Behind the Bar

How to Deal with “That Guest”

A man passed out on a bar.
Do fellow bartenders and other bar patrons a favor by politely encouraging guests who have had a few too many to head home before passing out on the bar. Photo via iStock/skynesher.

Every bartender has had to deal with “that guest,” though “that guest” can have various meanings. From the belligerently intoxicated to the irksome know-it-all, every bartender has to deal with a difficult patron from time to time. So, we asked two bar managers to share how to deal with different types of troublesome patrons. Both Steven Sirok, bar supervisor at The Driftwood Room in Portland, OR, and T. Read Richards, general manager at Valkyrie in Tulsa, OK, advise that each person has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

The Has-Had-Too-Much Customer

He or she is intoxicated, and it’s your job to kindly cut them off.

Steven Sirok: There are a handful of ways to handle this. If the person is in a group, I try to reach the more sober person to ask him to help his buddy. With just the person him or herself, I tell him that this is part of my job, and I could lose my license to serve. Hopefully they understand it can affect me. You can also say you know they want to have a fun time, but that maybe they’ve already had a really fun time. Relate to the guest and try to make them understand where you’re coming from.

T. Read Richards: Communication is always key. Being positive is a huge factor in being able to write the last chapter with the guest. Instead of saying “can’t” or “too much” — small phrases that have a negative connotation — find ways to highlight positivity. Encourage the guest to drink water and eat a small snack. We keep Goldfish crackers on hand. Do everything you can to be positive, but sometimes you have to just let that person sit there and digest the water and crackers.

The Set-In-My-Drinking-Ways Guest:

What do you mean you don’t have Vegas Bombs?

SS: Know the products you sell. At Oven and Shaker [SS’s previous place of employ] we didn’t have Crown Royal or Jack Daniel's. But I know what’s a suitable substitute. You can comfort someone by saying you know what he or she wants and relating to the product, like, “I have this Canadian whiskey,” or “this Kentucky whiskey.” Offer a sample or a nip. A lot of people just want a name they know, so if you understand that and can offer something similar, that will build trust.

TRR: This is a hard situation to turn around. They’re immediately being faced with a “no.” Anyone that is going out to eat, drink, what have you — they are going out to have a certain fantasy fulfilled. To be met with “no” is the worst because it starts you out on a bad foot. Again, focus on the positivity. For me, I lead with “I’ve got this instead,” rather than a “I don’t have.” You’ve got to gracefully establish ethos without talking down to someone. They’re there to spend the money they earned. We are there to serve the hospitality.

The Know-It-All Patron:

Listen, sonny-boy, I know what I’m talking about.

SS: Like, “can you make me an obscure cocktail” and then they try to catch you off guard? They’re kind of my favorite. You don’t want to be a nose-up-in-the-air bartender. If they want to be that kind of person, by all means, give them what they want. It’s nice to be able to have discourse about a classic cocktail or ingredients. But, if it goes too far, I may just say, “ok, thanks for letting me know.” I don’t like to dissuade a guest. That’s my service mentality. This situation isn’t necessarily a challenge, but I may learn something, or it may help me recheck my facts.

TRR: I really hate the term “educator,” but I read it in the book “Front of House,” by Jeff Benjamin, and it’s definitely a type. With things like Yelp out there, the Internet at our fingertips, a lot of fine dining, great bars, and food shows — everyone is now a foodie, connoisseur or critic. That said, one of the many hats a bartender has to wear is just being an ear. For every ten ideas that are lacking, there is one idea that’s great. So, listen. Let them say what they need and want to say. Sometimes there’s a gem hidden in there.

The No-or-Bad-Tipper

Who thinks “Tipping” is a city in China.

SS: If the person is a problem customer, you can realize off the bat that might happen. If it’s a repeat customer who doesn’t tip, that can get tough. I’ve had repeat customers I think I’m having a good experience with, and then the tip is 10%. But that might me being entitled, thinking I should get a certain amount. I try to manage my expectations. Otherwise, I have to ask if there is a reason for a bad tip.

TRR: Yeah. This one is the worst. First, it’s uncouth to look at your tip before you’re done with the shift. So if you see it, it gets into your head. Gary Regan said the way you treat bad tippers is exactly how you treat everybody else. It doesn’t matter; you’re there for the service and so are they, even if they don’t know how to react to service appropriately. It all comes out in the wash anyway.

The Repeat-Drink-Sender-Back

I only like chicken nuggets-flavored vodka.

SS: This is tough to deal with, but also rewarding. If I’m a bartender in a restaurant and a table sends something back, the server may not be well-versed in the nuances of the cocktail, so I might have to go over to the table and start a conversation. It’s all about communicating about what the guest is looking for. Sometimes guests come in with a preconceived notion about a cocktail — say, a Cosmopolitan — and then they come to our place and our recipe is different. You can chat with them and ask what it is about other drinks that they’ve enjoyed.

TRR: Oh, the person who no matter what you make, they don’t like it. Just try your hardest. If they keep sending stuff back, I consider this a challenge to figure out what it is they like. Picky people, just like not-picky people, absolutely love something. So, it’s about figuring out what that thing is. And, really, at any given point, the pickiest people in the room are the bartenders. Our drinks have gone through tweaks and adjustments because every one of us was trying to be that guest.

The Whistles-Or-Snaps-To-Get-Your Attention Person

Psst. Psssst. Pssssssst!

SS: Again, it’s about managing expectations with people. I think they see I’m busy, but maybe they don’t. There are ways to acknowledge someone even if I’m five tickets in. Do a head nod, wave, say “nice to see you,” “be right with you,” “I’ll give you my full attention in one second,” etc. Customers want to be noticed and welcomed; they want to know that you know they’re there.

TRR: They say that you can have someone wait for 30 seconds and be upset, or you can greet and treat them in a way that will make them ok with waiting for ten minutes. Immediately let the person know they’re being accommodated in some way. Tell them you’ll get to them, or take the order and say you’ll get to it in a minute. Be ultra communicative, with a grin on your face.

And lastly, for a laugh, this Vine perfectly sums up the three types of people at a bar.

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