Ask Your Bartender: Buybacks

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Susan writes:

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,

Dear Susan

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.

86 Replies to “Ask Your Bartender: Buybacks”

  • Derek says:

    From your analogy: 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 does the girl behind the counter get mad that you dont tip her for your bagel? You’re not bagel girl, you’re expecting tip, and you’re telling me if I give a good tip I will be rewarded with good service. Im a beer guy, so theres not any “i took the effort to make you a good drink,” so I get faster service? But what if its crowded and Ive been empty for a while now. Everybody is giving you good tips and wants to be a priority? And of course there arent enough bartenders for a packed house because that would eat into your tips you want all for yourself. So how do I get a return on tipping? A round on the house thats how. Ok what if the bar is empty, do I really want to be there without the atmosphere? Keep me around, dangle that carrot.

  • frank says:

    i hear an awful lot of stupid statements here like encouraging attractive women to come to your bar is the equivalant of prostitution, or that this is all just theft. I hear no one saying that if the owner paid a decent wage none of this would happen. People, even bartenders and waiters, don’t want to steal, but average shift pay where i live is $25 – $30 for an 8 hour shift. Some “decent” owners even pay $50 if you’ve been there a while. They also automatically add ten to twenty percent of your register take to your taxable income. Can you say five dollars an hour.

  • jeff says:

    Actual bartender here…Susan, you must have the tact of a rhinoceros in a china shop and the ego of Napoleon to to think it was ok to say intentionally say that to an employee in front of their boss…smh. Unless you were actually taking the money in throwing it in his tip jar, he wasn’t stealing.

  • Naaaaaah says:

    I disagree entirely. If I order a dozen bagels, it better come as a baker’s dozen. That’s the bagel buy back. The bar buy back is the same thing, just in a more intimate business relationship. I think it’s a sweet gesture, they should do it everywhere. Further, it works as incentive not to be an asshole at a bar. Very basic, and good, economics. It is also not the same thing to say that you wish bars where you lived did buy backs and to expect a buyback. If it were industry standard like the bagel thing, then yeah, expectation. But it isn’t. Later.

    • Jeffrey Morgenthaler says:

      Your incentive for not being an asshole at a bar is being allowed to remain at said bar. A drink on the house is a reward for being a good guest, not your god-given right.

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