Thursday, November 22, 2018

:: the art of the cut-off ::

First published on the USBG National blog in August 2017; slightly adapted version here.

During Tales of the Cocktail 2017, my friends from a public relations firm introduced me to one of their co-workers at their event. In speaking with her, it turns out that she was also a burgeoning bartender and we got on the topic of how to cut off guests and deal with unruly customers. At my first bar job, I had several mentors. Of those, one duo taught me an opposite skill set: Jay was an expert on welcoming people and fixing blunders, while Adam was an expert at cutting people off and getting people to go. Adam's second job was at a dive bar where it was necessary to do things right the first time especially given the muscular, blue-collared nature of many of their clientele. While I am no master of this skillset, and cutting people off at most of my later jobs was rather infrequent (save for one during 2018 where it was a little too frequent), I figured that I would share my thoughts since I have seen this question pop up on Facebook and Reddit frequently.

I divide the strategy into two parts: the proactive and the reactive.

Sometimes it is tough to be proactive since people can go from zero to sixty rather quickly, or perhaps they were not on your radar due to the crowd (or if their friends were bringing them drinks, or they were drinking at another of the establishment's bar stations).

The preemptive or proactive techniques start once you notice someone going down that path a little too fast, but most importantly, before they ask for that next drink to which you will have to say no. No one likes to get denied, so avoiding that confrontation and their potential embarrassment is what these techniques focus on.

The first of these is The Pause.

The pause is any technique that gets a nonalcoholic beverage into people's hands instead of an alcoholic one. At one New Orleans craft beer bar during the day, they got a lot of townie locals and there I saw the Water Time-Out. When I had problems with townie guests, Adam's advice was to scold them like kids; they respond best to it. Some guests look to you as their parents and they do not want to risk losing access to the treats. At this beer bar, any time one of their tipsy patrons wanted to switch to beer again, the bartender would tell them to "drink your water!" and that happened to be a full pint of the stuff. While the above is a stall that begins with a no with a maybe implied, I have stalled people by asking if they would like to try a new Tiki drink or other that I was working on (and was my treat). However, this was one of the mocktails that I was tinkering with so that delayed them for a round. I have also presented people with shots of espresso (at one place I worked, we had a crappy pod coffee machine, but it could quickly and easily pour a shot) especially if they were starting to nod or drift off. It also gave a good sign that they were closing in on the end of their night out. At private events at my first restaurant, we would avoid telling the guests no (usually these were big spenders buying out half or all of the space) by giving them tonic instead of vodka-tonic or mocktail shooters instead of a round of shots. We could then enter the proper drink amount into the POS machine without the guest figuring out that they were being charged for a nonalcoholic drink.

The Freeze-Out is another method where you avoid taking a guest's order or delay (or "forget"), making it -- to buy some time.

Another proactive technique is inquiring about transportation. When a guest is beginning to get deep, inquire where they live and then work in how they got there and will get home. There are different concerns that come into play if the person was driving instead of taking a taxi or walking, and it can also assess if they have friends with them that can be utilized later. This transportation question could also be utilized in one of the many tricks Adam taught me, namely, approaching a guest from either your side or their side of the bar and compassionately ask how they are getting home and if we can call them a cab. The question becomes not whether they can have another drink but what way they can choose to make their way to bed. A lot of the techniques also depend on whether the guest has an open tab. In most instances, it helps to have the check already printed and ready to be presented to get the financials squared away.

It also helps to speak to the inebriated one's friend to inform them that you will not serve their friend anymore, and to see if they can get them out of there as well as close up the tab. The bonds of friendship can be utilized to your advantage instead of having the friends come to the person's defense. And in terms of other people to speak to, always try to keep the manager abreast of the situation. Getting the manager involved can either be a heads up that you are considering cutting off a patron or that you will be cutting off a patron, so the manager can keep an eye on things. Or sometimes it can be a way to get them to do the work for you. One of my general managers was such a kind yet focused soul that he was a whiz at getting people to pay up and leave without incident. Although some of the assistant managers were more avoidant to that sort of confrontation. If the tab is closed, see if you can get the guest to go outside with you for a cigarette and then wish them well afterwards. Or perhaps come to the other side, shake their hand, talk to them for a bit, and thank them for coming as you lead them to the door. Showing hospitality like that can avoid the guest from feeling embarrassment from their peers.

