tug of war

Do bartenders give out free drinks? Of course they do! The real issue is, “Does the bar owner know that they’re doing this?” Sometimes it’s authorized – sometimes not. Problems arise when bartenders simply ignore the house free drink policies put in place to control costs.

So, when should a bartender give out free drinks? Only when authorized by the bar manager or owner. Most bars have a free drink policy put into place to monitor and account this situation, and it’s up to each individual bartender to adhere to these policies at all times. Any deviation from these policies may be considered outright theft.

It’s a real tug-of-war between bar owners and bartenders. Believe me, bartenders will eventually lose. Go along with the program – know the house free drink policy and you’ll be just fine. Remember: It’s not your booze!

Let me just say a few things here before I dive into this topic. Firstly, I am not the ‘Ethics Patrol.’ Nor am I the ‘Morality Police.’ Your idea of what’s right or wrong may differ from mine. That being said, you may wish to align your thinking with that of your boss – and his bar policies. Your job may depend upon it.

Secondly, there are countless situations where a free drink may be appropriate. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of reasons. I simply couldn’t list all of them here – just know that your bar manager will fill you in on the overall policy. Listen closely to him so that you have a very good understanding.

Thirdly and probably most importantly, the very best bartenders I have ever worked with operate within the house free drink policy. They work for the house. Period. Yes, exceptional bartenders are usually given a little bit more leeway, but they never work outside the set policy.

I just mentioned “Exceptional Bartender” in the previous paragraph. What is an exceptional bartender? Bar mangers know, so check out the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For.

Most experienced bartenders know full well the reasons behind monitoring free drink output. For those aspiring to become a bartender, the following discussion should open your eyes quite a bit.

The Cost of Free Drinks – Accounting

Alcohol, beer, and wine cost money. The bar owner buys food and beverage items at wholesale, kicks up the price – and makes a tidy profit. That’s how a bar works. Savvy bar owners cost out their drinks and establish a minimum profit that they wish to achieve.

There is a huge difference between wholesale and retail costs and profits, and it’s beyond the scope of this article. You can, however, get a great foundation of these concepts by checking out this very informative article about the differences between wholesale and retail prices.

For bartenders that have been around for a while, you know that bar managers and owners will vary greatly in what they determine to be good accounting procedures. Some are very lax – and don’t even take a physical inventory. Some are so strict that it feels like your walking on eggshells behind the bar.

When Should a Bartender Give Out Free Drinks? - Taking bar inventory.

A bar owner with a keen eye on profits will be taking regular inventory, train his employees well, and monitor their performance. This includes portion control, waste, and giving out free products – whether it’s liquor or food. Anything going across the bar must be accounted for, and that includes free drinks.

The bar owner has costed out each individual food and drink item and knows what kind of return he should be receiving. This is called food and liquor cost. Calculating a bar’s liquor cost is a simple formula that you might wish to brush up on. Easy stuff.

How much of a head should you top off that beer with? Does a martini get two or three ounces of liquor? How much of each liquor are you putting into a Long Island Iced Tea? Bars vary greatly in these matters, and bartenders better know their portions.

And, this is where ‘free drinks’ enters the picture as a factor on how well liquor cost is controlled and monitored. An acceptable liquor cost equals a nice bottom-line profit, and you can bet that effective bar managers are watching this closely.

House Policy Regarding Free Drinks

Most bars will have very clear rules when it comes to free drinks. It’s part of what I call ‘House Drink Policy.’ This policy would include factors such as how much liquor to pour for each drink, the proper amount of wine per serving, and the size of the beer glass. And much more.

There’s nothing worse than starting your new bartending job and having no idea of what these policies are. Unfortunately, that’s just plain ‘ol poor management.  If the bar manager doesn’t provide you with any information on this – ask for it! You must be well informed, or it’s going to lead to trouble down the road.

The bar owner has costed out each of the individual food and drink items and knows what kind of return he should be receiving. This is called food and liquor cost. Bartenders just need to know that the pricing structure is usually well-thought-out, so follow it!

Let’s dive into some methods of monitoring and controlling ‘free drink policy.’ Most bars will utilize many of these methods – and some only a few. This is why it always makes good sense to get the specifics when you’re first hired.

