I’ve previously devoted significant digital ink to the topic of Drinking on the Job. However, in light of my seismic “demographic” shift late last year, from a career of working mostly big Corporate Hospitality and Fine Dining, to one of Pub Life, it’s a topic that now needs revisiting. You’ll easily find much Hospitality Consultant coverage and opinions on the matter (several of them are linked to on this blog). Rarely, however, will you get an F.O.H. insider’s perspective as you’re about to. Moreover, you’ll almost never get such a rant from a bartender who doesn’t abuse the sauce.
At issue, is the gargantuan disparity in policies, actual practices, acceptability, tolerance, social impact, and most of all: Top-line and Bottom-line impact on income. That last one is an huge issue – one which many smaller owner/operators (particularly those who have little to no experience outside their own) have little understanding of and often, lesser clue how to realistically quantify.
In my career, I’ve noted really just four scenarios that describe the staff drinking environment at just about every venue. Each, has it’s upshots and downs. Keep in mind, there really is no perfect way to address the issue. Hard-core, disciplinarian (and disillusioned) Owners/Managers are frequently plagued with the disease of the mind; one that makes them believe they can effectively run their bars without having the staff drink at all. That’s essentially the equivalent of the government trying to “cure” societie’s penchant for illicit drugs via legislation and enforcement. That’s mission impossible – but, don’t tell the Gub’ment. In the infamous words of Ron White: “You can’t fix Stupid.”
Conversely, I’ve worked small Sole Proprietorships where the ownership has seen fit to allow the bartender(s) to drink as they see fit. Now, this may seem like a boon, and Utopia from the “lucky” bartender’s POV, but reality is typically far different. At issue, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of bartenders (and often waitstaff) are either (a) certified alcoholics or (b) on the verge of becoming certified alcoholics. Careers in nightlife, by circumstance, revolve around partying. Relentless imbibing, toking, skiing (among other “vices”) are staff expectations not the exception. It’s an extremely rare bird that’s not quickly corrupted by such an open invitation, and easy access to mind-altering, mind-numbing substances and lifestyle. I suspect that’s why father-after-father have hissy-fits when their precious baby girls get all tatooed up, and announce they’re “taking a break this semester” to earn some cash in bartending or waiting tables.
For better or worse, I happen to be one of those folks who simply doesn’t give two shits about drinking. Don’t get the wrong idea… like most “yoots,” I’ve spent an eternity (late teens through early thirties) boozing it up, partying it up, and generally – acting the fool. You know – because everyone else was doing the same. I’ve never not liked drinking though. However, my consumption at this stage of my life is fare tamer. I enjoy (a) a few beers at a game (b) paired with a meal, a bottle or two [or three] of primo grape juice shared amongst family/friends and (c) a few artisan cocktails, small batch Whiskies, and/or fine French bubbly whilst kickin’ it on a beautiful evening with guests. The point is, I like drinking. I love the taste of my preferred hooch. I don’t like getting or even feeling drunk. I never have. At my age, and having lived my experiences (both good and bad), I don’t give two shits about peer pressure or what anyone’s expectations are in terms of what and how much I drink. I’m as perfectly comfortable knocking back a couple of Cosmos or Lemon Drop Martinis amongst dudes as I am Michters, Lagavulin, Jamo, or Leffe Blonde, Old Engine Oil, or plebian old Heinekens. I’m also perfectly comfortable slowly sipping my bevvies, while often being the only ones to abstain from endless shots my boys are partaking in. I like shots, sure. But hell, I don’t like sucking one down between each breath.
Anyway, bartending as a career lends itself to far too easy access to sex, booze, drugs, and complacency in other life endeavors. I’ve never been one of those folks who simply can’t wait to “get fucked up.” I’m always confused and discouraged by my Hospitality brethren who consistently announce such desires and follow up drinking ’til they drop. I drink primarily because I truly enjoy the taste of by beverage.
Personally, I done been to that mountain top far too many times. I’ve found it’s not pretty, it doesn’t feel good (late that evening, nor the next day), it contributes significantly to the “Empty Bank Account” phenomenon and sometimes, to the “You’re Fired” phenomenon. Far worse, as many of us have experienced, is waking up nekked next to someone you wouldn’t look twice at sober, guessing (but not remembering with 100% certainty) that you may have gotten down and dirty somem’ strange.
I don’t see any advantage whatsoever, to downing a half-fifth of Jameson on the job. You will lose money. You will lose respect. It’s one of the stupidest things a bartender can do to torpedo his/her career – allowed to, or not. I’ve seen it happen many, many times. Conversely, there’s something really, really weird and suspicious about a bartender who refuses to, or strictly adheres to the house policy of not drinking at all with customers. As a patron myself, it makes me feel really uncomfortable regardless of “the rules.” If I have a significant tab, and would like the barkeep to join me in a round, I seriously expect it to happen and consider it part and parcel of the entire service. As a bartender, I consider it part of the job. It’s also a serious part of the job to monitor and control yourself – particularly with consumption. Personally, I’ve often had to “cut myself off” with a long song-and-dance about how I have to ride my motorcycle home in a bit (or something to that affect), how I’ve had a few already, have to pace myself, while at the same time, displaying great appreciation and engagement for the gesture.
