Sleight of Hand - The Reality of Bartender Theft

publication date: Sep 18, 2018
author/source: Mike Hughes


If you ask 100 bar and restaurant owners to name the top 5 things that keep them up at night about their business 90 of them would list employee theft somewhere in there.

I've been in this business a long time. Having held every restaurant position and management role there is, and I have seen my share of crookery (made up word alert).

I have spent 10 of the 40 years in this business behind the bar...

Full time, as my only source of income.

What I am about to say, may shock, anger and perhaps offend some of you, but a majority of bartenders steal.

Go ahead and get pissed...Tell me I'm an asshole and don't know what I am talking about.

However, I am correct. No most bartenders do not grab a bottle of Patron on their way out the door or help themselves to a customers cash while they are using the restroom.

How do I define stealing? In the restaurant world, it is this;

Taking anything you lack permission in taking and using it for your personal gain.

There are of course, different levels of theft, but at the end of the day, it is all theft. You used another person's assets to line your pockets...

Let's review some things that happen everyday, by seemingly the most honest and loyal employees we have.

Take this popular scenario: Bill is a regular and Bill tips very well. Bill drinks Bourbon on the rocks and drinks a lot of them. The owner of the restaurant tells you that now and again, it is ok to buy a regular like Bill a drink, but please account for it so we know where our liquor is going. So you heavy pour Bills drinks on Friday afternoon, and buy his last 2 drinks. You comp 1 because you have permission. You gave Bill another, and overpoured his other 4 by ¼ shot each. Bill appreciated those extra 3 drinks and left you a $20 on a $25 tab. You made extra money by giving away liquor that wasn't yours. You just stole from your boss.

Or this one...Long day behind the bar, and you get a shift beer as that is your restaurants policy. You and the evening bartender are really tight, and you have 2 more unpaid drinks. You just stole from your boss again.

Or this one...Dave in the kitchen and you are pals, and you're starving. You get 50% off your employee meal, but Dave brings you nacho's not rung up. You devour them and don't pay for them...Who just stole in this situation? I would argue that you and Dave both did.

These examples are things that happen everyday in our restaurants. You don't need to blatantly pull money from the drawer after ringing the no sale key for a beer sale.

You don't need to sneak a bottle of Skyy Vodka in your backpack to sell and keep the sales.

You don't need to pocket the huge cash overage in the till because you forgot how much extra you put in there.

No, it's the innocent freebees to regulars yielding bigger tips that may be the biggest facilitators to your wealth and the owners loss.

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How come?

What leads good people, with good jobs that they enjoy, to start bending the rules to make some extra money? Usually it's opportunity based on things like the feeling of entitlement that gets it started. You've been busting your ass and come in whenever they call you. You never call out and are loved by your guests. You do extra for the owners and do it with a smile. With this, sometimes comes a feeling of entitlement. You can slide free drafts all afternoon long and make an extra $50, and nobody will ever know. They OWE you for all YOU do for THEM.

You know what they watch and know what they count, and you also know to what level they hold people accountable for. But listen up;

They don't owe you shit.

You have a job. Nothing beyond that is owed. If anything, you owe them an honest days work...Because the better they do, the better you do, and the longer the restaurant stays in business. That's how it works my friends.

Are there bartenders out there that NEVER do some of the little innocent examples in my 3 scenarios I mentioned above? I suppose there are, however, I've seen this my entire career, and even did it back in my younger days. EVERY bartender I know, every damn one, would admit to doing the same things.

So how does a bar and restaurant owner protect their assets? What can they do to lessen the amount "given away?"

If a restaurant owner was invisible and spent a shift at their own bar, where they could see every transaction with every guest, their head would spin off in anger and frustration. They cannot be present all the time to make sure things stay real.

There is a smart solution!

Hire a Spotter Service...It is a service (that I offer by the way), where a seasoned professional, who knows what to look for, plays customer for a few hours and takes detailed notes on everything they see. They will then compile a report, complete with recommendations and action steps along with a theft assessment of the individual they are spotting.

The follow up with the owner will be a meeting about what they observed...This can give the owner either peace of mind that their fears are unfounded OR a plan of attack so they can catch them on their own. They can make decisions from there, as they typically never recommend a termination based on their findings UNLESS one of the larger, more obvious infractions is spotted. The employee will never even know what the spotter is doing.

Identifiable acts of theft include; No rings, Over charges, Short rings, Short pours, giveaways, Consuming while working, allowing coworkers to consume, Over pouring, claiming walk outs, Watering bottles, replacing bottles with their own and falsely claiming a guest didn't like a drink or claiming spills...If you don't know these terms, or even if you do, but don't see it yourself, you need a spotter.

Pricing varies, but here is mine; $30 an hour with a 3 hour minimum, plus an hour to write the report and recommendations, and a 30 minute meeting.

Plus the client pays for the bar tab, which is typically a bite to eat and 3 pints. All in, the expense is in the $150 to $200 dollar range, and the information provided can be invaluable.

A seasoned, dishonest employee can pocket my fees on a really busy shift or two.

Many times it is just bad bar habits that need some coaching, which I see all the time.

I've actually seen bartenders at a really busy bar, lose track of the drinks they hustled to customers because they were too busy to take the money at the point of sale...Huh? Taking methods of payment for drinks or adding to a guest check served slows you down?

To my fellow restaurant managers and owners, you're welcome, and give me a call...To my friends that are in this business that haven't taken anything, ever; keep up the great work... I know who you are.

Mike HughesMike Hughes is a freelance writer, Blogger and has nearly 3 decades in Restaurant Operations Management.