The Bartenders Waste/Spill Sheet

Every bar should have one. These are not free drinks! Did someone knock over another customer’s drink? 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.

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 below.  Again, it depends on how nit-picky the bar owner is. House comps may be for regular customers, special occasions, or some other event.

draft beer with a nice head

The important thing to remember here is that it is the ‘house’ that is buying the drink – not the bartender. 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 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.

Forgetting to Ring Up Drinks

This is a much-overlooked factor when it comes to free drinks. Sometimes bartenders get so busy that they forget to collect from their customers. It’s certainly happened to me before, but, unfortunately, the bottom line is that it’s a free drink and will affect liquor costs.

The more experience you have as a bartender, the less this will happen. However, I’ve worked with some pretty absent-minded bartenders before and the effect on pouring cost and bottom-line profits can be substantial simply by neglecting to charge customers for their drinks.

This usually happens when it’s insanely busy, but, I have to admit that some bartenders are simply not organized. Distractions abound in the bar business, and you really need to stay on top of this.

And, it can be worse. Let’s say you’re busy and forget to ring up a regular customer’s drink. He thinks you’re giving him a freebie. The guy sitting next him thinks you’re giving him a freebie – and not him. Some other customer thinks you’re ripping off the house. The bar manager thinks you’re not writing down free drinks and screwing his pour cost. A big mess, to say the least!

Difficult Customers

Yep. You’re going run across this all the time. That customer that says he’ll hook you up if you hook him up. Don’t fall for it. Pouring a double for the price of a single is giving out free booze. And it’s theft plain and simple.

Or, how about that guy who complains that his drink is too weak? Again, your bar manager will give you some guidance in this area. I always responded by saying, “I can appreciate that you want a stronger drink, but we pour 1 1/2 ounces for all of our mixed drinks – and that’s exactly how I made yours. I’ll be happy to add some additional liquor to your drink – but I’ll have to charge you for a shot.”

Of course, some bars may allow you to ‘top off’ the drink to satisfy the customer. Once. I usually don’t, but if it’s a regular customer I might now and then. Something to remember here: Never taste the customers drink.

Substituting ‘Top Shelf’ Liquor

When you think about it, this is just another way of giving out free liquor. Pouring Johnny Black instead of house scotch, and charging for house liquor, is another way of giving out something free. And, yes, it’s theft.