I digress… Let’s look at the various scenarios as they exist in our work environments and how each may or may not affect, not just us bartenders, but coworkers, guests, management and ownership.
There are essentially 4 types of venues and 4 types of staff drinking policies.
The Four Types of Venues are:
- Sole Proprietership – Typically single owner/operator pubs. The owner may even be one of the bartenders.
- Small Management Group – A Sole Proprietorship that has greatly prospered, or a “Golden-Investor” driven corporation, that has significant enough capital to expand to three or four venues – usually within the same city.
- Medium Management Group – A substantial corporation with local, regional, and sometimes national/international aspirations or footholds – chains or similar establishments in different areas of town or different cities.
- Large Management Group – Often publicly traded corporation with national/International reach. Most often, they include large hotels, nightclubs and restaurants.
NOTE: 1 and 2 are often plagued by overreaching aspirations in terms of their management styles. Sole Proprietorship and Small Management Group overlords frequently live/work/act far bigger than their britches. They’re often drunk on power. Having visited other establishments, particularly big-corporate venues, or having inherited a large sum of money or a business, they sometimes (mistakenly) believe they can employ the same polices and procedures in their far smaller businesses. I call it “Pseudo-Corporate Hospitality Mentality Disorder” or “P.C.H.M.D.”
The Four Basic Drinking Policies are”
- Drinking is allowed and is at the complete discretion of the bartender
- Drinking is not allowed during your shift, however:
- Associates are allowed to have a complimentary “shift drink” after they’ve clocked out.
- Associates are allowed unlimited drinks at a discounted rate
- A combination of A and B
- Drinking is not allowed during nor after your shift, however:
- Management may choose to reward certain or all on-duty staff with shots or cocktails at the tail-end of, or after, a hard-worked evening
- Drinking is prohibited
- Associates are permitted to dine/drink at only at tables (never at the bar). Discounts are at the complete discretion of on-duty management.
- Associates are permitted to dine/drink only with pre-arranged approval from management
- Staff are never permitted to enter the establishment, nor dine, nor drink, when not scheduled or conducting official company business (e.g., staff meetings, promotions, training, etc.
Now here’s the weird rub: You can often (but not always) overlay The Four Types of Venues with The Four Basic Drinking Policies, number for number. In essence, the bigger the company becomes, the more strict they become with drinking policy for associates (generally). There are obviously many exceptions.
Regardless of what the general policy happens to be, there is one stipulation which bartenders must adhere to in all but the smallest, non-POS equipped pubs. That is, every drink (comped or not) must be rung in for accounting (read: write-offs) and inventory purposes. As I’ve previously noted however, there is simply no policy, legislation, fear-tactic, or enforcement action that can 100% eliminate staff (particularly bartenders) from drinking on the job. It’s simply not realistic. No matter how fascist-like the management reign, nothing will stop determined bartenders from drinking – period. Sorry folks.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be contained or limited – if that’s the goal. First and foremost, don’t hire (or keep employed) known alcoholics. Pretty straightforward, aye? Normally, yes. But then family, friends, politics, seniority, pity come into play straight-up ruining an owner/manager’s business sense. In most cases, inebriated bartenders are tolerated – a blind eye is generally turned – by mid-level management, until some egregious incident takes place (which it often does – eventually).
I’ve had the privilege of tending bar and waiting tables in bars/restaurants with all four of the above policies. There are benefits and disadvantages to each scenario from both an owner/manager’s point of view as well as an F.O.H. perspective:
Policy I - Obviously, this category makes for some seriously happy associates and contributes to “family” type, close-knit (closer than you think – more like incestuous) work environment. At the same time, it contributes to often serious substance abuse via free, and free-flowing liquor. I don’t think I need to describe the impact such abuse can have in other areas of life and health. Furthermore, the financial cost (to ownership) is more than cost straight off Top-Line Income.
NOTE: Most accountants will measure the financial impact of comps (voids are different from a tax perspective) as a debit from Gross Income. The real deal, however, should be measured far differently. The cost of liquor loss in general should be viewed as lost retail revenue, and the eventual hit to Bottom-Line Income (N.O.I), the impact of which is far more enormous. The problem is that most folks are caught up in smoke and mirrors and really don’t want to see the holistic picture of their business.
For the uninitiated, let’s look at one example. Assume one bartender consumes one shot of Jameson. Let’s also assume the 750ml bottle costs $25 wholesale – for argument’s sake. A 1.5oz pour (ideally – not really) yields 20 – 22 portions per bottle. So “cost” is – let’s say – $1.25 per shot. Say your bar sells Jamo for $10, in any form (shot, mixed, etc). From an accounting perspective, that means your bar just “lost” $1.25 but actually “lost” $10 in potential revenue. The interpretation of Revenue Loss is voodoo science. It’s part mathematical and partly subjective. In any case, it’s a net financial loss. But is it really an overall loss? Hmm… read further.
