s and order a Big Mac with no sauce. The employee rings up Big Mac, and then hits the modifier key for ‘no sauce.’  In this example, there is no price difference – but it demonstrates how modifier keys work.

The bar will have modifier keys for almost every product they sell. It’s easy to manipulate modifier keys to ‘under ring’ the drink price, and bartenders know this. One way to catch this type of theft is to ‘spot check’ your bartenders or physically watch the bartender (what he pours), and then see what the register displays for the price.

Bartenders Bringing In Their Own Bottle

This is another method that was used quite a bit in the old days. It doesn’t happen very often these days, as it’s hard to conceal that bottle when entering the premises.

The process is simple. Pour out of the ‘phantom’ bottle during the shift and it doesn’t affect liquor cost. Use the no sale button or under ring the customers as the night goes on and you can pocket a nice sum of money.

The bar’s liquor cost is unaffected, of course, but a smart Bar Manager may wonder why his sales are down. This works well in very busy bars.

Think about how much money a dishonest bartender can make in one shift: I’ve worked in bars where we could go through a case of well vodka in one night. A one liter phantom bottle x 24 drinks at $5.00 per drink. That’s a cool $100 per shift in extra money!

Vending/Game Refunds

This method does not affect liquor cost but is still considered theft. Many bars have jukeboxes, pool tables, and other game/vending machines. Sometimes the machine ‘eats’ your money and you’re out your $1.00 – or whatever the cost was. We’ve all been there.

The bar owner most likely does not own these machines. They simply allow the vendors to place their games in the bar and give the house a cut. Probably around 25%, but depends on the machine and what type of contract they negotiated.

These machines can eat money, and it’s a legitimate reason to refund the customer out of the cash register – and mark down the cost. Most bars will keep track of these refunds, and the next time the vending machine owners come in they will reimburse the bar.

However, some bartenders will take advantage of the house’s refund policy and invent fake refunds. It’s simple. Just say that a customer got ripped off by the pinball machine. Put a refund receipt in the cash register and pocket the cash. Perfect.

Bartender Claims Bank is Short

Bartenders start their shifts with a ‘bank’ for making change on cash transactions. Usually around $300.00, and consists of bills and coin. They may even have a back-up bank with a couple of hundred dollars stashed behind the bar somewhere.

Bar Controller Looking For Theft

Can an opening bank be short? Sure, it can happen. It’s when a particular bartender claims it’s short, over and over again, that you might have a problem. There’s a couple of ways to solve this dilemma.

Firstly, every once in a while, the bar manager can put in an extra $20.00 or $50.00 into the opening bank. This is a very common Bar Manager trick.

The key here is to have another employee or manager verify the overage. Will the bartender make note of it? If not, then he probably pocketed the extra cash. It’s outright theft.

Secondly, at the start of every shift, the bartender and bar manager can count the opening bank together, and both can independently verify that the bank is correct. Simple.

Bar managers should nip this problem in the bud immediately. The word gets around fast if it’s easy to pocket some extra cash simply because of sloppy accounting procedures.

Fake Walk-Out

This is a very simple method of theft, but cannot be used a lot. If a bartender or server seems to have walk-outs on a regular basis – there’s something wrong. Managers watch this closely, and it usually happens if it’s the bartender’s ‘friends’ that walked out.

The key here is for the bartenders “friends” to not act like friends and have any contact with the bartender. They’re probably running a tab in a cocktail server’s section.

This is a very profitable method of theft if used properly. Think about that $100.00 food and beverage tab. Easy money. Or, sometimes it’s just a single drink. Dishonest bartenders are very good at coming up with plausible situations where someone walked out on them.

Stealing Supplies

A good in-house camera will detect most of this. Especially at the back door. Dishonest bartenders will try and take anything not nailed down. Beer, liquor and wine bottles, mixers, condiments, napkins – you name it.

This type of theft happens more often in bars that have a “real” winter season. Overcoats are a great way of hiding goods, and searching your employees at the end of their shifts is probably not a viable option.

Charge Full Price – Ring Happy Hour Price

This method happens all the time. Usually, it occurs right around the periods where ‘regular’ time switches to ‘happy hour’ time – and vice-versa. We’re talking about 1/2 price drinks here, so a round of drinks could add up to $20.00 – or more.

This is pretty much self-explanatory. The bartender charges full price when the drinks should be discounted. He charges 1/2 price for his buddies when they should be full price.

The problem here, is it’s hard for management to narrow down the times involved. Did the bartender collect the money for those drinks 10 minutes after happy hour ended?