7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers are Looking For (Short Version for Course) I see the term “Elite Bartenders” loosely thrown around out there in the world. Not a fan of that description. Sounds “elitist” to me. No bartender is “elite,” but there certainly are good bartenders and not-so-good bartenders. And there are exceptional bartenders. Count on it. But what, exactly, makes someone an exceptional bartender? You know, the guy or gal who can get a bartending job anywhere he or she chooses. The calm, cool, and collected guy behind the bar of an incredibly busy place. Customers call him by name, the barback can barely keep up – and the cash register seemingly rings incessantly. Meet Your Exceptional Bartender He maintains a neat and clean bar. But that’s not exceptional - it’s his job. He shows up for work, on time, for every shift. That makes him a punctual, reliable employee – but not exceptional. He gets along well with customers, his boss, and fellow employees. That makes him gregarious – not exceptional. He knows how to make drinks properly and pour a beer with a perfect head. Most all bartenders can do that – but it’s not exceptional. He consistently rings up more in bar sales, per shift, than the other bartenders do. But that’s not exceptional – every bar has someone who does that. Maybe you won a bartender speed-pouring contest. Congratulations! I truly admire the skill you possess in being the speed-pouring champion of your State. That makes you an extremely fast bartender – but not an exceptional one. You may be one, but speed alone does not carry you over the top. Maybe you work in a “flair bartending” type of bar. That’s great, as I have always marveled at your skill and showmanship. No joke – it takes many hours, even years, to achieve the level of skill you possess. You have earned the accolades. But flipping bottles and wowing the crowd does not make you an exceptional bartender. It makes you a flamboyant one. You may have seen an “Elite Bartenders” list like mine somewhere. You know, “20 Traits Elite Bartenders Have!” “The 10 Must-Have Characteristics Every Top Bartender Possesses!” “15 Crucial Skills All Top Bartenders Must Have!” Yes, I’ve seen them also. The problem here is that these lists will cherry-pick one of the many traits or characteristics from my list of seven skills and qualities and simply go with that. Exceptional bartenders are the complete package – they possess most, if not all, of the skills and qualities that Bar Managers are looking for. For example, I see a lot of these lists point out that “teamwork” is one of the skills all top bartenders must have. Of course teamwork is important! It is a core skill – or common skill. Teamwork falls under #4 AND #6 on my list – Soft Skills and Trustworthiness. But it doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender. You might ask, “Are nightclubs or other crazy-busy bars the only place to find exceptional bartenders? Nope. On the contrary, you will find exceptional bartenders working anywhere and everywhere. Many bartenders have one or two of the below skills and qualities. Some bartenders possess a few more. Unfortunately, some have none. But there is the rare few top of the line bartenders that somehow acquire all of these skills and qualities – the exceptional bartenders. And they go home with tip money that proves it. So, what are the skills and qualities the exceptional bartender possesses? My opinion. My years working behind a bar. My experience working with some of the most phenomenal bartenders out there. I’m not a psychologist, business analyst, or anthropologist. Just a guy who knows an exceptional bartender when he sees one. So, here we go. My very subjective list of the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers are Looking For. There is really no particular order here, and no one skill or quality is more important than the other; however, if you were to twist my arm, I would go with “Soft Skills” and “Completely Understanding the Customer Experience.” Skill: the ability to do something well; expertise Quality: the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something. Exceptional: unusually good; outstanding 1. Experience Definition of Experience: Direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge. There’s no getting around this – experience counts. Knowledge comes from experience. There is a reason why some bar owners and managers will hire “experienced only” bartenders. Filling out a drink order for a dozen people, rectifying a customer complaint, handling an unruly bar patron, or checking in the weekly liquor order – no inexperienced, brand-new bartender can walk into a bar for the first time and instinctively know what to do. You might say, “Experience isn’t a skill or a quality – it’s, well, experience! Why is experience even listed on your 7 skills and qualities of exceptional bartenders?” Fair enough, but through bartending experience you acquire and perfect your hard and soft skills. That, in turn, contributes to being an “exceptional” bartender. I’m not going to argue semantics here, but please understand that the first thing a bar manager will look for on your resume is bartending experience. It’s in the title of this article! Experience is what allows you to “fine tune” the additional six skills and qualities I have listed here of exceptional bartenders. It is not my intention here to discourage aspiring bartenders with no experience to apply for a bartending job. But it is what it is. Believe me, there’s plenty of bar managers and owners out there that will hire those with no experience. But that’s a topic for another day. Experience is accumulated over time. That’s why there really is no “Advanced Bartending School.” I am, however, a big fan of bartending schools that teach the basics – and maybe some intermediate “stuff.” But teaching advanced bartending? Nope. Working behind a bar is the advanced training. It’s called “experience.” Bartending experience is not what most people think it is. Sure, knowing how