Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >
Jan 11, 2011 03:45 PM

Bar "buy backs" [moved from Boston board]

[NOTE: We've moved this digression from the thread at -- THE CHOWHOUND TEAM]

At the risk of repeating myself...

Authorized comps over the tax deductible 5% and unauthorized "buy backs", to observe this see if the bartender enters your "buy back" into the POS system, drive up prices for the legitimate clientele.

Having said that...I agree with MC that many so-called "cocktail programs" are laughable.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. how an establishment chooses to run its beverage cost system or manage its staff is generally speaking not my concern. if i feel well taken care of and that my cocktail or wine is of a value complementary to the watering hole i'm fine. if a bartender is cheating me, i recognize that too and have called out more than one on a bogus bill.

    i don't ever NOT see what doesn't get rung, not rung or re-rung. however, since as a patron i am not responsible for cost, i have no dog in the fight. you, however, seem to be a dog with a bone on this issue.

    53 Replies
    1. re: hotoynoodle

      Thank you for your reply.

      Free drinks are illegal in MA for the reason that Happy hour is illegal: drunk driving.

      As a patron you are charged a price that incorporates free drinks.

      This means that paying guests are an indirect subsidy for unauthorized non-paying guests.

      Cheating guests on the bill by overcharging is like theft; extinct.

      I don't really have a "bone."

      I do have a job and I do notice trends.

      1. re: postemotional1

        I'd be pretty surprised to learn that comped drinks are entirely illegal. Obviously you couldn't get away with doing it systematically; that might be viewed as an end-run on happy hour laws, but the occasional comp for loyal customers?

        Now, that's a different thing than what you often talk about here, which is a supposed flood of bartenders that routinely comp drinks, effectively at the expense of owners and other customers, as an illicit means of building a following. But as I've mentioned before, the way you see it (as a commonplace, rampant at bars throughout the city, and a major cause of restaurant failures) and the way I see it (an occasional abuse that any on-their-toes GM would quickly spot and root out) are rather different.

        I haven't worked that side of the bar in a long time: if you're privy to some broad-based insider information there, it would certainly help your case if folks could understand how you reach these conclusions.

        1. re: MC Slim JB

          They may be illegal, but probably in the same vein as the "sales-tax-I-send-to-Massachusetts for my Amazon purchases".

          I've never noticed it as systemic.. if I have a big tab, occasionally a drink gets left off, could be a gift, could be an error. Sometimes if I am in a place I regularly go, the bartender might allow me to try a new flavor. A post-work place of mine has a lot of amari. When a new one comes in, I can occasionally ask for a sample, but its not like a wink and a nod and a full snifter of something.

          The only time I've been given an actual "free drink" recently was when I happened to be in a place that was running a Famous Grouse promotion, and the "Grouse Girls" were allowed to give a free drink. There was probably some rules in the background, but it definitely wasn't on the bar's dime. Usually if I get comp'd something, its an app or dessert.

          1. re: grant.cook

            The Grouse Girls are AWESOME. Ran into them at the B-Side a while back and they comped me some special Grouse 18 year all night...

            1. re: StriperGuy

              Grouse Girls?? Did they have all their teeth?

              I served many a "large grouse" when I worked in a pub in London.

            2. re: grant.cook

              What is supposed to happen for promos like that is that the company doing the promo buys the drinks from the house.

            3. re: MC Slim JB

              Ya - comped drinks are technically illegal - not that you'd know it from some of the places I drink at. But that is why never see booze comped on your tab, it just isn't there.

              Full text from the ABCC is here:

              Relevant language - "a" covers comps, "c" covers happy hour pricing.:

              (1) No licensee or employee or agent of a licensee shall:

              (a) offer or deliver any free drinks to any person or group of persons;

              (b) deliver more than two drinks to one person at one time;

              (c) sell, offer to sell or deliver to any person or group of persons any
              drinks at a price less than the price regularly charged for such drinks
              during the same calendar week, except at private functions not open to
              the public;

              1. re: Sunday Cook

                This sounds like the anti-happy-hour provisions introduced in the wake of MADD activism in the early 80s. The "two drinks" provision is clearly being flouted in spirit if not to the letter, as evidenced every time I see a shaker drink being decanted into a 14-oz cocktail glass, and every time I'm served a shot and a beer at my local.


                1. re: MC Slim JB

                  That's exactly what it is.

                  And all it's done is drive these practices further under the covers. Now barstaff doesn't report buybacks to their management, and as you've noted, cocktails are large enough to have their own tides.

