Behind the Bar

What to Do When a Guest Misbehaves

A man behind a bar talks to three bar patrons in front of him.
When asking a guest to curb a bad behavior in your bar, it's important to be discrete, polite and personable. Photo via iStock/Ilya Terentyev.

As often happens in a drinking establishment, no matter how ritzy or Roadhouse-y it is, people can have too much to drink and get out of hand. Depending on the locale, “out of hand” might mean speaking too loudly, engaging in PDA, or becoming belligerent. We talked to several professionals who’ve worked everywhere from nightclubs to high-end boutique hotel bars about how to handle and de-escalate these uncomfortable situations.

Ariana Khalilian, who has served, tended bar, and managed for fifteen years in Oklahoma City in fine dining and drinking settings, said that in her experience, typically the manager deals with the problem customer. When she must cut someone off, she starts with an apology and then gets straight to the point. “I’m sorry, but I am not able to serve you alcohol any more” is her basic script, and she goes from there. “Ultimately,” says Khalilian, “you’re either trying to save someone’s life or maintain the atmosphere of the restaurant or bar so you don’t lose other patrons. You have to stick to your guns.” As a server and bartender, she suggests slowing down the drinks being served to that person or not offering them anymore until you can get a manager over to their table.

Other establishments, such as Please Don’t Tell in New York, post house rules that establish the kind of behavior they expect from their guests and the kind they’d like to deter. “These are guidelines to create a positive experience and environment,” says PDT hostess and server Courtney Colarick. “If a table or patron is getting too loud, our hostess will politely ask them to bring down the noise level. Then, the server will ask. If they’re asked twice, we usually give them the check, but often people will ask for it after being asked to quiet down a few times. They might realize this isn’t the right place for them that evening.”

If a patron is in violation of your house rules, you can point them out — but we recommend doing so gently and discreetly. Part of maintaining the atmosphere of your bar or restaurant is not embarrassing your guests, even if they’re embarrassing themselves, and not interrupting other patrons while you’re at it.

Richard Clary, who managed a private security company in the southern U.S., worked in sixteen different bars, nightclubs, lounges, and outdoor venues. He dealt regularly with rowdier situations, often where people threatened violence or to drive away while drunk. “Explain to the person that he or she is too intoxicated and that could cause legal problems,” he says. “Would they rather deal with a bartender, or someone more official, like an officer? Then, deflect, saying it’s the policy, you’re just doing your job.”

Alternatively, if the guest came with someone, Clary suggests approaching that friend to see if he can help prevent an escalating situation that results in asking or forcing them to leave. “And, if appropriate, let the guest know he’s welcome to return another night, but not in the present state.”

Letting someone know they’re welcome back at a later date may give them enough of a good feeling to make a clean, scene-less exit. Communication skills and conflict resolution blogger Guy Harris suggests that shifting the conversation to the future makes you appear to be less threatening. Harris also recommends being conscious of your tone and body language. “A significant portion of the message people receive from you in face-to-face communication is conveyed through your body language and your voice tone. If you look threatening, you are threatening.” So, it’s not only what you say, but how you say it.

For Chris Barrett, bartender at Ludivine in Oklahoma City, that means approaching the person as a friend. “People think of the bartender a lot of the time as ‘one of them,’ or a ‘confidant,’” he says. The “friend approach” might mean saying something like “You guys are awesome, I know you’re having a good time, but can you do me a favor and quiet down?” By doing this, you’ve created a two-way relationship: you’re showing them a good time and, in return, you’re asking them to behave. “Afterwards, you may have to cut someone off but, you have to be nice about it. I think it’s best to try to be their friend, or even a big brother: ‘Why don’t we take it down a notch?’ I’ll say, “Maybe let me call you a cab.’”

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