to properly make drinks or suggesting a good wine is part of it – but every bartender can do that after a short time on the job. It doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender. So, what type of experience am I talking about here? Experience dealing with people. Exceeding a customer’s expectations. Great customer service, understanding bar profitability, and the responsibility that comes with serving alcohol. Experience being efficient and fast. Situations that every bartender runs across throughout their career. What a bar manager would call “soft skills.” Every bar is different. Every bar owner and bar manager are different. Fellow bartenders are different. Customers are different. Situations in one bar are handled differently in another bar. The more experience you have behind the bar, and in different establishments – the better you’ll be. Make no mistake – bar managers are going to look at experience FIRST. Period. 2. Efficiency Definition: the state or quality of being efficient, or able to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance. Please, don’t confuse efficiency with speed. They are two entirely different skills that just happen to play well with each other. Efficiency sets you up for speed, and exceptional bartenders use both to create a synergistic effect. In other words, 1 + 1 = 3. So, how can a bartender become an efficiency machine? Practice and experience. Providing the bar manager with good, alternative ways of making the bar more efficient. Knowing his bar - working with what is on-hand. Organization is everything. Are all supplies on hand and in their proper place? Backups close by? Previous bartender have everything set-up properly for your shift? Or, are you setting up everything properly for the bartender relieving you? All efficiency. What about tools? All tools within easy reach – and he knows how to use them. Math skills? Gotta have them! A good Memory? Check. Waste, comps and spills are all account for. No exceptions. An exceptional bartender does this without even thinking. Bottle/Wine opener in his pocket. A word about multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is efficiency. I see many of those Top 10 lists I spoke about earlier include the skill of “Multi-tasking.” I agree. This skill is important, but exceptional bartenders are efficient in all areas of bar. Dirty glasses and plates are never left on the bar. Calling out the price for the round of drinks a group of customers just ordered – while you’re still in the process of making them. Efficiency. Taking multiple drink orders. Combining customers and servers. Changing kegs, CO2, soda canisters, stocking beer coolers. No problem here – these tasks are accomplished quickly and efficiently. He knows that regular customer is going to have five drinks – why would he wait for that third drink? He knows the POS System backwards and forwards. Math skills. Fingers fly across the keys, and mistakes are rarely made. Proper key for proper product! Understands the importance of categories and proper accounting. Placing/returning bar tools to their proper place. Maintaining the correct position/order of all liquor bottles. Frequently used liquors are within arm’s length. A good memory is essential to being efficient. Filling drink orders while other customers are screaming out additional drink orders? Efficiency. Combining the servers’ drink orders with those sitting at your bar. Taking an order while ringing up a sale. Cleaning as you go. Instructing the barback. All efficiency. Multi-tasking. Glancing at, reading, acknowledging customers – all while performing other tasks. Efficiency. Exceptional bartenders know their products! They know every beer, wine and alcohol brand in the house. The bottom line is, the more efficient you are, the more money you make – and the bar owner is happy. Don’t think for a moment that the bar manager isn’t observing you. And your customers. Maintaining an efficient bar is one of the skills that all bar managers are looking for. 3. Speed Definition: rapidity in moving, going, traveling, proceeding, or performing; swiftness All things being equal – speed wins. Every time. Exceptional bartenders are fast. Crazy fast. Scary fast. And the casual observer probably doesn’t even notice. As I mentioned in the previous section, speed and efficiency are two entirely different things – but they go hand in hand. The bottom line: The quicker you are – the more money you put in the cash register. I get it – some bars will never see a “three-deeper.” Many bars are casual, mellow, and everything seems to flow at a slower pace. Fantastic places to work, and the money is good; however, every bar, at some point in the day, is probably going to have that period where things pick up. You better be able to adjust quickly and pick up the pace. Speed. But what about those insanely busy bars that you really want to work at? You better be fast – or you’re out the door. And not just fast at making drinks. Fast means fast – performing all tasks. You gotta move fast, my friend! First of all, let’s get this “speed” thing correct. Speed is so much more than serving two Vodka Martini’s, a single-malt neat, and a gin ‘n tonic in 13.2 seconds. No, speed in a bartender’s world is much more than that. Speed loses its effect if a bartender cannot add up the price of drinks on the way to the cash register. Or gets lost on the way there. Yes, we’re talking about efficiency working with speed here, but speed comes into play in almost every component of a bartender’s shift. Move or you lose. Pouring liquor, washing glasses, fingers flying over the cash register/POS system, reading drink orders coming from the food and cocktail servers, adding up the cost for a round of drinks, listening/hearing drink orders and proceeding with only partial information, and on and on and on. This sounds a lot like efficiency, and it is, but you better be able to perform all of these duties at a fast pace. Speed. Blending up some margarita’s and then washing out the blender while taking a