Observation – the ‘Sixth Sense’ of Serving Alcohol and Judging a Patron’s Risk to the Venue

One of the most demanding professions is being a bartender or server, frequently switching between boredom and chaos and making very little money, to suddenly having folks lining the rails and waving bills during the frenzies of happy hours and last call.

What are the realities of this situation?

There’s a pace to this world, and any good bartender or server of alcohol has a “sixth sense,” the power of observation, as things unfold around them.

The reality of server life is the hours of operation, the customers, the types of customers, their age, the events around the reason these customers drink alcohol, and ultimately, the environment the establishment provides them.

A Look at the Day of a Bartender or Server

Let’s talk about the day or shift of a bartender or server, which may include the following:

  • Perhaps the day starts with Early Bird Specials (from 4 to 6 p.m.) and a more parsimonious crowd – who will imbibe their two drinks, pick at their food, and takeaway their leftovers, which might sit in styrene clamshells, to be discarded the week after next.
  • Later, the professional crowd or blue-collar employees stop by after work (from 5 to 9 p.m.). They can be regular customers, or perhaps they stopped by for a special event (they might even be a carry-over from Happy Hour). These patrons tend to be more generous. They may or may not have more than the usual drink but, generally, they are not out of control. At this time, the pace has picked up, and so has the rate of alcohol consumption. The tempo is upbeat, and the volume of service has increased. The level of interaction between server and customer may have decreased, however.
  • The later hours will typically involve a younger crowd, although weekends may have a healthy mix of all ages, depending on people’s work schedules. Typically, these people have the next day off or are not showing up to work at 8 a.m. The noise volume is louder and more intense, emotions can run high, and outbursts and minor kerfuffles are expected.
  • The last call for alcohol will generally see younger patrons with a mix of more inexperienced and professional drinkers. This time of the night is a “red zone” in the industry and, if you let it happen, anything goes. The issues that can arise during this time is where experienced servers are much needed; they’ll help to control a challenging situation and avoid letting anything become a catastrophe.

Rely on the Power of Observation with Each of These Groups

In general, those are the times and groupings that most bars will see, but they certainly do not fit all times, all situations and all venues. During these times, servers and bartenders will need to rely on their power of observation to recognize patterns of behavior that are within a tolerance or out of bounds within these groups. Oftentimes, bartenders and servers will need to make decisions in a matter of seconds. Are they going to serve these people alcohol? Will they allow them to remain on the premises?

Bartenders and servers need to use their trained power of observation to handle and engage each situation. In fact, many unwanted situations can actually be avoided at the entrance by security personnel.

Questions That Should Always Come to Mind

For a server or bartender, when thinking about the power of observation, here are just some questions that should instantly come to mind. And just like driving or riding a bike, the power of observation will eventually become instinctual.

  • Is the customer 21 years of age or older?
  • Are they appropriately dressed?
  • Are they not wearing shoes or shirts?
  • Are they impaired?
  • How many are in the group?
  • Do they need assistance, or help with being seated?
  • Are they bringing alcohol onto the premises?
  • Do they appear to have been drinking alcohol before entering?
  • Do you need to sell more alcohol to them at this point?
  • Is there only one impaired person in the group?
  • Who is the person in the group that’s in charge?
  • How much time is left before closing?
  • Is the patron in your establishment due to a sad situation or a happy one?
  • Are they making clear statements about their needs?
  • If they’re older, are they confused because of age, sight issues or hearing impairments?
  • When should you transfer patron problems to your manager? 

Look for Exceptions to the Pattern

The above questions and many more should always pop into the mind of the server or bartender. Essentially, they should be looking for exceptions to a pattern. Does the customer’s behavior fit, given the time of day, the situation and the patron? The server is looking for elements that do not look right, feel right or sound right.

The server always controls the flow of alcohol and pays attention to the patron's needs. A good server will know how to assess the customer’s desires and if they can provide the customer with the right desired outcome. For this, this sixth sense, or using the power of observation, is invaluable.

Understanding the Customer's Intent Is Vitally Important

Well trained staff use greater awareness and continual ongoing observations to avoid confusion and risk to the establishment. Understanding the customer's intent is vitally important when a patron acts out of character. This is the time to move and move quickly. The server needs to identify potential issues and control each situation. All staff members should act in the best interest of the business as though they are the owners themselves.

When interacting with customers, it is crucially important that the message is always this: Alcohol service is a privilege and not a right. The privilege to drink on the premises can be revoked at any time when unacceptable behavior occurs. Observation, this critical sixth sense, allows establishments to avoid these pitfalls.

Industry expert Robert “Bob” Pomplun is the founder and president of Serving Alcohol, which offers online, responsible alcohol training for bars, restaurants, on-premise establishments and people in the hospitality industry. Pomplun – who was a bartender for more 20 years and has three decades of experience in the hospitality industry – works as an alcohol certification consultant, instructor, manager and coordinator. To learn more about Serving Alcohol, visit ServingAlcohol.com.

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