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12 Bartender Scams That are Costing You Profits
March 23, 2015
In my experience, 25% of all bartenders are completely honest all the time and do a great job - those are the ones we all want to find and retain. The majority, probably half of all bartenders, will play by the rules as long as they believe that the operator has adequate controls in place and see that their colleagues are not getting away with anything. If the controls are too loose, as in most bars, this middle group will often take advantage - giving away drinks to their friends, over-pouring to garner tips and occasionally "forgetting" to ring the odd drink up. The last 25% are simply thieves and are determined to break the rules at every opportunity.
Obviously, the middle group can cost you a lot of money and the last group needs to be identified and terminated. In both cases, you need to be intimately familiar with the most common and damaging "scams." Some are deceptively simple; others are devious. Usually the bar owner is the victim but sometimes it is your customer who is getting ripped off.
Here, in our experience, are the most damaging bartender scams:
#1 - JUST NOT RINGING UP THE DRINK IS THE SIMPLEST SCAM
The bartender prepares the drink, quotes a price, accepts payment... but doesn't ring it up. The money is deposited in the register along with the next legitimately rung up drink and then removed from the cash register to the tip jar at the end of the night.
This scam is ubiquitous - it happens to some degree at every establishment. This scam is most commonly used on draft beer as most bartenders believe that there is no way that an owner can discover a missing pint (or even gallon) of draft beer (they are usually right).
On the other hand, simple theft of a whole liquor bottle is rare. After all, if the bartender takes home a $6 bottle of well vodka, he is up $6. But if he just sold the 27 shots in that bottle to bar customers without ringing them up, that same bottle would be worth $162 to him!
#2 - OVER-POURING FOR A BETTER TIP Most bartenders pretend that this is not really theft. But, the fact is that the bar-tender took someone else's property and gave it away, without authorization, in return for money.
This is perhaps the most common cause of losses in a bar. Our audits usually show that more than 15% of a bar's inventory is lost by over-pouring.
It is no surprise that over-pouring is such a big problem when you consider that your bartender's primary source of income is their tips. Often bartenders assume that an overly generous pour will result in an equally generous tip. Since they are directly responsible for portion size, the danger is obvious.
#3 - UNDER-POURING
In my opinion, this is the worst crime in the business. If a bartender under-pours 3 customers by 1/2 ounce each, he knows that he can now steal a drink and it will go undetected. In effect, the bartender is stealing from your customers. This is wrong all the way around but the worst part is that some of your customers are going to simply stop coming to your bar because of the "weak drinks" - an unaffordable loss, and one that you will never know about.
#4 - RINGING UP "OPEN LIQUOR " AND THEN UNDER-CHARGING In this scam, the bartender takes an order for a drink (say Courvoisier) but rings up the Open Liquor key for a lesser amount (say $3). He then charges the A customer the full, correct price and pockets the difference. If caught using the Open Liquor key, the bartender simply states that he "didn't know there was a key for the Hennessey" and that he was simply doing his best to account for everything - a difficult excuse to disprove.
#5 - RINGING UP "ROCKS" OR "UP" MODIFIERS
This can occur when the bar policy is to pour an extra 1/2 ounce on a "rocks" or "up" drink. In this case, the bartender is required to ring up a modifier (often a no-charge modifier) to account for the extra liquor. In this scam, the bartender rings up the "rocks" modifier for drinks that are not prepared on the rocks. If he rings up the "up" modifier for 10 rum and cokes, for example, he knows that he can now hide the theft of three drinks.
At one client, we discovered that a bar-tender was ringing up the "rocks" modifier on just about every highball and cocktail. In just one night, he rang up over 60 phony rocks modifiers in order to pocket the proceeds from 20 drinks.
#6 - SUBSTITUTING A WELL FOR A CALL
This is simple - the bartender pours a well brand when the customer orders a call. The bartender collects for the call, but only places enough in the register for the well, pocketing the difference.
#7 - SUBSTITUTING A CALL FOR A WELL
This is the opposite, the bartender rings up a well sale but pours a more expensive call or premium brand for his friends or big tippers.
#8 - SNEAKING IN A BOTTLE OF LIQUOR
If a bartender sneaks a bottle of Grey Goose onto the back bar, he knows that by not ringing sales in, he can sell 27 drinks at, say $7 a shot, thereby pocketing $189 - all the while knowing that the owner will not discover that any of the bar's liquor is missing.
#9 - FUDGING THE SPILL SHEET
When the bartender wants to steal a drink, he simply records it as a spill or a comp. Since very few bars actually monitor their spill sheets, this is a very easy and pretty much foolproof way to steal. This is most easily accomplished by writing down a lot of spillage for non-existent draft beer "foaming".
#10 - RINGING UP DOUBLES
If the bar sells doubles at a discount, the bartender rings up one double when two singles are ordered - pocketing the difference.
We often see the same scam at bars that sell 6-packs of "take-out" beer at a discount. If the bartender rings up one 6-pack, he can later sell six single bottles of beer. At one client, we found that the bartender had rung up four 6-packs for a total of $60 at the beginning of the night. As the night went on, he sold 24 single bottles for a total of $90 but he did not ring those in - thus the bartender made a $30 profit on his shift!
#11 -SIMPLY "FORGETTING" TO RING UP A DRINK
Or, as we called it when we were children, "accidentally, on-purpose" not ringing it up! This is the best way to give away drinks to friends or particularly large tippers.
#12 - BARTENDER/SERVER COLLUSION A table orders four drinks. If the server knows that the table is paying cash, then only two of the drinks are rung in but the server verbally tells the bar-tender to prepare all four. The server then collects all the money but only the proceeds from two make it to the register - the remaining money being split by the server and bartender.
The beauty of this scam is that it is difficult to detect. An observer (or camera) would simply see a chit being printed and money going into the register.
One myth: watering down bottles is very rare and almost never done by bartenders. As you can see, there are so many easier ways to cheat a bar that watering down the booze is simply a stupid way to steal - it is too likely to be discovered when customers complain about the weak drinks. Every time that I have seen bottles watered down, it was done by the cleaning crew.
The good news is that all these scams can be deterred. In our business, we have learned that simply firing every bartender that steps out of line is not a solution - their replacements always have exactly the same "habits." The solution is to put the operational systems in place so that your bartenders understand that if they steal, they will be caught - it needs to be that simple.
Our clients find that the determined thieves will quit and go to work at another bar where they do not have adequate controls.
The middle majority will see that the temptation of loose controls has been removed and that the odds of being caught have increased. The result, predictably, is that this group can and will respond by doing an honest job.
And, finally, your honest bartenders will be much happier at work when they see that they are not the only people treating the bar and your customers with respect and honesty.