Ask Your Bartender: Buybacks

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Susan writes:

I am a frequent bar customer. I need an explanation of the concept behind buybacks.

One bartender who I was friends with would not let me pay for my drinks, ever. He said they were on him.

One day when it was very slow in the bar I asked him if he could let me pay for my drinks, because he was losing $14 for the two drinks that I had. The owner was present and heard me say this. Thee next time I saw him he was absolutely furious with me and said that this got him in trouble (reprimanded).

How do you get in trouble for this?

Thanks so much for your thoughts,

Dear Susan

I’ll just bet your friend was furious with you: buybacks may come in many colors, but you just caught him robbing the place blind.

Let me back up and explain the concept of “buybacks” for those who aren’t familiar with the idea. See, in many lower-end bars, neighborhood dives, juke joints, roadhouses, taverns and shitkicker saloons, the bartender has developed a symbiotic relationship with his or her customers that puts a few extra dollars in the barkeep’s pocket at the end of the night, and keeps the clientele coming back for more. It’s called the buyback and it works like this:

I’m a regular customer. I come into your bar five, six nights a week and hoist a good three pints at a sitting, tipping a dollar or more on each beer. You and I have a mutual understanding that my fourth drink is going to be on the house. I, as a customer, don’t really know why this is the rule, and you most likely haven’t been trained by the owner in this practice. But as long as I’m tipping and we’ve got a good relationship as customer and bartender, that fourth drink is gonna be free.

The buyback has been around for a long, long time. My guess is that it’s been around for so long that it originated in a time when owners still worked behind the bar and would buy a drink for a customer as a sign of appreciation for his loyalty. Done in an appropriate manner by someone who actually owns the booze, the buyback can be a very effective tool in maintaining a regular customer base. But don’t be fooled, Susan. Your friend isn’t a savvy businessman, sliding you an occasional drink to thank you for your regular patronage, but rather a douchebag and a thief – giving away alcohol and putting the money in his pocket.

As you said in your email, “One bartender who I was friends with would not let me pay for my drinks, ever… How do you get in trouble for this?” Well, Susan, you get in trouble the same way a teenage employee of The Gap gets busted for putting a pair of leggings in her purse – the only difference is that The Gap would have the good sense to fire the employee in question and your friend’s boss is clearly a moron.

I get upset with bartenders like your friend, because it perpetuates a myth that many people carry with them into bars: that alcohol should be free and well-liked people should never have to pay for a drink. I don’t know where this prevailing attitude comes from, but I suspect it grew out of the venerable buyback. Look at it in another light: every morning you stop at the place by your house for a coffee and a bagel. And every morning you pay full price, never expecting to have the girl behind the counter refuse to take your money. It doesn’t faze you in the least, does it?

So why do some people expect the opposite treatment when it comes to bars? This isn’t even an expectation you see sales-wide in the liquor industry, it’s bar-specific. You would never, ever expect every fourth six-pack at your local grocery store to be free, would you? Really?

As a bartender who doesn’t steal from his employers, I’m forced to rely on a smile, some solid conversation, and a well-made drink to make my living. Sure, I’d probably make more money hopping from job to job, giving away booze at every place in town until either I was fired or the place went out of business, but that’s not much of a career. Sure, I’d be the most popular guy in town, but my hope is that eventually people will once again admire bartenders as hosts, craftspeople, and trusted civic figures and regard us less as petty thieves and scam-artists.

86 Replies to “Ask Your Bartender: Buybacks”

  • Naaaaaah says:

    I disagree entirely. If I order a dozen bagels, it better come as a baker’s dozen. That’s the bagel buy back. The bar buy back is the same thing, just in a more intimate business relationship. I think it’s a sweet gesture, they should do it everywhere. Further, it works as incentive not to be an asshole at a bar. Very basic, and good, economics. It is also not the same thing to say that you wish bars where you lived did buy backs and to expect a buyback. If it were industry standard like the bagel thing, then yeah, expectation. But it isn’t. Later.

    • Jeffrey Morgenthaler says:

      Your incentive for not being an asshole at a bar is being allowed to remain at said bar. A drink on the house is a reward for being a good guest, not your god-given right.

  • jeff says:

    Actual bartender here…Susan, you must have the tact of a rhinoceros in a china shop and the ego of Napoleon to to think it was ok to say intentionally say that to an employee in front of their boss…smh. Unless you were actually taking the money in throwing it in his tip jar, he wasn’t stealing.