                  1. re: Sunday Cook

                    How big is the biggest cocktail you can get at TGIF's? I seem to remember something on the order of a 20-ish ounce Margarita that made the drinker look like a hobbit..

                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                    Yes, it was May, 1983.

                    Lots of bartenders left once they could no longer "earn" money with Happy Hour.

                2. re: MC Slim JB

                  I have heard of instances where bar managers will set a limit for how many comped drinks there are per night or per bartender. It allows them to thank their loyal (and well-behaved) customers without encouraging overuse.

                  1. re: yarm

                    That's becoming a thing of the past, since the ABC is always lurking...

                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                    comped drinks are not illegal. technically, they should be rung in. whether everyplace does this is another thing.

                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      They really are illegal - see the ABCC language I posted above. I'm opening a restaurant right now and my local licensing board, as well as the state, have been *very* clear with us that the rules state we are never able to give a customer a free drink.

                      As the recipient of free drinks at many of my favorite watering holes, I know this rule is not frequently followed, but no freebies is the rule.

                    2. re: MC Slim JB

                      I work as a bartender and as a spotter.

                      I have worked as a spotter for 3 firms.

                      My time in the racket began as a dishwashers helper in 1975.

                      10 years ago I worked as a spotter for FOR YOUR EYES ONLY which is no longer in business. The other 2 firms are both still in business.

                      I tend bar AND spot for the same company.

                      No, we do not spot our own stores.

                      Of course a G.M. can find overpouring.

                      However all too often the Bar manager tends bar so as to double dip.

                      It is illegal to be paid by salary and be part of a tip pool but the practice has become commonplace in the 21st. Century.

                      L'Espalier and Top of the Hub have faced litigation for this immoral and illegal practice.

                      This practice persists because for all of the lip service given to "professionalism" mangers below G.M. work hard for relatively little.

                      It is also stupid to overlook the basic premise of internal controls.

                      Comped drinks are legal if and only if they are entered at point-of-sale. Such a comp is a "non-cash sale" for promotional purposes. Comps up to 5% are a tax deduction.

                      A canny operator offers a comp to diners and makes sure it is entered so as to gain the deduction.

                      Bar Mgrs. behind the bar are primarily interested in making money and promoting themselves.

                      The target Pouring Cost/P.C. is 22.5% so the multiplier is 4.4.

                      A bartender gives away a Grey Goose sold for $8.50.

                      Grey Goose goes for about $1.10 oz. wholesale so all that is needed is for the 1.75
                      oz. at $1.10 to be made up.

                      This is neatly accomplished by pouring Svedka into 4 drinks for servers thus the P.C. remains the same.

                      Once upon a time servers were promoted to the bar.

                      Fear of losing their jobs to servers witnessing this weaselry kept things on the straight and narrow.

                      Today's so-called "cocktail culture" demands a bartender with "regulars."

                      It is not rung in and the customer tips $5 for the favor and becomes a "regular" anticipating more where that came from.

                      At the server section of the bar Svedka is poured into a Grey Goose drink with juice. Svedka goes for .50 oz. thus trimming .60 from the cost. Do this 4 or 5 times and the bartender/Bar Mgr. has covered the cost of the free drink.

                      At about this time the Bartender/Bar Mgr. enters the Comp section of the point-of-sale system towards the end of the night.

                      He/She notices 4% comp. Drinks are entered to the 5% point thus neatly covering his/her tracks while building his clientele for the next job.

                      The G.M is little the wiser.

                      There is the deadly cost of free drinks. Whenever
                      I learn of a drunken driving fatality I know that not all of the drinks were paid for.

                      Additionally, free drinks hurt the bar more than stealing cash.

                      The taking of cash is not known to the guest. The give away is known to the "regular" and the "regular" will be hooked up on a "regular" basis.

                      Thus customer loyalty becomes a cost.

                      But wait...there's more...

                      Pay cash for 2 drinks for a friend and yourself in the South End. Assume a bill of $20. Tip $10, do it again and...presto the 3rd round is on the house!

                      Watch closely to see if it is rung in or if the bartender confers with the manager.

                      Chances are 1 in 3 that the it is given away illegally, dangerously, costly and immorally.

                      This is not a "conclusion".

                      This is math and it runs very true.

                      It is much truer with bartender/Bar Mgrs. Thus the lower end bartenders have few regulars. Some of these people break out and become...just like their bosses.

                      Anthony Bourdaine in KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL details the circuit of bars that off-duty staff go to and the free drinks consumed. This is commonplace and is all in good fun until the bar goes under, someone dies or is fired.

                      Heywood Gould in COCKTAIL details the practice of bribe tipping.

