Dealing with drunks!

Bar personnel are more often than not woefully under-prepared to deal with problematically intoxicated guests. Here's a proactive guide to managing over-consumption at your bar!

Posted: Thursday, May 07, 2015

A fundamental dilemma for professional bartenders is that the better they are at their job, the more drinks they sell, and the more drinks they sell, the more drunks they end up having to deal with. And the not so secret dirty secret in the trade is that dealing with drunks can be a very unpleasant challenge unless…

 a.) you join them, drinking down to their level… (or)

 b.) you develop a smart and effective system for dealing with them.

 After thirty years in the bar biz, I’m not here to pretend that a. can’t help you get through a tough night on occasion, but I will say unequivocally that it’s an abysmal long term strategy, one which will very quickly make you worse at your job, not better.

For those without bar experience it may seem odd that I even have to say that, but the fact is a lot of bartenders drink behind the bar (in some places it’s even sanctioned), and while there are those who can handle it, many, many more let it get away from them, becoming more and more dependent on drinking, which leads to all sorts of problems, both personal and professional. Nuf’ said.

 That leaves us only with solution b. to seriously consider. The first order of business here is foresight: developing the ability to recognize that the fine line between recreational drinking and problematic impairment is being approached. Always be on alert for customers who are drinking at a conspicuously fast rate or seem to be exhibiting signs of inebriation then be proactive BEFORE a problem develops!


Perhaps even more important than the actions you take is the way you take them. Humor, as far as I’m concerned, is the ultimate way to disarm tension. It’s hard for customers to be offended if they’re laughing. Witty bartenders, especially of the self-deprecating variety, rarely get into angry confrontations. But if you’re not funny (you may be in the wrong business), whatever you do, don’t show anger-- it’s contagious. Stay calm, even nonchalant, act like this is no big deal and customers are much less likely to take things personally.



 All that said, there will regardless be times when you can’t stay far enough ahead of the curve on this and customers will get trashed. Maybe they came in half drunk, maybe their tolerance is low, maybe they’re on medication, haven’t eaten all day, who knows? In cases like this, just because you’re not to blame, doesn’t mean you’re absolved of responsibility moving forward; they’re at your bar, you have to take charge at this point.

 Peremptorily shutting off patrons is much harder than slowing their consumption, especially if it includes having to take a drink away (which, if they’re really out of hand, has to done).

 Tips and guideline protocols for shutting off drunk patrons include:

  Sincerely convey that your primary concern is safety. You want to make sure they continue to have a good time, do nothing they’ll later regret, and get home safely.

  • As long as they’re under control, they don’t have to leave; you want them to continue enjoying themselves. Offer coffee and water on the house, and if permitted, some free food. Convey that you continue to care about the quality of their guest experience.

  • Remember it’s embarrassing getting cut off. If you want them back, tell them that the next time they visit the first drink will be on the house. This is a gracious way of saying, “This isn’t personal and I look forward to having you as a guest here again.”

  • You need them to try to get home safely. Arrange for a cab (or UBER!) if they plan on immediately driving. Enlist the help of his/her friends in getting them back home safely.

  • If they stay at your bar, make sure co-workers are informed of their status. If they try to order drinks through others, you’ll have to ask them to leave.

  • When dealing with an unruly group, take the most sober and reasonable member aside; don’t confront them all at once.

  • If the situation has already gotten out of hand (or is close to it), diplomacy takes a backseat to patron safety and business welfare. Security intervention is a last resort, but should always be a readily available option.

The bottom line is that bar personnel need to be prepared to deal with these kind of eventualities. All too often patrons are allowed to get drunk and out of control because bartenders are simply not comfortable intervening (believe me, I see it in reports way too often!). Venue management should sit down with their staff and discuss protocols and procedures, to the point of even role playing. Lines and approaches should be practiced and rehearsed. Everyone involved needs to understand that there could be tragic legal and moral implications to a more impromptu approach.