  • frank says:

    i hear an awful lot of stupid statements here like encouraging attractive women to come to your bar is the equivalant of prostitution, or that this is all just theft. I hear no one saying that if the owner paid a decent wage none of this would happen. People, even bartenders and waiters, don’t want to steal, but average shift pay where i live is $25 – $30 for an 8 hour shift. Some “decent” owners even pay $50 if you’ve been there a while. They also automatically add ten to twenty percent of your register take to your taxable income. Can you say five dollars an hour.

  • Derek says:

    From your analogy: every morning you stop at the place by your house for a coffee and a bagel. And every morning you pay full price, never expecting to have the girl behind the counter refuse to take your money. It doesn’t faze you in the least, does it?

    So does the girl behind the counter get mad that you dont tip her for your bagel? You’re not bagel girl, you’re expecting tip, and you’re telling me if I give a good tip I will be rewarded with good service. Im a beer guy, so theres not any “i took the effort to make you a good drink,” so I get faster service? But what if its crowded and Ive been empty for a while now. Everybody is giving you good tips and wants to be a priority? And of course there arent enough bartenders for a packed house because that would eat into your tips you want all for yourself. So how do I get a return on tipping? A round on the house thats how. Ok what if the bar is empty, do I really want to be there without the atmosphere? Keep me around, dangle that carrot.

  • A La says:

    I am a bartender, first and foremost, but I am also a consumer. When I go out, I make it a point to not let the bartender know that I am their peer, because then I am sure to get a free round, even multiple rounds. I find that about 50% of the time, after I’ve drank about 4 drinks, the 5th one is ‘on the house’.

    Now let’s talk about ownership and inventory. At one of my bars, I did the inventory and cost control. I’d like to clear something up here. If you’re a bar owner and counting your loss for the day in association to a buyback, you’re not a very good businessman. The bar industry is an industry of return customers and word of mouth. You did not ‘lose’ revenue by giving away one drink, you lost cost. What you have gained is the potential for that person to come in on another occasion, hopefully with a friend or friends, telling others that your establishment is doing it right, clearly making up for your cost ‘investment’. This is the cost of doing business. In this business, it takes money to make money. If you can’t control your costs below 30% then you’re doing it wrong, whether it be your price point or you have too much inventory and not moving it fast enough. That 30 dollar bottle of Goose should make you 150 dollars.. So giving away a shot(.75 cents @ cost) may make you 40 bucks the next time.
    If you don’t think these numbers are completely 100% accurate you’re right, but the principle can’t be argued: give a little to gain a lot.

    As far as calling an individual a douchebag for giving away a drink or two, you’re way off the mark. “Robbing them blind” is too strong too. Do you know that this bartender does this everyday, or for every patron? If two drinks is robbing somewhere blind then I feel bad for that bottom line.

  • Kendyl says:

    I recognize the power of buybacks in retaining customers and treating friends, so I participate, but I buy them myself. Sometimes it does result in a couple extra bucks as a tip, which offsets my out of pocket cost. Btu I understand that establishing a relationship with a new customer or maintaining relationships with regulars is more valuable to me than one $12 cocktail here and there.

  • Cutter says:

    First off…any good bar/resto worth its salt will always have a promo tab/budget.

    Secondly…any good bartender worth their salt knows this is a valuable tool for not only maintaining, but growing the business. It’s does not exist for you to flirt with chicks or get your friends gassed on the cheap. It’s a way of rewarding regulars and expressing to new customers that you value their patronage.

    Thirdly…to the assholes think that bartenders/servers are overpaid needs not only a headcheck, but to actually spend some time working in industry. If everyone coming out of high school had to do a 3-6 month stint in a busy resto/bar they’d never complain again and be a hell of a lot more respectful to boot. You try working an 6-8 hour shift in a bar where people or 3 or 4 deep for hours on end and you’re constantly in the weeds dealing with drunken, obnoxious assholes, people yelling, snapping, waving, whistling, arguing about bills, etc. etc. etc. and still trying to ensure everyone has a good time. Try it sometime.

    The fact is most people lack the skill, co-ordination, grace and testicular fortitude that it takes to do this night after night, week after week, year after year. Do not doubt that everyone in the hospitality field – and I mean real professionals, not just students passing some time – earn every penny they make and then some.

