Behind the Bar

How to Keep Each Other Safe at Your Bar

Woman walking alone at night
Taking the trash out in pairs, leaving together and making sure no one has to walk home alone at night are all simple ways to keep each other safe. Photo: Milos Stankovic via iStock

Bartenders are in the business of hospitality, but they’re also in the business of safety: is that guy talking to that group of girls simply sleazy, or is he actually dangerous? How is the man falling off his stool getting home? Should I cut off the woman going on about her Princes Di conspiracy theory?

Yet while bartenders are busy looking out for their patrons’ safety, sometimes their own can get neglected. OSHA covers physical safety for restaurant and bar workers — wear non slip shoes! Take more breaks to avoid repetitive motion injuries! — but as everyone who’s stepped behind the stick knows, the dangers of bar work extend far beyond the physical. The combination of an empty bar plus huge stacks of cash can be a potent draw for opportunistic criminals. So what should you do to protect yourself and your coworkers while working late into the night? It doesn’t mean working in a state of constant fear, nervously looking over your shoulder for Hamburglar types while clutching pepper spray. But by following a few basic tips we picked up from bars around the country, you can help you and your co workers stay safe — not paranoid.

Some of the most important things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a crime are the simplest. “At the risk of sounding like a retired police officer speaking to a middle school gymnasium full of children, I think most crime is opportunity-related,” says Jay Schroeder, head bartender at Chicago’s Mezcaleria Las Flores. “Any sort of incident you might experience is probably going to be related to you leaving a literal or figurative door open. Concentrate on making yourself a worse target.”

Make sure you’re aware of your surroundings: read the crime section of your local paper and talk to local cops — has your neighborhood had a recent wave of robberies? Think about your bar’s vulnerable spots: a criminal would probably choose to enter via back door you keep propped open with an empty wine crate while taking out the trash over the front door. Triple check everything and everywhere. Sure, there’s no one left sitting at the bar, but did somebody drunkenly stumble into the kitchen?

“I’ll never forget [being] 16 years old, working fast food and they’re like, ‘No, first thing you do when you close is check the bathrooms,’ Schroeder says. “You feel so silly doing it. But you’re doing the thing that’s going to guarantee your safety — making sure no one's creeping around anywhere, that no one’s accidentally in the space.”

Another painfully obvious but essential tip is looking out for your co-workers. At Chicago's The Whistler, they take out the trash in pairs and leave together, even if it means shivering in the cold while waiting for someone’s Uber. Similarly, if a group of people is headed in the same direction after a shift, walk together or carpool if possible. And if someone’s dropped from a shift early and headed to their car, send two people with them, so there’s no one walking alone after seeing the person off.

At the end of the night, bars have huge amounts of cash. Make it difficult for potential thieves: don’t count cash in front of customers. Ensure that you have a working safe, not just a great hiding spot in the manager's office. Some bars have tweaked how they do tips. Anthony Schmidt is the beverage director for the 14 bars of San Diego’s CH Projects. One of their bartenders was recently robbed of their tips while headed home, so the company had to rethink their policies.

“It’s not just that it sucks to lose money. It’s really scary,” Schmidt says. “So instead, tips are [now] pooled and collected throughout the week, and we have everybody come in and collect their tips from the general manager once a week during daytime hours. Everybody tracks it online so they can see nightly what the actual sales are, and everything is transparent. So far, it’s been a tremendous tool for us.”

If you’re a bar manager, you’re probably balancing a million things at once, from profitability to personnel issues. But don’t overlook keeping your employees safe. Every bar should have at least a few policies and procedures, covered in the employee handbook or during training, to help employees feel empowered and confident about the space they’re working in. Not only does it help protect your assets, it makes your staff feel safe, comfortable and appreciated — all things vital to maintaining a happy, loyal staff.

“The best piece of advice I can give is take some kind of class on empathy,” says Schmidt. “It sounds ridiculous and like such a self-help thing, but the more you can think in somebody else’s shoes, and understand how scary is might be if somebody was walking to their car alone, it’s only then that you’re going to want to implement policies. Empathy is such a cornerstone — you can't engage in truly great hospitality without genuine empathy.”

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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