The reactive part comes when it is at the point that the guest is asking for another drink. Of all the things listed so far, this is the most challenging because all of the chances to do the safer techniques listed above have been squandered, and it is time to turn down the guest without them getting angry or violent. First, it is important not to back down; once you have made the decision that they are done, do not change that or let a coworker override you. Second, do not worry about a tip at this point -- your tip is them leaving. It will help out in the long run financially if your other guests are not bothered by that inebriated patron and thus stay longer, spend more, and tip better. I have definitely been at places when a non-ejected drunkard has scared away clientele, and I have definitely acted on a tipsy guest when he has scared away some of our patrons.

This is the moment that word choice, tact, tone, and diplomacy need to be at their finest. It is most important to be nonjudgmental about things, to not mention that they are drunk, and to not embarrass them if at all possible. The tone should be kind but authoritative yet not condescending. One technique is to tell people that this will be their last of the evening and to present them with a check soon afterwards. This is for more marginal people, and it has been suggested that such a statement could be used as evidence that you knew they were intoxicated. Often, it is best to tell someone that you do not feel comfortable serving them another drink. Claim house policy, concern for their safety, or your job security being on the line, but do not accept their drink order. I have found a welcoming "I would love to serve that to you tomorrow (or the next time), but for tonight, I cannot serve you anymore." No one wants to feel unwelcomed, and this can partially heal the cut off. Perhaps pour them a water or hand them a tonic or Coca Cola and present them with a check with an explanation of "Sorry, I cannot serve you anymore alcohol tonight." That extra nonalcoholic drink is a detriment if your goal is to get them out of the door as quickly as possible, but it can buy you some time if the goal is to also sober them up (especially if they are there with a larger group of friends). It can also help to not embarrass the guest since they are seen leaving the bar with another beverage in their hand.

The signs that you need to cut off a guest depend on your establishment and its decorum. The rate that they are imbibing (and could have a time bomb of alcohol in their stomach waiting to hit their blood stream) is one factor, but behavior is another. One trigger for me is whether the guest is beginning to annoy the other clientele and whether the guest in question is getting snappy or argumentative with me or the other staff. Being overly flirty (perhaps harassingly so), swearing, speaking too loudly, and getting angry are other warning signs. Once they have reached the stumbling, slurred speech, aggressive behavior, falling off the stool, or spilling drinks stage, it is well into the more extreme signs that action needs to be taken. The line that you draw is different if you are in a fine dining restaurant versus a dive bar or perhaps in a restaurant before or after the dinner rush is over (one place I was in went from upscale gastropub to an industry hangout somewhere around 10pm every night).

With that, I have to add that I am still learning. While I love making drinks and assisting people in having a good time, I hate drunks and drunk behavior at my bar. So I am always looking for new tricks to add to my skill set. Therefore, I ask: what are some of your favorite techniques? What has or hasn't worked well for you? And, what are some of your tell signs for when it is time to get into action?

1 comment:

Eric G. said...

I currently work at a hotel bar, which has presented some new challenges in the art of the cut-off because my guests are rarely driving and most likely just walking (or stumbling) down the hall to the elevators. Along with some of the tactics you described above, I have added two that I have been very pleased with.
1) "The Challenge" This works best with sports fans, because I know they have a competitive itch. I'll say, "those beers/shots/drinks have gone down pretty fast. Even elite athletes need water breaks. Let's take one too. I bet I can drink a pint of water faster than you!" They get water, maybe fill up a little, and I get some hydration too. Or, I'll say, " I bet you can't drink too glasses of water in five minutes. If you do, I'll get you another drink. ". Usually they fail or get distracted, but it they succeed, I still got them to take a break and get water in them. Win-win.

2) "Bleeding-heart Bartender" This puts everything on the server. "Hey, sir/miss (bonus if you learn their name), I'm really glad you chose to join us and hope you 'vs had a good time. I don't know what your plans are tomorrow, but I want it to be a good day. I'd feel bad if one more drink tonight made tomorrow a rough day. Can I help you have a good day tomorrow?" People love feeling cared for. I've never had a negative reaction to this method. A couple have even seen me the next day and said "thanks".

Take pride in little victories. Cheers.