Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

The Rules of Engagement for Dealing with Bar Regulars

Image: Katie McBide

Regular customers are the lifeblood of any great bar, as crucial to its success as location, concept and the quality of the drinks. Taking care of our most loyal guests isn’t just good hospitality, it’s good business. “It’s a numbers game of sorts,” says Allegra Vera Warsager of New York City’s Mr. Purple. “Steady and consistent traffic keeps a place afloat on slow nights. If you don’t develop a consistent customer base, then it’s difficult to see longevity.”

When alcohol and conversation are involved in close quarters, navigating the relationship with your most valued guests can get complicated. We talked to bartenders about how they deal with what can be a tricky balance.

1. Know When to Give a Discount

“Buybacks [buying a drink for a guest] are used at the discretion of the staff,” says Warsager. “It’s an easy way to make someone feel welcome and appreciated, but there’s a fine line, as some customers come to expect something free just for their frequent business. A good alternative is to put a small discount on their check, aka ‘friends and family,’ which is usually 20% to 25% off (this also helps the guest to tip accordingly), and to offer a shot when dropping the bill.”

As beverage director and partner at NYC’s Amor y Amargo, Blue Quarter and Windmill, Sother Teague says regulars are any bar’s “bread and butter” and developing relationships with them is inevitable. “I’ve worked at many bars in my career where regulars almost outnumber new guests,” he says. “It’s emotional as you become a part of each other’s lives. Drink with someone for one evening, and you’ll discover a lot about them. Do it repeatedly for years, and you’ll know them in an intimate way.”

However, that doesn’t lead to loads of free drinks. “We never take anything off a check that the guest has requested,” says Teague. “We will offer extras to guests to enhance their experience, such as pouring them an ounce of unique amaro or vintage spirit. But it’s always our choice.”

2. Don’t Go Overboard

Some people will inevitably get too comfortable. “I think there’s an unfortunate style of regular that, when taken more into the fold of the bar or restaurant, tries to leverage that relationship for some gain,” says Marlowe Johnson of Detroit’s Flowers of Vietnam. “Sometimes, the guest wants to feel like a part of the team or special, which I totally understand. It’s always best to be direct and polite. Make them aware that you’re still working and still on the clock, and focus on serving all your guests. Most people, no matter how pushy, will figure it out.”

Because people can start to feel entitled, he suggests avoiding what he calls “over-hospitality.” “Sometimes, people don’t want a bunch of free shots or those three extra courses you’re dropping on them,” he says. “Read your regular and give them exactly what they want, plus 10%, if that makes sense. It isn’t always the most hospitable thing to force three shots of booze on someone and wheel them out the door.”

3. Develop a Rapport

The best currency can be knowledge. “I like to think that every person that comes into the bar is a VIP (until they prove themselves otherwise),” says Josh Lindley, a bartender at Toronto’s Chantecler and co-founder of Bartender Atlas. “It comes down to developing a relationship with your regulars so that when they show up, you know what they usually order and what they might be in the mood to drink. This comes back to knowing what you have on your backbar and in your wine fridge, too. You want to recommend something you know they will like based on their regular appearances at the bar.”

For Tony Staunton, the bar manager at Harrigan’s in Chicago, concern and discretion are other forms of currency. “Always be kind to your regulars and make sure you have their best interests in mind,” he says. “Never judge a guest if they had a little too much the night before, and never bring it up unless they do. If the guests feel comfortable, the bar will flourish.” He suggests letting folks wait for their taxis in the bar, even after closing, especially if the weather’s bad, and making sure they have a way of getting home safely.

Laura Newman, a bartender and the owner at Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala., echoes that “buying” regulars with freebies doesn’t work as well as presence, inside information and kindness. “A lot of the time, we can start preparing a regular’s order as soon as they walk in the bar,” she says. “Knowing the small touches and special things that they prefer, and always doing those things without being asked, plays a huge part in maintaining regulars. We like to involve our regulars in the ‘behind the scenes’ part of QP as much as possible. For example, our regulars serve as taste testers for new menu cocktails before they go live, and we give our regulars updates on upcoming trips or staff bonding activities and solicit their advice/suggestions.”

4. Treat It Like Any Relationship

Kelley Fitzsimonds, the lead bartender at Odd Birds in St. Augustine, Fla., says you need to think of it like you would all human relationships. “Not all of them work out, and not all of them are tight,” he says. “You figure out which ones work for you and for the establishment, and those are the ones that you put energy into. Bar owners, listen to your bartenders. If they ask for 10 comp drinks a night, question it. If they ask for three over the course of a weekend, those are earned and a lot more likely to be appreciated, which is, in the end, what we all want.”