How to Deal with the Free Drink Dilemma

The free drink is an apocryphal tenet of bartending. The comped shot, or buy back, should never be given away willy nilly by a bartender. It also shouldn’t be expected by a customer. But, if used properly, that privileged dram can be a powerful tool for rewarding loyal patronage.  The danger of the free drink is if this privilege gets abused. Restaurant operators can’t have their employees giving away the bar, and bartenders shouldn’t rely on comped drinks in lieu of good service. But, if exhibited with finesse, a drink on-the-house can be a tradition both time honored and beneficial to all parties. And a party it is. But, as a restaurant operator, how should you go about enforcing a policy that keeps bartenders honest while also giving them the ability to show love for a well-liked patron?

Complimentary Tabs for Bartenders

There are certain bars and restaurants that give trusted employees license to offer a comped drink for important or well-respected customer. But the key phrase in that sentence is trusted employees. Bartenders and servers who have exhibited a high level of competence and service, and a dedication to doing their job correctly, should have the ability to comp a customer’s drink. A familiar system is to have tab for comped drinks on the POS system. This tab works well for multiple reasons. First, and most importantly, if bartenders record drinks given away to chosen customers, it allows the house to track that transaction and account for those comps in their depletions. The house needs to be able to account for 100% of its liquor. Tracking free drinks through the POS or on a register is the only way to make this happen. It’s a must that all liquor poured out is accounted for.

The other reason that allowing employees to manually comp drinks is that it gives them a certain freedom, as well as responsibility to do this the right way. It also shows that a restaurant has respect for its employees, and trusts them to do the right thing. This trust goes unlimited miles in ensuring that your employees won’t give away the house.

Unfortunately, its common practice that certain employees of a bar will give away drinks. This can’t happen. But, as bars and restaurants are unique social businesses, employees should be able to engage in a bit of social generosity. For bars, this comes in the form of a free drink. The comp tab works as a way to account for alcohol exchanging hands, and creates an acceptable space for employees to give something back to the customer.

What Employees Should have Comp Tab Privilege?

Not all employees should be given this privilege. If you do employ a comp tab policy, then only certain employees should have access to this. This doesn’t have be strictly a manager, (relying solely on managers can make the policy more trouble than it’s worth, as busy bartenders and busy managers don’t have easy access to one another) but veteran employees who have shown the ability to be trusted and the competence to use this privilege wisely. When a new hire comes behind the bar, there is often a probation period of 3-6 months that, when passed through successfully, will grant employees new benefits or privileges. Comp tabs should work this way, too. Allowing comp tabs for employees only after they’ve been earned can protect the house from being burned by selfish staff who sees your loss as a way to profit. It will also prove to the house that your employee can survive on good service alone.

Track Comp Tabs and Set Limits

Comp tabs need to come with a ceiling on how much a bar can ring in on it during a shift. This protects the house, as well as forces bartenders to choose wisely. As an operator, you should also be cognizant of how your bartenders are using the tab. Are they comping multiple drinks for the same customer every shift? Are they using it only to hook up friends? Do they only do it for the hot girl that comes in on Friday night? Remember the free drink is a only a powerful tool when used correctly. Part of that proper use comes with offering the buy back to a customer who will truly appreciate it. The drink shouldn’t be used as anything other than acknowledging a great relationship between the staff and a customer. This is the only way that it can work.

How Customers Should Respond to Free Drinks

Some customers expect free drinks. This is wrong. And if you’ve worked in the hospitality industry, then you’ve seen this expectation expressed in the most obnoxious ways. No, just because it’s your birthday doesn’t mean you should get a free drink. And just because this is your 4th beer doesn’t mean I’ll comp it.  Asking for a free drink is the most despised and disrespectful question a bartender can receive. And sometimes, overeager patrons are not afraid to ask for what isn’t theirs.

As a customer, you should never expect a free drink. It’s not given to you by asking for it.

It’s done by earning it.


Kyle Thacker