                      In 90's Euro dance clubs it was commonplace for the so-called Euro crowd, which is more accurately International, to give their coats to bar staff and slip them a $50 and then be hooked up all night.

                      Incompetence also plays a role
                      in free booze. The bartender is texting away to their friends. As a paying guest
                      I am supposed to be the "friend."

                      Sit down and when the bartender finally acknowledges you there is about a 1 in 10 chance you will be hooked up.

                      Make sure you sit away from the security cameras.

                      When I began tending bar in 1982 simple generic drinks were the rule. A Sloe Comfortable Screw was something exotic.

                      However I was initiated which consisted of a stopwatch test and then being tossed to the floor and kicked by my co-workers.

                      Female bartenders had a somewhat different entry-level exam...but I digress.

                      Bartending is a more physical job than most guests apprehend,

                      If you want a free drink just go to the mouth-breather leaning against the back bar and furrow your brow.

                      There is a good chance that you will get a freebie as the bartender apologizes for slow service.

                      Watch the aftermentioned substitution of Svedka/Smirnoff into Grey Goose drinks for servers.

                      It should come as no surprise that this "gift" will not be rung in and you will be coming back

                      My bartending saga began in 1982. One night in a now-defunct dance club I gave away about 20 drinks. I made $275 which was a ton of money in those days. A group of guys proclaimed me "the Marvelous Marvin of bartenders."

                      A few moments later they began fighting and eventually the police were called.

                      We live in a peaceful time and this wouldn't happen now but the incident made an indelible impression upon me.

                      i haven't given away a drink since.

                      My current employer for bartending has an armed G.M.

                      Internal promotion is the rule. The policy is for a trained bartender to be working as Security or server so that a corrupt bartender can be replaced at the snap of a finger.

                      My place of work charges $6 for a control-poured Svedka achieves a 22.5% P.C. and has a legitimately happy clientele and staff.

                      Ultimately, the enforced honesty of our workplace enables us to keep our prices affordable to a wide spectrum of guests.

                      What to do?

                      1) The ABCC is never around. The 21st. Century features clothing stores and spas giving away booze without a license. This sends the wrong message in so many ways that I am loath to count them.

                      2) Bar Mgrs. can't tend bar. This is a conflict of interest and breaks basic concepts of internal controls and functions as a block to the development of talent.

                      3) Guests have to realize that there is no free lunch.

                      4) True service is hustling to the guest, smiling and setting aside one's personal baggage. All of these are more important than knowing 4 brands of rye, I know only 2.

                      5) Internal promotion compels honesty and creates a genuine "cocktail culture."

                      6) Spotting by the bribe tipping method is the only assurance employers have that drinks will be charged for correctly.

                      7) Hey, bartenders once in a while I will buy a drink out of pocket for a guest. I have always been rewarded for this.

                      The liquor is the property of ownership.

                      It is not mine to give away.

                      I could go on about the way to find drugs in Men's Rooms.

                      The CORI, Crimial Offender Record Investigations, that my firm performs on bartenders is a story in itself but I will save that for another rant.

                      I think I'll have a Woodchuck Cider after logging off.


                      1. re: postemotional1

                        The ABC is always around where I live. Like, seriously, bars are getting checked in on/nailed often. There aren't any clothing stores/spas giving away booze here (just outside of Boston), so perhaps they have more time on their hands.

                        Also, I'm confused. In a post you wrote upthread, you said giving away free drinks IS illegal, due to MA drunk driving laws, but just above you say it's not, as long as they're rung in. Which is it?

                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                          Thank you for your reply.


                          I didn't make things as clear as I might have.

                          To clarify: A comped drink rung at the time of the sale, so as to lessen the chance of after-the-fact cooking of the books, is a "non-cash sale" thus in the eyes of the DOR and ABCC not "free".

                          This recorded comp is a tax deduction as a "Promotional Expense' up to 5% of the gross sales.

                          If you want to mess up the weasel behind the bar ask for a receipt after paying cash for a free drink.

                          This is how spotters do their job.

                          1. re: postemotional1

                            I don't know how you're making a tax deduction out of thin air.

                            Deductions are your expenses. If you buy 10 bottles for $100, that's your expense, regardless of what you rung up.

                            How exactly is this "extra" deduction determined?

                            1. re: Alcachofa

                              "Non-cash sale" for promotion is a seprate deduction.

                              1. re: postemotional1

                                No proceeds equals a deduction? Hmm... makes me wonder if you really are in tune with the numbers of the business, despite the percentages you have been citing.

                                  1. re: postemotional1

                                    What exactly is the deduction? You can give percentages out to the fourth decimal place, I want to know exactly what is being deducted.

