A Guide For Bartenders: When Has The Customer Had Too Much?

A guide for bartenders: every state makes it illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is intoxicated. Servers can use this simple traffic light system to intervene to keep their guests safe and happy.

Bartenders and other alcohol servers have a tough job. They¡¦re charged with pleasing the customer and obeying the law. Often, those two ingredients don¡¦t seem to mix. And yet, bartenders and servers who put their customers¡¦ needs first, understand that an important part of hospitality is keeping the customer safe.

Everyone who serves alcohol must be able to recognize the signs of when a customer has had too much to drink. It is illegal in every state in the United States to serve someone who is intoxicated. How can an alcohol server provide outstanding service while still obeying the law? It starts by intervening the moment the customer walks in the door. Keeping a customer from becoming intoxicated is just as important as cutting them off once they are.

Several national alcohol service training programs use the ¡§traffic light system¡¨ to help servers prevent customers from becoming intoxicated. It is an easy-to-use method of rating the intoxication level of customers.

The system starts by having servers evaluate the customer as soon as they arrive. The server starts by talking to the customers and determining whether they are more likely than others to become intoxicated. This customer contact improves the service the customer receives and allows the server to evaluate the customer on several questions:

- Does the customer appear tired, depressed, or stressed?

- Is the customer on a diet?

- Is the customer taking any medication or drugs?

- Is the customer drunk already or planning to get drunk?

It is also at the point of initial contact that the server can rate the customer using the traffic light system. If the customer is ¡§in the green,¡¨ it means the customer is sober. How does a server ¡§intervene¡¨ when a guest is sober? Some methods can include:

- Serving a drink only to someone who wants one

- Serving a single drink at a time to each customer

- Encouraging food with drinks if the establishment offers food

- Serving glasses of water with all drinks, especially those served straight-up

If a customer is ¡§in the yellow,¡¨ it means he or she is becoming intoxicated and the server should proceed with caution. Because it is easier to deal with a customer who is in the yellow versus the red, the server should pay careful attention and increase the level of intervention. At some establishments, servers may be required to tell their managers so that the manager can help prevent the guest from moving into the red.

The server should strongly encourage a customer to eat and suggest non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beverages to the customers. Some servers are tempted at this point to avoid the customer¡¦s table so that they won¡¦t be asked to bring more drinks. This is poor customer service and will often make a situation become confrontational when it doesn¡¦t need to be. However, the server should wait for the customer to reorder and should stop suggesting or encouraging the sale of any further alcohol. The server should also remove old glasses before bringing a new drink when the customer orders.

It also is important that the server help ensure the customer will safely arrive at their next destination by calling a taxi, making sure the customer calls for a ride, or identifying a designated driver in the party.



The third stage is the red stage. At this point, alcohol service must stop because the customer is intoxicated. While most servers want to prevent their customers from getting to this stage, a customer can move very quickly between stages¡Xoften quicker than the server anticipates.

How can a server identify when a customer is intoxicated? One easy method is to count drinks so that the server can keep track of how many alcoholic beverages the customer has had. However, as alcohol affects different people different ways, drink counting should never be the only method of measuring intoxication.

Some of the common general types of changes that occur in people when they drink alcohol are these:

- Impaired judgement

- Relaxed inhibitions

- Slowed reaction times

- Decreased coordination

Servers should watch for these types of behaviors, which may manifest as personality changes, a customer drinking more quickly, drowsiness, loss of balance, starting arguments or fights, glassy eyes and dilated pupils, anti-social behavior, obnoxious behavior, making irrational statements, or a difficulty handling coins or money.

Once servers have identified that a customer is definitely ¡§in the red,¡¨ then alcohol service must be stopped. This is rarely an enjoyable task for servers as it can affect their tips and cause unpleasant confrontations. However, it is a task that ultimately shows concern for the customer¡¦s well-being and the safety of others.

When stopping alcohol service, a server should ask a co-worker to witness the discussion with the customer. He or she should then move the customer away from others and calmly and firmly tell the customer that he or she will not be served any more alcohol. A server should never be judgmental and say, ¡§You¡¦re drunk¡¨ or ¡§You¡¦ve had too much to drink.¡¨ Instead, the server should express concern for the customer¡¦s safety and explain that it is the establishment¡¦s policy and the law to stop service.

The server then needs to remove all alcohol from the reach of the person who has been cut off. Servers should do everything possible to prevent an intoxicated person from driving or walking away, even if they have to call the police. When the customer gets ready to leave, the server should make sure he or she hasn¡¦t forgotten any personal belongings so that they won¡¦t have to return and increase the risk of an accident.

When done correctly, intervention can raise the level of hospitality offered to customers as well as protect the establishment and the server from lawsuits.

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