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Bartenders Reveal Their Worst Nightmare Shifts. Plus How They Handled Those Disasters.

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(illustration: Alex Testere)

It’s common wisdom that the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. In the bar world, that means even the most well-equipped teams and seasoned bartenders might face situations they’ve never prepared for. Yes, being a good bartender requires learning how to think several steps ahead, but it’s simply impossible to anticipate every individual scenario. And with alcohol in the mix, it’s not hard to imagine how things could go wrong on either side of the bar.

That said, don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself working a nightmare shift. Studies have shown that hospitality and service rank consistently among the most stressful industries to work in, partially because of the vast range of high-pressure situations folks encounter. But whatever the circumstances may be, know that the most you can do is stay calm, follow protocol if you can and think on your feet if you can’t.

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Jeremy Allen, the general manager and lead bartender at Los Angeles’ MiniBar, offers four general rules for dealing with crises as a bartender:

1. Learn to see it before it happens. “Unfortunately, this only comes with experience. The possibilities are infinite, but every time an event occurs, you log it and are ready to prevent it again. Alert your team and security in advance.”

2. Be sober when it happens. “We don’t drink at work, mostly because you never know what could happen. Keep cool, and keep the situation as isolated and small as possible. The whole bar doesn’t need to see that there’s a problem.”

3. Managers, trust your team, but make it apparent you’re in charge. “If you’re not in charge, let the boss know there’s a possible situation as soon as you can. A lot of times, you can tell who will be a problem or require attention at first sight. Trust your instincts and be prepared.”

4. Do not be afraid to do someone the favor of cutting them off. “With a lot of over-indulgers, it has happened before, and they will usually understand what’s happening. Let their friends know it’s happening and get them to take care of it. The more times you cut someone off, the better you get at it and are able to be firm yet gracious. You’re not trying to embarrass anyone.”

When we put out a call for bartenders to share their bar horror stories, the situations ranged from somewhat humorous to very serious. But there was one common thread: Every bartender we spoke to offered solutions for how they survived their worst shift, from the tough calls they made to the lessons they learned. In the spirit of learning and sharing knowledge, we’ve compiled some of these horror stories (and how they were handled).

The Worst Drain Clog of All Time

I’ll start with my own. One busy Sunday evening, when I was tending bar at a high-volume cocktail bar in New York City, our upstairs floor drain clogged, causing a one-inch puddle to form at my feet. As the water began gushing out from behind the bar into the seating area, we realized it was also leaking slowly downstairs. Before we could unclog the drain and release the water, the leak shorted the outlet downstairs, causing the Wi-Fi to go out and shut off both our music and internet-based POS system. With a line out the door and several tables ready to settle their bill, we found ourselves in quite a predicament.

The solution: We quickly delegated tasks among ourselves. One person cleaned up the remaining water and called our owner, another collected as many cash payments as possible (asking those without cash to run to an ATM, if they were willing), and another made and ran drinks in double time. While some guests left disgruntled, we comped drinks for those who had waited significantly longer and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a rough night then, but we laugh about it now.

The Drunk Accountant Buyout

“A group of accountants came in for a buyout. We didn’t realize that while we were serving the group cocktails, everyone who came in also brought their own booze or brought the host bottles of booze as gifts, and they were all drinking these, as well,” says Dave Kaplan of Death & Co in NYC. “Everyone was drinking like they’d never seen alcohol before. In just a couple of hours, more than 20 people in this group were vomiting in the bar at the same time. People were literally looking for Ziploc bags to vomit into. At one point, someone grabbed [then head bartender] Thomas Waugh’s shaker tin from behind the bar and puked into it. There was vomit everywhere.”

The solution: “We cut them off, chatted with the host of the group and promptly gave everyone water,” says Kaplan. “The party was over by 11:30 p.m., and we ensured the group all got into cars and made their way home safely. The host of the group emailed the next day saying he and his friends had a lovely time and said, ‘Sorry I yakked on the floor; I was just so excited to drink.’ We’ve cleaned up puke before, and since he was lovely and apologetic, we didn’t ask him to pay to have the bar cleaned.”

The Falling Crane

“Once, at a place I worked at before Station Hollywood, I was in the middle of a dinner shift at the bar when I heard a loud crash,” says Lawrence Main, the general manager of Station Hollywood in Los Angeles. “I assumed it was the rumble of an air-conditioning vent, but then all the alarms started going off, and I realized a 20-story construction crane had fallen and crashed into our building. Luckily, no one in my restaurant or bar was injured, but it created a mix of reactions ranging from panicked to couldn’t-care-less. I had one set of guests evacuating and another trying to guzzle down drinks and cram down food in hopes of finishing before I kicked them out.”

The solution: “We basically had to evacuate a full house—get drinks out of people’s hands, help them find transportation, comp everyone’s checks,” says Main. “The experience has repeated itself in other forms over the years, and I think the best way to deal with crises behind the bar is to stay calm and collected. It helps keeps the guests from panicking as much and makes the situation easier to control.”

The Would-Be Bar Fight

NYC bartender Sandy Nunez remembers a particularly frightening night in which he and a colleague were forced to intervene in a violent fight between two guests. “I was building a 12-top ticket when I heard glass break,” he says. “I looked up and saw blood running down the face of one guest; another guest is standing in front of him with the handle of a stein glass. I glanced at my barmate, and we called for silence in the bar.”

The solution: It goes without saying that violence in a bar space should never be tolerated. In these cases, it’s best to quickly eliminate the danger and remember your responsibility to the rest of your patrons. “We dragged the guest and their mate out by the back collar and belt grips and returned to the bar,” says Nunez. Also recommended: In the case of injury, ensure that medical and emergency authorities are notified if needed.

The Suspected Harasser

Kaplan recalls a more serious instance at Death & Co in which staff asked a male patron to leave when they suspected he was harassing a group of women. “There’s no standing room at Death & Co, so when this patron got up from his seat at a table more than once, and was reminded of this policy, the staff tried to ask the women (without making a scene) if they were being harassed,” he says.

The solution: “When it still wasn’t clear what was happening, we made a judgment call and dropped the check for the patron,” says Kaplan. “We make it a priority at Death & Co to protect women and make sure groups of women feel safe, and usually when we make this call, we’re right.”

While this is a solid course of action, Kaplan notes that the male patron reached out to the bar the following day to express that he had been judged unfairly and that he knew the female patrons. “We spoke on the phone twice, and each communicated our point of view. While I apologized for the way the situation played out, I also explained to him why our staff made the decision that they did. Similarly, I listened to his side of things and understood how it would feel if I was trying to visit with my friends and my motives were being questioned. In the end, he was happy to have had the conversation and appreciative of the honest dialogue and said he’d love to come back to the bar again one day.”

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