customer’s drink order. Speed and efficiency. Quickly opening a small bottle of champagne while answering a question from a customer about the bar’s appetizer menus. Speed. Pouring two draft beers at the same time – with a perfect head. Speed. Some people are blessed with natural athletic ability and great hand-eye coordination. Some of us aren’t – and really have to work on speed techniques. You don’t have to be the fastest bartender in the world – you just have to be fast. Exceptional bartenders don’t run – they move quickly and naturally - with a purpose. Let’s not forget another important aspect of speed: Changing gears. There’s a time for speed – and a time not for speed. What do I mean by this? Exceptional bartenders know when to slow down. Buzzing around during slow periods doesn’t do anyone any good. Bar managers are looking for bartenders that can move. Fast. Let me give you an example of a technique I used when conducting bartender interviews. Prior to sitting down with a job applicant, I would instruct them to “have a seat over at that table in the bar – I’ll be with you in a moment.” And then watch them navigate their way to the table. Slowpoke? Moves quickly and efficiently? You can learn a lot from this simple technique. A lot. The very best bartenders understand the importance of moving quickly. They better, because bar managers certainly do. 4. Soft Skills Definition: Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. Briefly, soft skills are interpersonal skills, and coveted by every manager out there in every business and industry – the Food & Beverage Industry included. Where “Hard Skills” have to do with knowledge and expertise in your particular field (like the ability to make drinks efficiently), soft skills are about who people are – and not what they know. You can get better at hard skills over time, but soft skills are tough to change. You cannot change someone’s attitude. You can’t change their personality. Many studies have been done concerning soft skills - far beyond the scope of this section. Based on my experience, and my opinion, I have listed below some of the most desired soft skills in the Food & Beverage Industry: AWARENESS! • Effective communication skills • Ability to work as a team • Problem solving skills • Work ethic • Critical thinking • Demeanor • Personality • Flexibility/Adaptability • Leadership • Conflict resolution • Teamwork • Positive attitude What I find interesting with the above list is that many “Top 10 Bartender Skills” lists usually cite a couple of entries from the above list. Or maybe just one. That’s fine, and it’s certainly true, but cherry picking one or two qualities from the above list just doesn’t cut it. An exceptional bartender has MANY, if not all, of the coveted “Soft Skills.” Think about it. You can hire someone with a great personality – but they’re consistently late for work. Or, they can easily get customers laughing over almost anything – but won’t help the cocktail server garnish the drinks. I could go on and on. Personality is not the king of the soft skills, and, through experience, I came to this conclusion many years ago. A great personality alone is not going to get you the job. It doesn’t make you an exceptional bartender. It certainly helps, but these days bar managers are asking a lot more detailed questions – trying to dig a bit deeper into a person’s character and soft skill levels. There are many more types of soft skills as I noted above, but when it comes to working behind a bar, in my opinion, demeanor is the king. 5. Demeanor: behavior towards others; outward manner Also: the way that someone behaves, looks, dresses, speaks, etc., that shows what their character is like. Demeanor is a combination of many soft skills. I pulled “demeanor” out of the Soft Skills because it’s so important. Take a good look at that bartender working behind the bar. How does he conduct himself? Is he polite? Attentive? Does he carry himself well? Does he go about his business in an efficient manner? How about his personality? Yep – we finally get to the word “Personality.” Personality is listed on almost all “Top 10” lists of bartender skills and characteristics. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s just that “personality” is only one part of a human beings’ character. It’s one aspect of how a bartender conducts herself behind the bar. How about facial expressions? A person’s demeanor is expressed not just verbally, but in many non-verbal ways. How many times have you gone to a restaurant or bar and been served by an employee who has a sad face, a furrowed brow – or even a scowl on their face? That’s their demeanor, my friends, and there’s no place for it behind the bar. Exceptional bartenders understand that it’s all about perception. Customers are smart - they can sense others’ emotions. A bartender with an exceptional demeanor has a winning attitude, engaging personality, and communication skills that will knock your socks off – all rolled into one. He’s flexible, adaptable, and great at conflict resolution and problem solving. His work ethic? Beyond reproach. The total package, loaded with “Soft Skills.” Think the bar manager isn’t trying to detect some of these “Soft Skills” during the interview? Think again. Besides experience, Soft Skills are what’s going to get you through that interview with flying colors. 