  • jimimac says:

    I guess if you want to clean portable toilets for minimum wage 40 hours a week that is your choice but to call some one who makes 4 times as much money a week as you do while only “working” 30 hours a week an “imbecile” really indicates your failure to understand economic reality. Most people agree that the more money you make while investing the least amount of time is really a benefit to ones lifestyle. So I am not sure if the lawyer who doesn’t as much as a bartender makes after investing in a college education and working their legal secretaries fingers to the bone, made the right choice or is a very good attorney. Oh and by the way I graduated from college and after researching the job market came to the conclusion that I could make more money tending bar at a golf course, where by the way I get free golf and equipment at cost. In conclusion Portable toilet cleaners are a valued part of our society and I am sure they deserve every bit of the minimum wage they earn for their forty hour work week, and it is a good use for that law degree they spent all that time and money on.

  • tgicdf says:

    Bartenders are over-rated period. Standing high and mighty like we owe them a living. Let the cheap=assed owner pay them a decent wage instead of expecting hand-outs. Get a real job and see what it’s like to have to earn a living. They just want to work(ha!) 30 hrs. a week and make $1500 and not pay tax on it which is equal to about 100K/yr. Many lawyers don’t make that and most of you never attended college. It’s not an entitlement program imbecile brain!

  • ~Bree says:

    I have never been a bartender anywhere but I talk to quite a few. I don’t actually drink a lot either but when I go out I bring lots of company. We usually show up a little early and go home really late. There is a particular pub I go to, mostly because they serve me free dinner and non-alcoholic beverages while I wait for my friends to finish drinking. Honestly, I like to save a few bucks so if this particular pub didn’t do what they did I could just as easily take my friends elsewhere. Am I wrong to accept free food when the only drinks I buy are for the bartender? Even when guys buy me drinks all four of the bartenders know to serve me a shot of water instead of alcohol and keep the money as a tip. Am I cheating the pub?

  • angelhair says:

    Say you have been drinking at a place for a few hours and have been served by a couple of bartenders. You get your bill and a drink or two are not on it. How do you know whether this is a mistake by the bartender or a comp? Do bills usually list a comped drink?

    I mean, if it’s a place that you like, you don’t want to cheat them or shortchange them.

    P.S. I just left the amount that the drinks would have cost in addition to the tip.

  • Damian says:

    As far as Comped/bought back drinks, yes, I include the price in my tip- always have, it’s a throwback to the days I spent in the local Sheriff’s Academy and was instructed to never take any food or drink for free; Always pay, and if the tariff is refused, leave it in addition- it removes all taint.

  • Elaine says:

    Question –

    Is it customary to include the price of the buyback drink in the tip? I usually do.


  • M4rtyn says:

    I think a good customer should be thanked with an occasional treat. Maybe a drink, maybe a few nibbles, a complementary cup of coffee or whatever, but this should only be done with the knowledge and approval of the owner. Otherwise, is plain stealing. You want to offer your friend a drink? do it outside work, with money out of your pocket, not your boss’s.
    Perhaps if your boss stops losing money because you are giving drinks away he would be able to afford that raise you’ve been asking for.

  • Brian12566 says:

    I think I kind of know how you feel about knowing a bartender equals free drinks. I am a cop and my friends seem to think I can get them out of every ticket they get for driving like morons. They also feel the need to tell me about every parking ticket they get for double parking. I feel your pain.

  • Alex – No, not all buybacks are outright theft. But what I was responding to was this:

    One bartender who I was friends with would not let me pay for my drinks, ever. He said they were on him.

    One day when it was very slow in the bar I asked him if he could let me pay for my drinks, because he was losing $14 for the two drinks that I had. The owner was present and heard me say this. Thee next time I saw him he was absolutely furious with me and said that this got him in trouble (reprimanded).

    Yeah, that’s definitely theft.

  • Wait

    a minute. Not all buybacks are outright theft.

    At the bar I worked for a long time, we had a certain amount allowed for comps, for good customers. Bosses were aware of that.

    It’s a bit ridiculous to compare the convenient store to the bar. Anyone who has worked the bar knows that an extra drink, or a round of shots can turn a walk ins into a loyal customers or just keep your customers a little longer to keep your party going.

    For instance, at my bar, there were those girls, 6 gorgeous girls, who’d come to the bar every week, often more than once a week. They would always bring a nice ambiance at the bar, create a party. Of course, those girls always had shots on the house and the two most regular ones would always get at least one free drink.

    It’s not theft. When it was one of these girl’s birthday, they manage to make a guy spend 700$ buying them and the whole bar shots. They always ordered a few drinks, never asked or expected for anything to be free and always tipped marvelously.

  • Ebrey says:

    As someone who gets free drinks from bartender friends, waived cover charges from DJ friends, and free movies from theater manager friends, I don’t think it’s wrong to go someplace expecting a free drink. Frankly, my friend’s bar is way, way too overcrowded and I would never go there if I wasn’t going to get something free (which the manager is okay with). So I hope you guys aren’t rude to your friends when they ask if they’ll get a free drink if they stop by – it’s a reasonable question to ask.

