Encouraging guests to drink responsibly is part and parcel of being a bartender. After all, you’re the gatekeeper of the booze, and anyone not acting accordingly risks being cut off and sent home early.
If only it were that simple.
“You have no way of knowing what a guest had to drink before they walked into your bar,” says Frankie Jones, the head bartender at Washington, D.C.’s Occidental Grill & Seafood. “Someone might seem fine, and then all of a sudden they go from zero to 100, and it’s just not safe for them to remain there.”
Jones and other bar pros offer their tips for gently removing problem guests from the bar.
1. Plan Ahead and Have House Rules
At San Francisco’s Elixir, owner H. Joseph Ehrmann hosts a bimonthly staff meeting to review “safety and hospitality issues,” so staff can understand current alcohol laws and the bar’s policies for dealing with unruly guests.
Similarly, Philadelphia’s Heather Rodkey, the director of operations for Sojourn Restaurant Group, requires all of her staff to complete the state’s RAMP (Responsible Alcohol Management Program), which “covers everything from fake IDs to how to manage a visibly drunk person,” she says. Her bars also have signage noting that management has the right to refuse service to anyone who is aggressive, hostile or intoxicated, which lets guests know which behaviors won’t be tolerated.
Mary Allison Wright of Denver’sRiNo Yacht Club also hosts regular staff trainings and has protocol in place for managing problematic patrons. “If someone makes our staff or other guests feel uncomfortable, their staying at the bar is not negotiable,” she says. “Usually, someone at the bar will alert a manager or me if something gets out of control, so there’s no disruption in service to other guests while we handle the situation.”
2. Be Calm and Direct
And how best to handle that situation when you have an intoxicated and possibly belligerent guest? Be calm and firm, says Wright. “I’m a small person, so I can’t give the other person any illusion of power. I’m very direct and say, ‘This is what’s happening: You’re coming with me. You’re leaving right now. You have no choice.’”
Lindsey Scheer, the bar manager at Heritage in Richmond, Va., uses a similar approach. “I used to work in a lot of dive bars, and any time you’re calm and simply say, ‘Today, you’ve had enough, but you’re welcome back any time,’ it’s much more effective than getting aggressive or confrontational,” she says.
Ehrmann agrees. “If you treat everyone with respect and keep yourself calm, you can manage the situation. But if you allow guests to push your buttons, things can get out of control quickly,” he says.
3. Isolate the Problem
Ehrmann also recommends “isolating the disruptive guest as best as possible, while moving them to the door and out the door,” so other guests’ experiences are not disturbed.
Similarly, Rodkey takes guests she has ejecting into the restaurant’s front lounge and offers them coffee, water and even food to help them sober up and then hands them the check. “I say, ‘I hope to see you again, but you’re done for tonight.’ You’re being hospitable, you’re giving them attention, but you’re also letting them know there’s no other option,” she says.
4. Enlist Others and Offer Assistance
For Lucas Groglio, the CEO of Lo Hacemos Bien, having systems in place to assist guests is the key to getting them home safely. He recommends having partnerships with Uber and other ride-share apps to give people safe transportation and also notes he and staff will offer guests water and call taxis for them if necessary.
Jones also encourages his staff to keep tabs on a person until they’re OK to leave. “We give them water, talk to them and get them to a state where they’re more aware and safe to go,” he says.
If an unruly guest is part of a group, Wright finds it best to approach someone in their party for assistance. “Chances are their friends are already embarrassed and want to de-escalate the situation,” says Jones.
For Scheer, enlisting help is also a safety issue. She suggests using the guest’s group of friends as allies to ensure someone who has been kicked out is not leaving alone or with someone who might take advantage of them. If the guest is solo, she finds someone on staff who has just clocked out or a regular to monitor the person “since I just can’t get out from behind the bar to make sure someone gets in their cab or doesn’t leave with a stranger.”
5. Call for Professional Help
When in doubt, it’s always best to call for professional help. “People can get aggressive when confronted,” says Groglio. “We don’t want our bartenders or other guests to get hurt, so we often talk to a manager or security at an event or venue to escort someone out.”
Ehrmann concurs. “Call the police sooner than you would expect, because it takes them forever to get there,” he says. “It’s better to put in the call and not need it than panic and have an out-of-control situation that’s unsafe for you, your staff and your guests.”