6. Trustworthiness Trustworthy: Responsible, reliable, honest, and can be completely trusted. Being trustworthy is a moral value. Some consider it a virtue. Exceptional bartenders are trustworthy. Management knows it. Customers and fellow employees know that the exceptional bartenders’ character is beyond reproach. He also understands that it takes a long time to build trust – and one incident to totally destroy it. Trust is "Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust - distrust - is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them - in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them - of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. It's that simple." Stephen Covey Trust goes both ways. Many bar owners have a hard time trusting their bartenders because they’ve been burned in the past. Bartenders can mistrust their employers because of broken promises or mistreatment. Many people compiling a list like this would simply say “Teamwork.” Yes, working for the house does involve teamwork, a coveted soft skill, but it’s so much more than that. Let’s get teamwork out of the way. Working in tandem with others, willing to help out your fellow co-workers, following house policy – all of this is teamwork. The bar owner trusts that his bartenders will always be team players. No matter what. Truly understanding the power of teamwork is a coveted soft skill and makes you a great team player – but not an exceptional bartender. So, then, what exactly do I mean by “Trustworthiness?” Let’s start with loyalty. Loyalty: A strong feeling of support or allegiance It’s quite simple, actually. An exceptional bartender understands exactly who is signing his paycheck. Following the bar’s house policies is never an issue for this guy. And believe me, the bar owner has a pretty good idea of who is following house policies and who is not. Is there a hiccup in the flow of work? Solve it. Or, bring up the subject with your boss and find an acceptable alternative. You work for the benefit of the house. Go ahead – give him a pour test. Really? This guy doesn’t need a pour test! The bar manager wants you to push those six cases of wine he bought at a discount? Sell it! “That’s not my job!” Maybe not, but the exceptional bartender pitches in when he can – he knows that it benefits the house. He never gives out free drinks without management approval and accountability. Proper uniform, physically fit, well-groomed. “We pour a shot and a half for regular drinks, 2 ounces on the rocks, and 2 ½ ounces for martinis. I know what the liquor cost should be. If the cost starts getting out of hand, I’ll put you back on a jigger.” Words never spoken to an exceptional bartender. An exceptional bartender always protects the house. A customer’s ID looks altered – but you could be wrong? Don’t serve them. Or get the manager. Complaints from fellow employees? Find out what is at the heart of the matter and help solve the issue – or bring it up to the bar manager so he’s aware of it. Never join the complainers! An exceptional bartender always suggests solutions to management instead of complaining. “If you pour a little heavier – I’ll hook you up.” I’m very sorry, sir, but we poor a good shot here – and that’s what you have in your drink now. In most situations like this, the customer is basically asking you to rip off the bar owner. Exceptional, loyal bartenders know exactly how to handle situations like this. They know how to sell. Suggestive selling, up-selling, selling themselves. Once you know how to do this smoothly, and without being pushy, you’re truly working for the house. Always display a positive attitude towards management. This includes when you are off the clock. If you’re bad-mouthing your boss while out drinking with your buddies – get a new job. Or, maybe you should look inward. You get the picture. Exceptional bartenders work for the house and are loyal to the bar owner. Working for the house goes hand-in-hand with #6 below, Trustworthiness, which is up next. 7. Completely Understands the Customer Experience We’re not talking about “Customer Service” here. Customer service is completely different from customer experience. Let me explain. Bar owners work hand in hand with their employees to create a great customer experience. Without this teamwork, you’re left with inconsistency, unhappy customers, and poor profits – if any. It’s the bar owner’s job to make people aware of the bar. To get them in the front door. To provide a safe, comfortable environment with great food and drink. In other words – to have a great experience. The owner hires bartenders, and other employees, who understand his priorities – and do whatever it takes to help him achieve his goals. The most important of those goals is to ensure that all customers are having a great experience. It’s the bartender’s job to provide a great customer experience so that customers will return time and again. That is the bartender’s job – to work hand-in-hand with the bar owner to provide a great customer experience. Period Notice that I didn’t say “provide great customer service.” I want you to pay particular attention to this: Great customer service is a simply a tool to help provide an awesome customer experience. A tool that is just as important as the proper lighting, reasonably priced food and drink, and a winning attitude. We’ll get into Customer Service in Section 10. Everything depends upon the bar’s profitability. No profits – no business. An exceptional bartenders understands this completely. So, then, what is the bartender’s role in all of this? Of course there is a job description – many bars will have this spelled out, in writing, upon hiring you. However, it took me a few years to realize that what I was really doing behind the bar during a shift. I was simply hanging out with people. Blending in. Talking with them. Anticipating their needs, and providing suggestions and solutions to their requests. Being nice! I just happened to be making drinks and maybe serving some food while all of this was going on. Music blaring so loud that customers have to yell to each other in order to be heard? Lower the volume! Drunk regular customer knock over someone’s drink? Replace it with a smile! Steak overcooked? Really? Send it back! Acknowledge customers immediately. Actually, anyone who walks through that front door. Not after you’ve made those drinks. Not when you get done washing glasses. Immediately. Sometimes just a glance with a nod of the head works wonders. Customers good-naturedly giving you a hard time? Give it back! Always, always, always, invite your customers to come back and see you. Too hot in the bar? Get the manager to turn down the heat. Customers celebrating their 25th? is

