In this section, we’ll discuss the following:

  • Running a Tab
  • Waste
  • Spills
  • Comps

We have discussed some of these topics in great detail in previous sections – and will discuss some of them in upcoming sections. Here, what we’re really taking about is House Policy and the effect that these policies have on Liquor Cost. And you’ll discover why Bar Managers are constantly harping on accountability. Good stuff, and let’s get into it…

Starting and Running a Bar Tab

It’s all about credit and debit cards these days. People love running tabs

Q: Will knowing this information help me get a job?

A: Possibly. The more you know about general house policies – the better. It will definitely help you during those first few days on the job.

Q: Will I be asked this question in an interview?

A: Maybe. The interviewer might ask you how you would start a tab. I was actually asked this question in an interview one time.

It’s all about running a bar tab these days. Fewer people are carrying cash, and the convenience of just whipping out that card is the way to go. Careful with this.

Credit and debit cards, phone “wallets,” Cash Apps and more. Running a tab in bars can be a bit confusing – for the bartender. And it’s changing every day!  The different types of payments that a bar accepts, and the methods of those payments is really out of the scope of this lesson. We’ll concentrate on general “house policies” here. Don’t worry, I got you covered.

The main thing to remember here is that the bar will train you on this. In fact, it will be one of the very first things they’ll train you on. Every bar is different!

As a new bartender, probably on your very first shift, one of the things you’ll encounter is a customer that wishes to run a tab. Be prepared. The bar will have some sort of policy on how to handle this situation.

It is YOUR responsibility to know what this policy is! Ask the bar manager. Ask your trainer. Get this right the first time. Generally, here’s how it works:

  1. Customer orders a drink and asks to start a tab. No problem.
  2. Politely ask them for their credit card
  3. Run the card through the house POS system.
  4. Keep cards and tabs organized. Most bars will have a box or some other sort of system to keep cards organized behind the bar.

It’s a fairly simple system, but remember that all bars are different. Some may have and “old style” cash register system and you have to check the card expiration date – and possibly ask for an ID.

You may run into some “issues” with your customers. Some will appear offended that you ask for their credit card up front. The vast majority won’t. That’s unfortunate, but you have no choice – the policy is whatever the bar owner determines it to be. Just be polite and state that it is house policy to do it this way.

Stay organized. Store the cards in a pre-designated area with easy access. You’re busy – nothing slows you down, or is more embarrassing, than a “lost” credit card.

Fully understand how the bar’s POS system works. Is it policy to swipe the card first? Some bars do – some don’t.

Don’t be blind to the amount of food and drinks being “charged.” Sometimes customers may start getting a little drunk and not realize how much they’re spending. Cards may have a limit on them. Regular customers don’t mind a “reminder,” but new customers may start to get a bit out of hand.

Rookie Mistakes:

  1. Failing to fully understand the house policy regarding tabs
  2. “Forgetting” at add all purchases to the tab
  3. Failure to check expiration date on the card
  4. Throwing the card somewhere on the back bar and failing to run it through the POS system
  5. Confusing one customer’s tab for another
  6. Adding purchases to the tab without the customers permission (Friends)
  7. Unpaid tabs at the end of the night/shift. You must close them out!
  8. Failing to get pre-authorization from management for large parties

The Bartenders Waste/Spill Sheet

Every bar should have one. These are not free drinks! Did someone knock over another customer’s drink? Replace it (free), and write it down on the ‘spill’ sheet. How about if you’re wiping down the bar and knock over someone’s beer? Replace it with a fresh beer and write it down. Some bar managers will require you to let them know what happened before writing it on the waste/spill sheet. Every bar is different!

You poured a whiskey and coke, and your customer ordered a rum and coke. Oops. Happens to all of us, as those liquor bottles in the well are close together. Or, you’re slammed with drink orders and made a simple mistake. Write it down.

This might be a good time to discuss ‘straining’ mistakes. If your customer has already sipped the drink – throw it out and write it down. If you’re at your station and accidentally poured the wrong liquor – strain it and set it aside to be used later. Just remember that if you don’t use it later – write it down as waste. DO NOT pour it back into the bottle!

Some bars even categorize their waste/spill sheet into two different sections: Bartender’s mistakes and customer mistakes. Kind of nit-picky, but you’re going to run across bar managers that are sticklers for detail.

Bartenders “House” Comp Sheet

Hopefully, the bar owner has authorized his bartenders to give out free drinks on certain occasions. For this, you need a house ‘comp’ sheet which is simply code for ‘complementary’ or ‘free.’ Nice.  Follow the rules, and you’ll be fine.

Many bars will divide this sheet into two categories – a ‘House Comp Sheet’ and a ‘Bartender Comp Sheet’ which I’ll talk about in the next section. Again, it depends on how nit-picky the bar owner is. House comps may be for regular customers, special occasions, or some other event.

The important thing to remember here is that it is the ‘house’ that is buying the drink – not the bartender. IN ALL CASES! An experienced bartender will know this and say something like, “Dave the bar owner would like to buy you two a drink in honor of your special occasion.” Perfect – and write it down!

It’s also important to let the customer know that someone ‘over and above’ the bartender is buying the drink. And, for those other customers within earshot – there’s no room for judgment as to why the bartender is giving out some free drinks.

So, does the bartender automatically do this for each special occasion? Of course not. The house free drink policy will dictate when you’re allowed to do this. And, it’s usually best to inform your bar manager of what’s going on and let him or her make the decision. Simple.

Bartenders Comp Sheet

Throughout the years, bar owners have been in a constant fight with their bartenders over free drinks. The solution? Give them their own ‘tab.’ In other words, allow bartenders to give out a certain number of free drinks, or a certain dollar amount, during each shift.

This just makes good sense – and good policy. Eliminate the problem of ‘sneaking around’ trying to give out free drinks for bigger tips. Does this work perfectly? Nope. There’s still going to be bartenders that abuse the policy; however, most bartenders are grateful and will follow the rules.

How much liquor can a bartender give out per shift? That varies, of course, but most bar owners will set a dollar amount – and not a drink count. Around $25 per shift is a standard amount. Based on an overall 20% liquor cost, this will cost the bar about $5 in product for every bartender shift.

The key here is to not abuse it. And, there’s nothing saying that you HAVE to give out your allotment of free drinks every shift. And, just so you know, free drink allotments per shift do not roll over like cell phone minutes. Don’t be a doofus.

Employee Discounts

Many bars and restaurants have great employee discounts for food and beverages. Meals fifty percent (or more) off, shift drinks, etc. That’s great, but bartenders sometimes abuse this policy by giving their friends or good tippers their own ’employee discount.’ What?

Please don’t do this. Employee discounts are just that – a benefit for the employee. It’s just wrong to ring up drinks or food under the employee discount key when the item isn’t for you. Bar Managers are on to this little technique – so beware.

Technically, it’s not a free drink – but it is something that should never be done. There may be some bar managers that allow this – but not in any bars I’ve ever worked at. That’s what ‘comp’ sheets are for. Giving employee discounts to customers is a shady business – to say the least.

If you’re following along in the Basic Bartending Course:

Next Lesson: Free Drinks

Previous Lesson: Unruly Customers/Bar Fights

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