Bar Tab Gone Wild – June 2013 Edition

I’d surmise that most post-bro phase adults have been there: You’re hitting up your favorite/trendy watering hole with a gaggle of your bestest homies. As typically required by the establishment’s powers-that-be, one of you has plunked down that all too convenient enabler of binge-drinking and mayhem, a credit card, in order to keep your groups bar tab “open.” It’s a very common occurrence, no? Indeed. Come the end of the evening’s grand imbibery, what happens when there’s a discrepancy?

SHTF happens… that’s what.

In the infamous words of the great Ad-Rock, here’s a little story, I’ve got to tell… not about three bad brothers, but about a few rotten guests. It begins like any other – Dude and Dudette plop their asses down at my bar on a busy weekend, are promptly greeted, served, and start a bar tab. Pretty mundane so far. Many cocktails and a few appetizers are had over the course of several hours. Each round is added to the couple’s bar tab, being held open via an extension of credit, via the P.O.S. That’s S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure). The beats are thumping, liquor flowing, laughs rolling, and salacious flirting is running a muck. Folks are getting happily twisted and the bartender ensures that everyone is generally having a great experience.

As the hours tick by, Dude and Dudette engage in conversation with various (previously unknown) guests beside them. As they mack with the various “Strange,” Dude repeatedly orders several rounds of drinks for his new-found acquaintances – mostly shots of a certain, nefarious Irish Whiskey, along with a handful of highballs/cocktails. Bartender notes that at times, Dude is collecting orders from said guests then communicating them directly with the barkeep. Bartender asks each imbiber to pay for his/her drinks. Dude nods and repeatedly indicates “…put it on my tab.” Cool bro.

Come 2am or so, the well-fed and well-lubricated Dude and Dudette wish to head for the hills and thus, ask to close their tab. As is my personal habit and courtesy, particularly for large tabs, I ask “would you like to charge it all on the card you left or pay cash?” Quite often, they’ll respond by asking to first see the breakdown. This tactic generally avoids the shock and awe drunks and inexperienced ravers sometimes exhibit when their card has been unceremoniously authorized for hundreds/thousands of dollars of product they’ve consumed.

There are few bars I’ve worked in over the years where disputes are so common, there exists a requirement to print out an updated copy of the bar tab, and place it front of the guests for each and every round ordered. That’s a serious pain in the ass when busy.

When asked for the breakdown, or when guests indicate that they’ll pay in cash, it is advisable not to return the credit card until payment is collected one way or another. This is especially important in bars where it is not customary to pre-authorize the credit card. When you’re busy, folks can walk right out the door and the bartender/establishment will be left footing the bill – not fun in the slightest.

In any case, Dude and Dudette take two peeps at the check, and have a near meltdown. They hurriedly call me over and excitedly proclaim that they didn’t have this, that and the other thing. I try to squash the situation by apologizing “I’m sorry you feel that way. Let me take a look and see what I can do. Maybe there’s been an error.” I go over each item, line-by-line. I explain that each item, is something that Dude or Dudette only ordered from me directly. Whether a little birder whispered in their ear and the message was relayed to me by them, is irrelevant. What’s on the breakdown is exactly what was ordered.

Dude and Dudette, as you might expect, continue to protest. As the dialogue (read: disagreement) continues, their tone and gestures grow notably more agitated and the volume of their protests escalate. After three rounds of politely trying to explain, I tell them:

“look… I have zero interest in padding your bill. It does me no good whatsoever. It’s not in my best interests nor the interests of the bar. Obviously, you’re so incensed, I’m fairly certain I’m not getting a tip at this point yet, I’m still trying to to resolve this issue. I’m going to get the manager and you guys can sort it out.”

The entire time, I’m literally being screamed, harassed and – as they say in the South – cussed at. I walk away and summon the on-duty Ring Master (manager) from the bowels of Helms Deep. I prep him for the onslaught, showing him the bill and explaining exactly what had happened and what was said. I step to the other end of the bar, attending to the needs of other guests, while occasionally glancing at ensuing battle.

As any restaurant/bar manager knows, “Guest Recovery” is an acquired skill. It takes a big set of cojones to absorb and brush off the repeated tyrannical whims of an irate (and tipsy) guest. The conversation typically starts out with numerous apologies and iterations of “I understand” perhaps followed by “let me buy you a round of drinks.” The more corporate the establishment or chain, the more likely the manager is to waive off a percentage of the tab or even comp the entire bill. Corporate loves to err on the side of the guest – right or wrong (wrong from my perspective). Sole proprietorship and smaller venues, on the contrary, lean more towards – I don’t know – the “…fuck off and pay me now sucker” mentality in such situations.

The reality, is that 99% of servers and bartenders are extremely meticulous about keeping bar tabs and table checks properly accounted for. Anything on the check even remotely resembling impropriety, is quite simply shooting themselves in the foot. It’s unprofessional and in the end, it’s thievery. I’ve witnessed the practice only a handful of instances over 26 or so years in Hospitality. The few times I’ve seen it happen have been with very large parties where either (1) the servers/bartenders expect to gratuitize a very large bill or (2) servers/bartenders are hungry and the house has provided for no way to be fed during a very long shift. I don’t approve nor have I ever participated in any of these activities. It’s just plain wrong.

Back to my Dude and Dudette… Despite my very experienced manager’s best efforts to squash the drama in a myriad of ways, he “discussion” between manager and couple escalates to the point where two very tall, very intimidating, security personal of great girth,  have approached the conversation and appear to have a keen interest in the goings on. The couple continue to insist they did not order nor consume a large number of itemized beverages. Finally, the cops are called and – as is customary – try to obtain both sides of the story in an effort to figure out what the fuck is going on.

In my (ehem…) many experiences with authority types, it’s my experience that the more calm, rational, sober and level-headed you remain in your dialogue, the more apt they are to believe your side of the story. These folks did nothing to help themselves by continuing their drunken, loud bitchfest to the Boys in Blue. They eventually get threatened with Theft of Service, in this case, Petty Larceny.

Dudette, having long ago lost any type of filter between brain and mouth, eventually gets cuffed. Dude, at this point having fully completed the transformation to Douchebag, fully blames her for the goings on though he was directly responsible for about 90% of what was ordered. Eventually, he’s also threatened with shiny, used, nickel-plated bracelets and finally coughs up his credit card to pay the piper. As expected, on a several hundred dollar tab, I get a nice fat line through the Gratuity – a $0 tip.

In decades on the front lines, I can honestly say that this is not the first time I’ve experienced this horror show. It’s happened – on my watch – 2 or 3 times previously and various establishments. This is the first time, however, where either the tab has not been gratuitized or the cops have not forced the perps to fill in an overly-generous tip for troubling me so.

Let this be a lesson to you all: Servers and Bartenders are not out to screw guests. It’s not in their interests whatsoever. It’s simply not worth a potentially monumental argument, potential violence, and often – a complete loss of tip income, to slap a couple of quesadillas and a few Jamesons on a random tab.





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