    Most of the time I’m getting something free, I would never go to that place if I wasn’t. That’s really not hurting the business, especially if I also pay for something or leave a big tip.

    I work at a video game company, and I give really cheap games to my friends. Most jobs have benefits, not just bartenders. Now, if a bartender is giving free drinks solely because he expects a big tip, it’d be the equivalent of me marking up my cheap games to get a profit on them. That’s not cool.

  • BJ Hudson says:

    As a patron of many a establishment I can say that a bartender’s attitude and the over-all type of crowd far more influances my choice to be a regular. If the bartender doesn’t show much interest in his job and theres cussing, too loud music, and the constant air of a fight about to break out, I’m done. I often get frustrated that I can’t seem to find a bar in my immediate area thats not either ran like an old folks home where anyone under 40 is frowned or being managed about like a frat house. A free drink is a perk, but no where approaches timely service with a smile (and no risk of being hit with a beer bottle)

  • Jack says:

    Interesting discussion! Jeffrey, I really appreciate the way your blog focuses on social aspects of bartending alongside the whole mixology thing. Both are integral parts of the bartender’s job, but few blogs seem to balance their weights as well as yours. Thanks for that!

    Regarding the topic at hand, I have only been out west once, but on that occasion I chanced to visit the Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle. Murray Stenson was absolutely incredible behind the bar – great drinks, but his hospitality was the factor that really made the evening. In the same vein as what angelhair has said, he had a penchant for offering free drams of the odder bottles behind the bar – an Oregon whiskey, Aperol, pimento dram…

    I don’t think this sort of hospitality is only the domain of legendary bars and bartenders. Murray might have cost the bar a few bucks in the short run, but he turned that whole evening from a mere social situation into an adventure. Zig Zag let us explore weirder drinks than we’d have ever ordered, and I’ll remember the place forever as a place of discovery, a place that brought strangers together through collective exploration of an unfamiliar taste. In this case, I’m thinking about the pimento dram, which incidentally led to six or seven people ordering a Northern Spy in just a few minutes. Letting people sample odd bottles in this case directly resulted in massive sales of a solid drink.

    But that’s just from one side of the bar. How do bartenders or managers feel about this? How is it regulated?

  • angelhair says:

    I’ve had plenty of bartenders pour me an ounce or so of some obscure liquor or something that was new to me, just so that I could taste it. Is it wrong for the bartender to do that?

    Often these are not inexpensive liquors. Is a bartender stealing from his boss if he does this? Do you ever do this?

    I am by no means a regular anywhere, but I think I tip well. BTW this happens to me most often at Clyde and at Teardrop.

  • Lisa says:


    I got online to look for some good pointer to revamp my dull server/bartender resume. Through chance, I stumbled onto your awesome blog and have found some really great ideas. I got on your site at 5:20pm and it is now 6:30pm! I haven’t even started on my revamp. I think you owe me a drink for all that time. 🙂 Anyway, I have you bookmarked now and I’ll be taking your tips to heart. I’m in P-town as well and I am looking for bartending work now that the bars are smoke-free. Thanks again and wish me luck! I’m competing with the the influx of new transplants, laid off professionals, and real estate agents.



  • Great reply to a question that could just as easily have been “why isn’t it ok to steal from the boss?” When I bartended and wanted to thank my customers and buy them a drink I made sure they saw the money come out of my tip jar and go directly to the register.

  • clara says:

    bottle of jim beam rye: $14
    big bottle of angustura bitters: $10
    bottle of noilly prat vermouth: $9

    feeling when liquor store clerk nods approvingly and says “classic”: priceless

  • Cuco says:

    I agree with Jeff,
    Bartenders like the Ann friend make the bad reputation with all the bartenders must to fight nowadays.
    If one of my crew have this behavior I’ll Fire him immediately.