Bartenders are known to do this for their regular customers – and get a bigger tip. A good bar manager will eventually figure this out by taking accurate inventory and ‘spot checking’ their bartenders. Don’t get caught doing this!

How Bartender’s Rip Off the House

Ouch. I know this article is about giving out free drinks, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss this topic just a little bit. I wrote a different article on how bartenders rip off the house here. This will open your eyes, believe me.

Besides stealing and drinking on the job, giving out unauthorized free drinks is one of the biggest ways bartenders rip off the house. Don’t do it. Follow the house rules. I have seen more bartenders lose their job in the very first week simply because they feel like they can get away with it.

I want you to think about something that’s very important. Ready? You don’t know who’s sitting at your bar! Of course, you know the regulars – but what about brand new customers? Do they know the bar owner or manager? Are they ‘Spotters’ hired by the bar to come in and assess the employees? You simply don’t know.

You may think that no one knows you’re giving out free drinks. Wrong. Your fellow employees probably know. So do your regular customers. In fact, I know many bar managers that send in their friends to evaluate bartenders.

Every bartender out there better realize that they’re ‘on stage.’ There are cameras everywhere. You may think that giving out free drinks is undetectable – but you’re wrong. If someone doesn’t inform on you – the inventory and pouring cost will eventually reveal what’s really going on.

How Bartenders Rip Off the Customer

I’m not going to go into this with too much detail as a wrote an article specifically on how bartenders rip off their customers here. In order to hide their giving out unauthorized free drinks, bartenders have been known to do any number of things to offset the cost. Actually, the list is endless, and bartenders constantly come up with new ways to make a few extra bucks.

Overcharging other customers, short-pouring, ringing food up on the liquor keys, etc. There are many ways to cover their tracks. Don’t be this kind of bartender! If your bar manager is any good at all – he’ll catch you.

Bartenders Drinking on the Job

So, you’re giving yourself free drinks? That’s what drinking on the job is. Yes, I know that some bar managers allow this – but is it being accounted for? That’s between you and your boss. He may even be doing shots with you. I’ve had bosses like that.

If it’s acceptable practice at your bar – fine. Just know that some states have laws governing drinking behind the bar. Having a few drinks behind the bar is one thing – not paying for it and neglecting to account for it is another as it’s just an additional form of theft.

I’ve run across many bartenders who drink behind the bar. How is it being accounted for? Is management OK with it? Many bartenders short pour their customers, or overcharge them, to make up for their own drinking. Not good. Again, see the link in the previous section on how bartenders do this.

How Bartenders Get Caught

You will get caught giving out free drinks – that’s a fact. Or, the bar manager simply doesn’t care and gives warning after warning but never takes action. That’s bad for the house, and the bar owner is probably wondering why his liquor cost is sky-high.

Someone will eventually rat you out. Count on it. And, if the bar is really good at inventory control the numbers will reveal a problem. If that’s the case, then you’re going to be monitored more closely. Of course, there are bar owners out there that simply don’t care as they’re satisfied with their current profits.

Final Thoughts

Providing free drinks to your customers is a tricky subject. It all comes down to ‘House Rules.’ I have seen more bartenders get into trouble over this issue than any other. If you’re giving out unauthorized drinks on a consistent basis – you’re stealing.

For brand-new bartenders, do not simply do what the other bartenders are doing. Get the specifics from the bar manager and follow the rules. You can’t go wrong.

Related Topics

If someone is intoxicated, should I offer them some free coffee or something to eat? By all means – yes! Again, this will depend upon house policy, but effective bar managers know that it’s just good business to keep an eye on their customers who have had too much to drink.

What do I do if I see a fellow bartender habitually giving out free drinks? That’s up to you. As I mentioned earlier in this article, I’m not the ethics police. You have to do decide what to do. Just know that any employees who are involved in theft will have an effect on the entire organization.

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