Ring Full Bottle Wine – Charge By the Glass

This is another dishonest method that happens quite frequently. The process is simple, and happens more often in your high-end types of nightclubs and restaurants.

A couple of guests sitting at the bar have 3 glasses of wine each. The cost is $7.00 per glass. That’s 6 glasses of wine, so a total of $42.00. The bartender claims that the customers bought a full bottle of wine for $29.00 instead of the 6 glasses of wine. You do the math.

Claim Spilled Drink/Dissatisfied Customer

This happens quite often. It’s easy to claim a spilled drink (from a phantom customer), one or two times per shift and collect that extra $8.00. This can add up to a significant amount of money over the course of a year.

The process is simple. Claim a spilled drink, write it down on the waste/spills sheet, and don’t ring up a customers drink some time during the shift. Combine with the ‘no sale’ or ‘under ring’ method and the bartender make out quite well during the shift.

Undercharging/Overcharging Customers

Similar to other methods, this is one of the most common methods to rip off the house. It’s simple. Undercharge some guests and overcharge others. It can be used with many of the other dishonest methods to rip off the house.

It all depends on the situation, and remember that the bartender must cover his tracks. If he’s undercharging, then he’s probably trying to get a good tip out of the deal. If you’re overcharging, you’re trying to rip off the customer directly and pocket the difference.

Again, utilizing his exceptional math skills, the bartender will keep track of these transactions and ‘make everything right’ periodically throughout the shift – or at the end of the shift when he checks out.

Abusing the ‘Open Liquor’ Modifier

This method is used when trying to maintain some semblance of a good liquor cost. There are some pretty smart bartenders out there, and they might be aware that management is ‘spot checking’ them.

The process is simple, and this method can be used to undercharge customers for a good tip – or overcharge and collect the difference. It’s also used to avoid being detected for not ringing up drinks of a certain ‘call liquor.’

For example, the round of drinks costs $35.00. Bartender rings in $25.00 under the appropriate keys and then uses the ‘open liquor’ button to ring up the rest.

Fake/Unauthorized Coupons

This method of theft doesn’t happen often these days. The process is simple. The Bartender collects coupons that the bar has distributed for free or discounted drinks.

For example, the bar may be running some sort of promotion. Clip the coupon and get a free drink or appetizer. The bartender gets his friends, or anyone for that matter, to bring in coupons, not order anything, and ring in the amount under that special ‘promotion’ key.

Liquor Rang up on Food Key

This method can work both ways. Liquor to food – or food to liquor. It kind of depends upon what works best in that particular type of bar and food POS system.

From a dishonest bartender’s view, selling food and ringing it up on any of the liquor keys can help with the liquor cost. Here’s how it works:

The bartender has been giving out free drinks to his friends. He has to cover that somehow. So, he may sell some food (probably working with a cook on the inside), charge the customer for that food – and then ring the cash into the system under liquor.

This covers up those ‘free’ drinks given out earlier and doesn’t affect the liquor cost. It doesn’t work in most places as food also need to be rung into the system.

Collaborating With Liquor/Beer Distributors

This happens more than you think. The liquor, beer, or wine distributor drops off a few ‘freebies’ along with the regular order. The bartender simply makes drinks, or pours beer or wine, using the freebies, and fails to ring up the drinks. Pockets the cash.

This is also a great way for the bar’s vendors to drink for free. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Unfortunately, sometimes management is involved in this dishonest scheme.

Bartender Theft Conclusion

Dishonesty and theft in the food and beverage industry is a daily occurrence. Some might say that’s it’s out of control. Accounting procedures reveal only so much, and it’s up to the bar manager to implement additional procedures to keep theft to a minimum.

As I said at the beginning of this article, many, but certainly not all, bartenders are guilty of one or more of the above dishonest methods. However, many have management approval in certain cases. There’s a lot of gray area here. For the customer sitting at the bar and observing some ‘questionable’ accounting practices – beware, as you may be way off base.

Bartending Related Topics

Can a bartender go to jail for drinking on the job? Yes, he could. Maybe not on the spot, but certainly in the future.  In some states, drinking while on duty is against the law. Other states allow it. Is he intoxicated? Is he serving minors? Was he drunk and unable to determine if he overserved that person who left the bar and ran over someone? Never drink behind the bar.

Can a bar prosecute a bartender for stealing? Of course they can. Theft is theft. Outright theft is one of those offenses that require immediate termination. One strike and you’re out. Personally, I have never given anyone a second chance if theft is involved.

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