Policy II - This policy is probably the most prevalent I’ve experienced even in Corporate life. That familial bond and light-hearted atmosphere is maintained somewhat. Employees experience a sigh of relief and a good sense of appreciation at the end of an arduous shift. At the same time, an “attempt” is made at reining in willy-nilly, no-holds-barred type of drinking, losses, and the devilish (and frankly detrimental) resultant vibe.
But, nothing is perfect. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The problems here are still substantial. Not everything is rung in and not all limitations are adhered too all the time. From an accounting perspective, you’d be lucky of half of what’s actually poured is rung in. Any half-wit, semi-FOH-experienced owner, and his accountants, understand the game and will make projections for appropriate “spoilage” (assume 15 – 20% overall).
Remember, your staff are friends both in and out of the workplace. Even if they’re not, the pressure on bartenders – old and new – to “hook staff up” and follow well-established norms is often quite burdensome. The repercussions for “sticking to the script” and not following unwritten convention can often be substantial. It may include reduced Service Bar tip-outs, social ostracizing, crappy scheduled shifts, etc.
Policy III – This is somewhat common and actually, not too bad a condition with which to work. It keeps your eyes on the price (money) and focus on service. Enhanced service, in turn, leads to greater revenue. Greater revenue, mathematically, leads to bigger tips. Bigger tips, leads this bartender to bigger smiles. Money, is why I leave my house to sling cocktails to begin with. I do not go to work to make friends or otherwise socialize unnecessarily.
If I take my shirt off on the job (that’s happened a few few times), drop trow, grin incessantly, flirt, trade digits, do a little dance, blow fire, tolerate you to squeezing my moobs, do shots with, or whatever, I assure you, it’s all in the name of guests giving me more cash. I, in no way shape or form, want to be drunk or high on the job. It’s extremely unprofessional while at the same time, affects my income – negatively. But that’s just me – I can’t speak for other derelicts.
Anyway, management “officially” buying F.O.H. staff shots, or allowing us an unexpected post-shift drink (e.g., polishing off a pre-paid tower of Sangria, or bottles of bubbly) is a great mood-booster and sorely appreciated. Associate appreciation is evident, while avoiding having staff hanging around all night, sucking down profits. It minimizes costs – particularly if what’s being served is (a) already paid for or (b) insanely cheap to begin with, such as pre-batched house cocktails. Incidentally, the three greatest costs for a bar are (1) real estate (2) labor and (3) liquor – often, in that order.
Policy IV - Complete prohibition is pretty common – as mentioned – duly so with Medium to Big Corporate Hospitality. I suspect that more cooks (board members) in the executive kitchen, the more the insurance companies and corporate legal eagles view the practice as a potential liability. I suspect they view drunkenness, or even slight inebriation from a legal/medical point of view, as potentially leading to – not only mistakes and financial mishandling – but physical accidents, guest mis-communications, voids, charge-backs, etc.
Again, what’s stipulated and enforced, is often not what’s actually practiced. But, they can sure as shit try, can’t they? This policy obviously translates to the least cost to income. But at what cost? Cost should not only be measured in immediate/appreciable terms but as intangible costs as well. What about associate morale, desire to show up to work, commitment to the company and fellow worker bees, and the resultant attitude displayed during customer interactions? It all needs to be considered.
One last topic – Owners Drinking on the Job. Bars are a microcosm of the Trickle Down Theory of Economics from a policy perspective. Managers do as owners do (or allow them to do or not do). Staff do as Mangers do (or allow them to do or not do). Staff will generally get away with what Mangers allow them to get away with. Testing the proverbial waters, a few weeks into a new gig, is commonplace. We all learn the unwritten rules and just how much latitude we have after a while. Some folks never learn, unfortunately, and simply don’t last.
You’ll find many opinions regarding Owners and drinking from the Taffer-like consultants here and there. The majority of them conclude what I’ve just noted: Owners set the tone for the entire staff whether they like to or not. Mangers do as owners do. Staff do as Managers do. There is little more unbecoming and detrimental, than an owner who’s consistently trashed at his own establishment. In owners job is to pop in an out here and there unobtrusively, briefly schmooze with the occasional guest, observe quietly, ensure his GM and floor managers are adequately representing the venue, and get the hell out. It’s one thing for an owner to spend a few minutes at the bar, towards the end of the evening, with a glass of wine or two, or have the same vino as an accompaniment to his/her meal at a table. It’s quite another for him/her to relive the Animal House college days, getting shit-faced at the bar for hours upon hours.
In conclusion: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here now: “Shit on your employees, and your employees will shit on your business.” Similarly, rewarding your staff as a team, consistently displaying appreciation, and communicating dignity – even under duress, has immeasurably positive, long-term effects on operations. I’m not advocating any or all of th policies/procedures herein. I think that there are advantages and downsides to each of them. Each business owner/manager has to examine their own mission, environment, finances and staff and come up with what best fits their business model.