  • jimimac says:

    Giving away something that doesn’t belong to you is theft pure and simple. Unless the bar has a policy regarding “buybacks” the bartender should pay for the drinks out of his/her own pocket.
    When I go to other bars where I know the bartender I don’t like nor do I expect free or discounted drinks. I would hope those same bartenders feel the way I do when they come to my bar. Bartenders of all people should realize the consequences involved with giving free alcoholic beverages (which by the way is illegal in OR). I explain to new bartenders about the concept of stealing drinks this way,
    1 drink @ $5 given away means we have lost $5 in revenue for the day
    and we have to pay for the cost of the drink which is another $1.25
    the bar also has to pay to replace the cost of the drink which is another $1.25.
    In order to make up for the liquor cost of that 1 free drink
    we have to sell 3-4 drinks at regular price plus to pay for the replacement of that one drink we have to sell 3-4 more drinks at regular price.
    So it cost the bar $5.00 in lost revenue plus another $2.50 in replacement cost.
    Plus we have to sell another $35.00 to $40.00 in drinks to maintain our liquor costs.
    While this example is exaggerated and extreme it will get the point across that a free drink is not just a free drink from the Bar owners perspective.
    just limin,

  • Bryan says:

    The bar I work at actually has a promo tab that a manager will comp every night up to 3% of our sales. So not all bartenders are duche bags when they give you one on the house, it’s still a sign of our apreciation to the guest.

  • josh C. says:

    Sorry j.c., I put qotes around the bought to stress the fact that I “bought” the drink. taking the money from your tip jar, or even better wallet, walking to the till and paying for it outright. there’s no classier move.

  • John Claude says:

    Josh C.

    I’m confused. Did you actually pay for the drink out of your tip jar because you put quotes around “bought”. Is this a way to make them feel guilty and receive “the best tips”? Strange.

  • Josh C. says:

    Being a long time bartender and manager, I find that I’ve always recieved the best tips when I made sure that the guest I “bought” the drink for saw me physically walk to the tip jar and pay for the drink immediately. Even in bars with an allowed amount for comps, the bartender should always keep the best interest of not only themselves, but of the establishment in mind when comping a drink. You can’t make money if you run the place into the ground!

  • Em Cee says:


    No worries. I was trying to be succinct and not write a dissertation in the comments section, but maybe I just managed to not be clear.

    If only we’d had this discussion over a cocktail, instead of online.

  • John Claude says:

    Em Cee.

    Apologies, but the way you were writing was making it seem like a very personal thing. Again, apologies.

    Actually, speaking of ice, I want to buy a bag and hammer for making crushed ice. Can anyone recommend a good bag and a whacking implement. I’d rather not use my PUG muddler for the job.

  • Drusilla says:

    I once had a bartender give me quite a few drinks when I first came to university. Then one day when the bar was quiet he basically came out and said I owed him, and he wanted sex. I told him to get lost, he presented me with a bill for all the drinks I had been given for free. So I reported him to the bar owner and he was fired. Conversely some of the lady bartenders have been charging me 50% extra for my drinks, when I asked why they said made some very rude comments about my physique and private life.

    I have had instances of buybacks which have not been like this though. At a restaurant I eat at weekly, sometimes more than once, the owner (a very nice southern American gentleman) gives me free burgers once in a while, or gives me a sample of something new on the menu. All perfectly platonic and aboveboard, his wife got annoyed with him once when he did not give me a free steak wheh I brought a party of 12 friends to the restaurant.

  • Em Cee says:


    I should probably just let this go, but I really thought I had been clear in my initial post, so it galls me to continue to be misunderstood.

    1)I value a good bartender and a properly made drink more than most people, and my personal choices are to frequent those establishments.

    2) Drinking is a social activity, and people often go where their friends go.

    3) As awful as it is, *many* bars are mediocre and interchangeable. (and lots of young people just drink beer)

    4)Who doesn’t like a free drink?

    Look, we agree many aspects of this argument. I’m simply trying to lay out an explanation for why some people expect comps. They aren’t getting the idea from out of thin air: they’ve been comped previously.

    Example: When I was a poor grad student, I hit it off with one of the best bartenders in my city, working in one of the nicer restaurants. We were never personal friends; we only talked when I drinking at the bar. When I headed in and had a few drinks and dinner, most of my drinks would mysteriously disappear off the bill. Who was I to complain?

    Now, it’s true that if he had been a shitty bartender, I wouldn’t have cared to return. But his skill and the comps certainly made it possible for me to come in more often.

    Bartenders who comp like that might very well be stealing from the companies they work for, but its those bartenders (and they are legion) that are creating the expectations that customers have.

    Jeez, now that I’ve beat a dead horse, can we talk about ice or something?

  • Greg in SF says:

    I read the title of this topic: “Ask Your Bartender: Barbacks”

    I was hoping for some enlightenment on these curiosities of the service industry.

  • John Claude says:

    I’d had a few when I responded last night, but regardless…

    I go where I like to go. Regardless of whether I’m given free things or not.

    I expect excellent product. I could really care less whether I occasionally get it for free.