                                    Would you like it more specific? Say I ordered a $10 Manhattan, and they comped me. What is the deduction? 5%? Are you saying that, in addition to the actual cost of the ingredients in the drink, they are deducting another 50 cents, just because it is "non cash"? If so, please email me the list of establishments you know who are doing this. The IRS rewards snitches.

                                    1. re: Alcachofa

                                      The sales price of the drink is "non-cash" and that is a promotional expense.

                                      If a bar sells $1000 and $50 is comped the establishment is then taxed on $950.

                                    1. re: invinotheresverde

                                      Make-up spas here in Boston offer wine and cocktails without a license.

                                      I know of no equivalent marketing to men.

                                      1. re: postemotional1

                                        Knockouts is a salon with a male audience. They serve alcohol, but they may be licensed.

                        2. re: postemotional1

                          Have to agree and here's why: Every bar manager worth his weight can tell you to 3 digits after the decimal point the percentage of cost of product to cash taken in, typically in the 18 - 24% range. If the place allows "buy backs" they are usually rung in the pos so this can be factored in (they can also account for drinks spilled or sent back this way). If they do not allow, a bartender will have to somehow "make up" for an over pour (as determined by the bar) or a free drink. To keep the percentages where they need to be (and to keep their job) they will have to short other customers. Really easy to do especially with someone who has already had one too many (this is really a public service) or for people who are going through a server and can not see that their Gray Goose and grapefruit was actually made with a much lower priced vodka. From a maybe less than honest bar tender, and there are many, it's all about keeping the percentages where they need to be. This is how we did it back in the day in NYC. I'm sure this is very much the exception in most of the higher quality establishments but, in the end, the numbers have to work.

                          1. re: bobbert

                            So basically, what you're saying is, if I want an honest drink, I should mix it myself or drink regularly at one spot.

                            1. re: Bob Dobalina

                              Caveat Emptor - Let the Buyer Beware. Most places, especially higher end places, are legit. The nice pour may be encouraged (they may work in that 25% range) and the tips roll in but, if you're not getting "official" buy backs and you (the regular good tipper) seem to get a freebee or a better pour than others, you better believe it's coming at the expense of someone. They need to make their percentages. So to answer your question, yes, be a regular, drink at home, drink at the bar where you can watch the bartender or find some places you can trust. It's not the bar that's trying to rip you off (they'd go out of business too fast), it's the bartender that wants to take care of his good tipping regulars. So they do it at the expense of some drunk out of towners here on convention who they'll never see again - no big deal. Bartenders have also been well known to bite the hand that feeds them and take from the bar as well. Just ask any manager if they ever caught anyone stealing.

                              1. re: Bob Dobalina


                                Corruption set in heavily after the 2003 law banning smoking as the low-end semi-regular drinker was made illegal.

                                From the end of the cocaine era in about 1988, at least among the college educated until 2003 the main form of corruption was bribe tipping.

                                Since 2003 the trends have gone from Cosmos to Mojitios to Classic Cocktails and now to craft cocktails.

                                Each trend has been less profitable than the one before.

                                Each trend has generated more give-aways.

                                The OVERPRRICED DRINKS thread has someone wondering why a drink that costs $4 to make costs $20.

                                Duh...that's 20% Pouring Cost.

                                Package stores are booming.

                                1. re: postemotional1

                                  "Corruption set in heavily after the 2003 law banning smoking as the low-end semi-regular drinker was made illegal."

                                  That statement is just plain absurd.

                                  You have some axe to grine but it always seems to have a slightly different slant, but basic theme seems to be "all restaurants and bars are run by evil people."

                                  Perhaps time to get a new career.

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    Restaurants and bars are not run by evil people and I don't know about the whole corruption thing. I do know that when we're dealing with cash it gets pretty tempting for some bartenders to want a little more or to take care of their friends. Bars know this and that's why there is an entire industry set up that provides "spotters" to catch cheats. Except in the lowest of the low life bars (which can be fun, but I digress) the owners are very legit and go to extremes to make sure their employees are as well (CCTV, spotters, etc). Nothing will kill business quicker than if the word got out that that the bar was ripping off customers - after all, in most places a big piece of the profits come from the bar.
                                    All I've been saying is that the percentages have to come out right and there are many ways to make that happen, the easiest by treating all customers the same - same pour, no free drinks, etc. If you're a bartender in a busy high class place, that's usually the best route to take as the tips still come in and it would be foolish to lose your $300 - $400 per weekend night income by being a cheat.
                                    On the other hand, it can be very tempting, in a less than high class place, to try and turn a $90 night into a $150 night. There are many ways to do this AND keep the percentages where they need to be. These bartenders are screwing both the customer and the owner. Just think - bartender is alone at beginning of shift and he pours about 3 shots worth of water in the 4 bar brand white bottles (vodka, gin, etc). He knows that during the night he can pocket 12 drinks at say $6 each for a total of $72 and who will be the wiser? No change in the percentages. Dirty little secrets. If I owned a bar/club I would assume that anyone handling cash was capable of stealing from me from the doorman (cover charge) to the valet to the coat check girl - I've seen it all.
                                    There is thread on "cash only" places and why they don't take credit cards. Most go with the expense - the 2 1/2 % paid to Visa. The real reason to go cash only? To make it easier to cook the books and hide money from the IRS.
                                    Sorry if this somehow went against your belief in the natural goodness of man.

