How to Handle Intoxicated Patrons in Your Bar

By Ray Foley, Heather Dismore

In a bar, preventing intoxication is everyone’s responsibility. All front of the house (FOH) employees should feel responsible and accountable to check IDs, watch for signs of intoxication, and prevent drunk driving. Individual staff members may be added to any lawsuits filed against the bar if they were involved in serving a patron who was harmed or harmed another as a result of drinking.

People who don’t practice responsible alcohol service can face criminal charges and civil-court battles, resulting in fines and possibly jail time. This is serious!

Because the liability for serving alcohol is so high, it is really recommended that you get focused training in responsible service standards. In some states, your insurance company may give you a discount if your employees are certified.

Here are a few resources to help you:

  • In addition to standard ServSafe food safety training, the National Restaurant Association has a program for responsible alcohol service called ServSafe Alcohol. You can get training for yourself or your staff in a classroom or online.

  • TIPS certification is another option for learning to practice responsible, yet customer-friendly, alcohol service. TIPS stands for Training for Intervention ProcedureS, and the organization teaches bar and restaurant employees how to prevent intoxication, underage drinking, and drunk driving. They offer focused training for bars, casinos, restaurants, and even liquor stores.

    If TIPS doesn’t offer workshops in your area, you can sign up for online training with your state’s beverage license association.

  • In some states, your bartenders may be required to get a bartending license or certificate. The classes leading up to the certification include some information about handling intoxicated patrons. Check with the local licensing agency for a syllabus of what’s covered and what’s not.

How to watch for signs of intoxication in bars

There’s no magic formula for how much a person can drink before he’s intoxicated. Sure, guidelines based on gender, height, and weight have been established, but they’re just guidelines. Many things (such as food, medication, sleep, and so on) can affect how people process alcohol. So, as a bar owner, you have to resort to the tried-and-(mostly)-true method of observing your patrons.

Here are the most common signs of intoxication to help you identify potentially intoxicated patrons, but for the most part, you need to use common sense and judgment to determine who’s had too much to drink. The Cheat Sheet at Dummies.com includes a more-extensive list of behaviors.

  • Loud speech

  • Ordering drinks rapidly

  • Slurred speech

  • Stumbling

  • Spilling drinks or missing their own mouth when drinking

  • Aggressive behavior

Always look out for the very quiet customer who just sits there and drinks. Sometimes he’s the most dangerous, and he may explode.

Many people who don’t exhibit the common signs of intoxication may, in fact, be legally intoxicated. You must know the laws in your area, monitor your staff members, and execute good judgment to serve your clientele and your community safely.

How to intervene with a potentially intoxicated patron in bars

No one likes to be told she’s drunk. Before you totally cut off a patron, consider slowing down alcohol service to the patron.

If a server or bartender is taking steps to slow down service to a patron, make sure he includes you or another manager in the loop. The manager needs to begin keeping a close eye on the situation to decide the appropriate next steps.

Here are some ideas for slowing down service:

  • Offer the person some food. Food can slow down the absorption of alcohol.

  • Remove an empty glass or bottle before coming back with the next one.

  • Make yourself scarce. Obviously you don’t want to avoid the person, but a bartender or server can find ways to take a little longer to make or serve a cocktail when necessary. Great excuses include “They’re changing the keg” or “We have to grab [fill in the blank] in the back” or “He’s restocking the cooler.” Any reasonable excuse is usually accepted.

  • Coach your staff to offer water or nonalcoholic beverages and say, “Let’s slow down a bit.”

How to cut off service entirely in bars

If your bartender or server has just a slight feeling that the customer has been overserved, she should call the manager. Always get the manager involved before service is stopped. Managers should have experience in handling what could be an explosive situation. Also, the manager can bring a level of objectivity to the situation.

A customer may not think that a “lowly” employee, especially a server, has the authority to cut him off. A customer is more apt to show a manager some level of respect. Definitely let the manager make the final call and have the awkward conversation with the patron.

Keep these tips in mind when refusing service to a customer:

  • Don’t cut anyone off in front of others. The manager should invite the person to the office or pull him aside to break the news. Keep it factual, not accusatory: “I think you should call it a night.”

  • Quietly give the person’s friends the same information. Tell whoever the person is with that you’re not serving that customer anymore. Don’t get into any negotiation about it.

  • Make sure the patron has a ride home. If he doesn’t, call a cab and make sure he gets into it.

  • Don’t make a big deal out of cutting someone off, but be firm. Say, “Your last call has come early.” And last call is last call, after all.

Only cut a customer off away from other customers, even her friends. Always. Be discreet; avoid embarrassment. Stop the drinking before it gets to be a big deal. Only if the customer won’t cooperate should you walk away and refuse to serve her.

If you’re having trouble cutting a person off, consider offering to pay for the person’s drinks, as long as he leaves immediately. Make sure the patron has a way home, either in the form of a cab or a friend. If someone who’s been drinking gets into a car accident after leaving your bar, you can be held legally responsible if you or your employees have overserved him.