    I guess we just have different priorities.

  • Em Cee says:


    Great job at reading comprehension. I’ll try to stick to bullet points next time.

    If every restaurant but one gives you free dessert, you’d need a damn good reason to keep going back to that restaurant.

    I was just trying to show where some people’s expectations come from.

  • John Claude says:

    Em Cee.

    You’d actually be so offended that you’d go somewhere else because you didn’t get something for free?

    Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

    You should be counting your blessings that you get anything ever for free. I don’t get mad that I don’t get my side of bacon comped at the cafe I go to every morning for years for breakfast and tip 50 to 75% at. How does that differ from a drink?

    You get a free drink. Be thankful. Expectations are for the birds.

  • Em Cee says:

    A few people above have pondered why people expect free drinks if they are regulars. From my experience, its really straightforward: bartenders have trained us to expect it! I admit that my formative drinking years were spent in the Northeast, and it may not be that way everywhere, but my friends and I all learned early on that if you were in frequent enough for the bartender to recognize you, you could expect that third or fourth round on the house. And often, it wasn’t even necessary to be a big spender. Have a great conversation with the barkeep? Notice a drink missing off your tab. It was so universal that it was weird when I (as a patron) upheld my end of the ‘bargain’ and didn’t find a free drink. I’d just go somewhere else next time.

    I admit that I’ve seen this becoming less frequent in the last few years as more places switch over to computerized inventory/ordering systems, but it seems odd to go around blaming people for expecting what they’ve been getting for years.

    (I would like to point out that I don’t expect *anything* to be comped when I go out, but when I was younger and 9/10 bars were giving free drinks, it was easy to avoid the 10th)

    Finally, for people who say this doesn’t happen in other industries, its just not true. I worked in a coffee shop for a few years, and I definitely rewarded our regular customers with the occasional free drink or upgrade. But it was certainly rare enough that no one ever *expected* it.

  • random says:

    26.) Who gets free drinks and why?
    There are five categories of people who get free drinks. 1.) People who work in the bar business, because it’s all part of the exchange/referral system. 2.) Regulars because they spend a lot of money in the bar and help create its personality. 3.) High rollers who spend a lot of money and tip big without being obnoxious about it, because you want them to come back. 4.) Sexy people you’d like to sleep with, because you’d like to sleep with them. 5.) Friends, because, hey, they’re your friends.

    quoted from

  • tending bar in nyc says:

    no hard feelings, i was just making a point.

    I have been TBINY for a few months now, but previously I TBIMB *

    I will agree that many bartenders working in clubs are not into the art or history behind the drink, but to be fair I see many bartenders in smaller bars and fine dining establishments that also have little to no interest or knowlege in/of the drinks they pour.

    It’s up to the individual.

    *(I’m from eugene,OR though)

  • John Claude says:


    I’m just ribbing. Sorry to ruffle your feathers. ; )

    Why is your screen name TBINYC if you TBIMB?

  • tending bar in nyc says:

    I’ve been working off and on in “Touristy clubs” for years.(miami beach) Many of my coworkers as well are into mixology.

    Just because someone works in the club environment does not mean they are not into the art of drink.


  • John Claude says:

    What do you mean “with other bartenders”? People who come in to drink on their off time? Most places I’ve worked it’s just 1/2 off your drinks when you come in on your free time.

    Though I tend to frequent bars other than the ones I work at. That’s spending a little too much time in one place. I want to get out and see the big world!

    And I’m sticking with 99% with a +/- 2% margin of error.

  • Giving a promo tab is essential to curbing this practice and acknowledging that it will happen one way or another. The question is how should buybacks work with other bartenders…..

  • Tokyo Tea says:

    I’m sorry but the amount of responses and over-analysis of the issue is baffling. Anyone who has worked in the industry for a few years and has more than one brain cell knows the “right” and the “wrong” in this position. Oh yeah, J.C. I know most “touristy clubtenders” might not seem that into quality mixology, but I think there’s probably more than a mere 1% that do their “homework” so to speak. Next topic…..

  • Ouroboros says:

    The issue is discretion.

    I have enjoyed a reasonably rare comp’ed drink, sometimes a test drink, sometimes surprise at not finding it on the bill, once on a special occasion. But in those cases I’ve replied with a heartfelt yet discrete Thank You and an outsize gratuity.

    And I’ve cringed whenever I’ve overheard someone downbar mention much too loudly any sort of reference to getting comp-ed. That sort of assertion is not polite to anyone present.