                                    1. re: bobbert

                                      Right on!

                                      I have 1 small quibble. Low end bars are honest because guests drink generic products with low prices but good percentages.

                                      Still...right on !

                                    2. re: StriperGuy

                                      I don't have a career I have 2 jobs.

                                      The banning of smoking did eliminate the casual occasional drinker from the mix.

                                      Texting has made face-to-face conversation rare thus cutting out a lot of hanging out in bars.

                                      I don't have an axe to grind nor do I have blinders on.

                                      Should I go on about drugs and/or weapons?

                                      Surely the revelations regarding illegal immigrants at Upper Crust and subsequent threats made against a manager who confirmed the use of illegal immigrants have caught your attention.

                                      Restaurants and bars are run by people somewhat better than the run of the mill.

                                      Alcohol, sex and cash are temptations of biblical dimensions.

                                      If I told you that 1/3 of Congressman or 1/3 of Catholic priests were corrupt would you doubt me?

                                      The liquor-driven side of the biz is a little dirtier than the food-driven side but neither is pristine.

                                      I have been asked for drugs, free drinks and prostitutes 1000's of times in the last 28 years.

                                      I have no problem with that. If I did I would have gotten out a long time ago.

                                      C'mon Chowhounders I am virtually certain that Anthony Bourdain's KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL is on your bookshelf.

                                      HOTEL BABYLON is a classic in a similar vein as is the novel COCKTAIL.

                                      The bar business is no worse than the MA Speaker of the House.

                                        1. re: Alcachofa

                                          By entering on the Promo screen.

                                          Back in the day a petty Cash slip was put into the printer of a cash register to create a record and to assure owners that the drinks were rung in properly.

                                          Of course this was when there were far more drinkers.

                                            1. re: postemotional1

                                              There are fewer drinkers now? I saw the comment about the smoking ban, but in the club I worked at, it only briefly affected things. I have not heard one bartender here in Boston complain that things are not the way they were before, just some places' clientele went elsewhere and the like.

                                              1. re: yarm

                                                I actually went out more often after the smoking ban. Even before the ban, there were MANY more non-smokers than smokers in this land. A lot of them, like myself, would frequently say "well, I'm on the fence about going out tonight. Oh wait, I don't feel like smelling like smoke for the next 12 hours, think I'll stay in." That impediment was removed for the vast majority of the population.

                                                Worst case, it was a wash in most bars.

                                                1. re: Alcachofa

                                                  I disagree.

                                                  Day bartending used to have a large # of people who would come in and order soda so as to have a smoke... or 2...or 3 while on their lunch break.

                                                  The # of bodies has if anything gone up slightly but spending has gone down about 5%.

                                                  Smokers tip more and the lighting of smokes and the cleaning of ashtrays was a large source of income for many including myself.

                                                  Ask a bartender over 40 if they have been effected by the smoking ban and I think you will find agreement on this issue.

                                                2. re: yarm

                                                  A bartender is as likely to tell you the truth while working as a politician.

                                                  1. re: yarm

                                                    You haven't heard a lot about it because a lot of those bartenders resigned or were fired.

                                                    Gen X's big birth year is 1970 so...2003 is about the right year for departing whether you jump or are pushed.

                                            2. re: StriperGuy

                                              "Axe to grine"?

                                              No, the legitimate guest and bartender should have a guest to grind.

                                              Inflated prices.

                                              Bar Mgrs. tending bar to double dip and shortchange the people they are supposedly supervising.

                                              Drunk driving deaths as free booze gets guzzled.

                                              i owe both of my jobs to the corruption of others.

                                          1. re: bobbert

                                            I couldn't agree with you more. See my post! Cheers!

                                            1. re: postemotional1

                                              Good education into the underworld of bartending.

                                      1. Just curious, where do you work?