Wednesday, December 31st, 2008
Photo credit: StarChefs, Inc.
I am a frequent bar customer. I need an explanation of the concept behind buybacks.
One bartender who I was friends with would not let me pay for my drinks, ever. He said they were on him.
One day when it was very slow in the bar I asked him if he could let me pay for my drinks, because he was losing $14 for the two drinks that I had. The owner was present and heard me say this. Thee next time I saw him he was absolutely furious with me and said that this got him in trouble (reprimanded).
How do you get in trouble for this?
Thanks so much for your thoughts,
I’ll just bet your friend was furious with you: buybacks may come in many colors, but you just caught him robbing the place blind.
Let me back up and explain the concept of “buybacks” for those who aren’t familiar with the idea. See, in many lower-end bars, neighborhood dives, juke joints, roadhouses, taverns and shitkicker saloons, the bartender has developed a symbiotic relationship with his or her customers that puts a few extra dollars in the barkeep’s pocket at the end of the night, and keeps the clientele coming back for more. It’s called the buyback and it works like this:
I’m a regular customer. I come into your bar five, six nights a week and hoist a good three pints at a sitting, tipping a dollar or more on each beer. You and I have a mutual understanding that my fourth drink is going to be on the house. I, as a customer, don’t really know why this is the rule, and you most likely haven’t been trained by the owner in this practice. But as long as I’m tipping and we’ve got a good relationship as customer and bartender, that fourth drink is gonna be free.
The buyback has been around for a long, long time. My guess is that it’s been around for so long that it originated in a time when owners still worked behind the bar and would buy a drink for a customer as a sign of appreciation for his loyalty. Done in an appropriate manner by someone who actually owns the booze, the buyback can be a very effective tool in maintaining a regular customer base. But don’t be fooled, Susan. Your friend isn’t a savvy businessman, sliding you an occasional drink to thank you for your regular patronage, but rather a douchebag and a thief – giving away alcohol and putting the money in his pocket.
As you said in your email, “One bartender who I was friends with would not let me pay for my drinks, ever… How do you get in trouble for this?” Well, Susan, you get in trouble the same way a teenage employee of The Gap gets busted for putting a pair of leggings in her purse – the only difference is that The Gap would have the good sense to fire the employee in question and your friend’s boss is clearly a moron.
I get upset with bartenders like your friend, because it perpetuates a myth that many people carry with them into bars: that alcohol should be free and well-liked people should never have to pay for a drink. I don’t know where this prevailing attitude comes from, but I suspect it grew out of the venerable buyback. Look at it in another light: every morning you stop at the place by your house for a coffee and a bagel. And every morning you pay full price, never expecting to have the girl behind the counter refuse to take your money. It doesn’t faze you in the least, does it?
So why do some people expect the opposite treatment when it comes to bars? This isn’t even an expectation you see sales-wide in the liquor industry, it’s bar-specific. You would never, ever expect every fourth six-pack at your local grocery store to be free, would you? Really?
As a bartender who doesn’t steal from his employers, I’m forced to rely on a smile, some solid conversation, and a well-made drink to make my living. Sure, I’d probably make more money hopping from job to job, giving away booze at every place in town until either I was fired or the place went out of business, but that’s not much of a career. Sure, I’d be the most popular guy in town, but my hope is that eventually people will once again admire bartenders as hosts, craftspeople, and trusted civic figures and regard us less as petty thieves and scam-artists.