How Generous Should Your Bartenders Be?Two career bartenders share their thoughts on drink buyback policies.
“Sometimes you want to go . . .” If you’re a bartender, or you were alive in the 1980s, you know the rest of the lyric. (“Where everybody knows your name.”)
The Cheers theme song was onto something, of course. Bar patrons often like to feel a sense of belonging at a bar. And some special treatment now and then doesn’t hurt, either. (Did Norm ever pay his bar tab?)
One way some bars try to foster devotion is by giving out the occasional free drink to reward regulars. But other bars require staff to measure and record every pour.
NCR Silver asked two career bar professionals for their thoughts on “buyback” policies.
Andrew Bohrer is a writer, illustrator and bartender “consuming and imbibing as much as one can (responsibly) in the perpetually damp Pacific Northwest.” He explained the buyback as an older, “buy three, get one free” system some bars use to reward the loyalty of daily regulars.
“I used to work in a place where I would see the same group at the bar every day, five days a week, buying two to four beers each day,” he said. In situations like that, many bartenders are given the leeway to buy the fourth beer on the house or make sure the guest gets happy hour prices on all of their purchases, he explained.
For higher-end establishments, he recommended finding ways the bartender can reward regulars without giving away the sale. For instance, when the guest orders, “pour them a little something on the side that you think they might be interested in trying. You’ll be building a more informed consumer, and a more informed consumer is a better customer.”
Bohrer said knowing that every pour and penny is being watched has an effect on the bartender’s relationship with the proprietor. “I feel like that puts me in a very adversarial relationship with the business owner, and I can’t relax in that environment.”
“Bars are kind of strange in that there’s this expectation from customers that their loyalty should be rewarded with free products,” said Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
With more than 20 years of bartending behind him, Morgenthaler manages Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is an avid blogger on all things drink-related.
Most bar owners understand that the occasional on-the-house drink for a regulars is simply part of the cost of doing business, he explained. But, he noted, “There’s a difference between the cost of doing business and rewarding a regular guest versus a rogue bartender just giving away free products to a friend.”
According to Morgenthaler, official buyback policies are few and far between. “Not to say they don’t exist, but every time I’ve heard of an ‘official policy,’ it’s always, always, always been from a guest and not an actual bartender.”
He gave this example. “It’s not like McDonald’s, right? McDonald’s can sell you burgers all day long. McDonald’s would be happy to sell you 15 burgers every day. But with alcohol, that means we’ve got 15 drinks in you, and now we’ve got a problem on our hands.”
At his establishment, Morgenthaler says they do allow the bartenders discretionary privilege to give out buybacks. (They record all free drinks as a house purchase.)
“They’re all good about it. They know that this isn’t a free ride for their significant other, they all know that this isn’t to be taken lightly, but if we have a regular guest that comes in a lot, someone who kind of deserves it, somebody who’s had a bad day or was unsatisfied with their meal. We have the power to kind of ‘take care of them’ with a drink.”
Responsibly giving out free drinks to regulars shouldn’t have an impact on the bottom line, he said. “If it’s going to move my pour cost even 1 percentage point, we’re not doing it right.”
It’s all about identifying the right moments that build a deeper relationship between the patron and the bar, said Morgenthaler.
“Just that little nod. Knowing when to buy somebody a drink at just the right time makes them feel closer and more connected to the bar. And makes them want to come back and makes them want to tell their friends, so it’s actually good for business.”