  • Heather says:

    I was talking to my husband about this last night, and I really think guys don’t see this sort of transaction in the same light as girls. When you’re a girl, you really are aware of the tacit agreements you might be making when you accept something for free. It isn’t always clear what a guy expects when buying you a drink (whatever side of the bar he’s on).

    When a guy buys you a drink, he’s usually expecting something in return and it can turn ugly (name calling, etc) if this isn’t reciprocated.

    The above situation (where the order was screwed up) is completely different – the reason is clear for the buyback. A bartender who refuses to ever let you pay may think he’s paying into some sort of credit account.

  • tending bar in NYC says:

    I think it really depends on the intent behind the freebies.

    because you specified the gender of your barista I’m assuming you took it as him making a pass at you.

    what if a barista/bartender screws up your order, or otherwise delays you from receiving your drink, then proceeds to offer you it on the house for your troubles?

    would you still walk out on it?

  • Susan says:

    Interesting comments about the coffee. A few months ago, I got offered a free coffee by a (male) barista I knew.

    I flat out declined. And left without taking it.

  • Heath Hutto says:

    Goodness! You’ve gotten rather a lot of response here, eh?

    As one who’s only been on the other side of the counter, this has been a good set of comments to read, and from which I’ve gotten the sense that absent the sort of flagrant violation your correspondent outlines, there are a variety of methods (legit and otherwise) that can be used to attract repeat business or demonstrate most-favoured-customer status.

    Buybacks of the sort described may be inappropriate, but as a customer, I’m comfortable with expecting other perks–indeed, on one of your older posts of advice for new bartenders, you seem to suggest that high tipping and friendliness will reap you connexions.

    I’m sure that no owner will flat-out tell his staff that they can let people smoke under certain circumstances, but as a nicotine-addict, if I get a bartender who will let me smoke, the bar has my patronage in perpetuity. I paid fifty pounds last night for a twenty pound tab–I don’t expect buybacks, but I do expect that I’ll be remembered, and maybe go to the front of the queue faster.

    In addition, I think of a bar near the UO campus where most of the bartenders hang around off-shift. Often, bartenders (on or off the job) “buy” me drinks–obviously, I don’t see their tabs–is this something I should accept as a customer?

    No doubt, the flat-out thievery your correspondent describes is wrong, but can/ought customers do anything about the myriad of grey situations? (except for permitted-smoking–I won’t give that up!)?

  • tending bar in NYC says:

    good point ^^

    In addition to all this being said
    I personally believe that by their actions behind the bar (rather than passing out free drinks) a good bartender can encourage return customers (as well as extra tip $$)
    with higher efficiency.

    When a bar owner places more importance on quality of service
    rather than deciding on how many free drinks their bartender can pass out it also has the benefit of bringing back customers who tend to appreciate a good bartender over a freebie here and there.

    that doesn’t take into consideration Damage Control. that i believe is a separate category.


  • John Claude says:

    I get the feeling that 99% of the people who read this site aren’t working at touristy clubs.

  • tending bar in nyc says:

    I think it really depends on the type of customer your venue looks to attract?

    I mean is some club where tourists are the majority of the patrons really going to benifit from allowing the bartenders to comp drinks?
    no. it might put some $$$ in the bartenders pocket but most likely not going to generate return business.

    On the other hand, if I move to a new city and go to a couple of bars in my neighborhood looking for a spot to hang, a free drink from a good bartender might just seal the deal.

  • Saint Bernard says:

    Jeff, thanks a lot for posting this. I’ve been on both sides of the bar and coffee shop counter. Even as a customer, the occasional free drink injects more awkwardness into the situation, raising questions on how to tip appropriately and whether to expect this type of treatment again (which could influence what drinks your order).

    Point being, even for friends of the bartender, it’d be best if this practice were put to rest, just so everyone expect consistency. Cheers.

  • John Claude says:

    10% seems like a lot for comped drinks. I’m sure we can all do the math and it seems excessive to me.

    I’d probably just give every bartender three or four drinks and call it a day.

  • Paris says:

    Two of the bars I frequent give the managing bartender a $75-100.00 allowance per their shift. Any drinks they or the other bartenders during the shift want to comp get rung in under that ticket in the system.

    The nice thing is it’s tracked and they have a structure for those “freebies,” whether it’s rewarding a regular or taking care of someone who had a bad experience (e.g. problem with a food order, etc.).

  • Pete says:

    In my experience as a GM and previously as a Bar manager, I have seen both the positive and negative of “Bartender comps”. We had one employee who sounds a lot like the bartender in question” who over the years stole close to 6k from the restaurant this way. To ensure that this is never an issue, I make certain my bartenders are part of my cost control team. They benefit from us achieving our goals and suffer (mandatory jigger pours…) when costs are out of line. The one policy in place, as I feel it should be everywhere, is that if it is not rung into the computer system (trackable) then it is theft. I believe in enpowering my team members to be able to use their best judgement on how to improve business. I retain the right to monitor the comp account and “reel” them back in when it is out of line.

  • Jeremy says:

    It’s always interesting to hear other bartenders opinions on this subject. I’ve been behind several different bars, and each owner had different policies. One relied on a lack of a clear policy to keep it to a minimum, another simply did not allow it, while another allowed each bartender to comp a certain percentage of nightly sales, i.e. 10% of what they rang that night.

    It seems to me that, for reasons I’ve never completely understood, it happens everywhere. So, as a bartender, I would much prefer a clearly spelled out policy from management/ownership. For better or worse, it just seems to help make my life, as well as everyone else’s, easier.

    What has anyone else experienced?

  • Cat Lancaster says:

    I want to thank you for addressing this subject. There is a bar here in PDX that I used to go to alot, that I stopped going to because the free food/drinks made me feel uncomfortable. If my bill for lunch & drinks should be $50 and the check I recieve is for $15, I don’t like it. Sure the first time it happened I tipped the bartender $20, but after the second time I stopped going there. I feel so guilty as I know what the margins are in this business and I don’t want to be complacent in hurting the owner.

    What I do appreciate though when someone wants to say “thank you” is to see the whole bill rung up and at the bottom a “customer goodwill comp”. I think that’s fair to everyone. Also, if a bartender is making a new drink and is asking for my opinion, I think it’s fair not to charge me for that too.


  • Jimmy says:

    Good deal. The owners are already on board. I’ll tell that bartender to bring his ID even if he “forgets” his wallet.

  • Oh, and John Claude – I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you.

  • Jimmy – I’m sure said bartender would actually demand that you buy all of his drinks. In fact, I have a pretty good feeling that he’d conveniently “forget” his wallet before arriving at your bar, sir.

  • Jimmy says:

    Dear Bartender,

    I have a dilemma. What if my favorite bartender in the world makes his way from Portland to my bar, and I buy all his drinks? When the owner approves this, will the bartender still think I’m a douchebag? ( I know he thinks that already, but that’s a different story. ) What do you think?


  • John Claude says:


    I think quite a bit trickles down to the bar owner if it’s done responsibly. That one drink that was comped that cost the bar next to nothing (ah, alcohol mark ups…) can lead to quite a return when that person keeps coming back and brings friends in. Not that they should be comped something every time they come in. Far from it. That would really get out of hand.

    Those of us with scruples don’t do it for better tips, we do it for the business. Which ultimately benefits us as well as the owner.

  • RPMcMurphy says:

    Oh the power of the vagina……free drinks and rarely a traffic ticket.

    The bartender was furious, because….

    A. You ratted him out….stealing..while B. he was trying to get in your pants…..and C….he comped your entire bill, got caught, and STILL didn’t get laid.

  • Felicia says:

    As a bar owner, I sure appreciate your insight on this situation. We are located next to a coffee shop, and the baristas would occasionally comp one employee a coffee and then come to the bar and demand a free drink from another employee. It really borders on rude. And while it’s great for bartenders to reward loyal patrons to get better tips, how much does it trickle down to the bar owner? Comping drinks is a matter of individual judgment, and while some bartenders may use this tool wisely, others abuse it and can hurt business overall.

  • John Claude says:


    When I ran the bar at the Cafe Wonder in Portland we could comp out three or four drinks a night. Just as long as they got rang in as such, it was fine. I tended to use it more on newer customers that I liked than on established ones. Though I suppose it evened out over time…

  • Jamie says:

    Am I the only one who has always had a comp tab to use as I see fit?
    The buy back is an absolutely brilliant tool to reward the kind of people that you want to see returning to your bar. I always know when I have a shitty day when I still have money left to spend at the end of my shift.

  • John Claude says:

    A bartender who comps out entire bills is just asking to run the place into the ground. What he was doing isn’t even considered a “buyback”. It’s just screwing the bar, the owner, and in the end himself.

    On another note I always get a kick out of people who think that doubles and large orders should get them discounts. “This isn’t Costco.” I tell them.

    P.S. Who is running the bar at your new job? Is it still a guy named Charlie?

  • Um, I believe that’s just called ‘prostitution’ there, Dave.

  • Dave says:

    Do bars/bartenders ever comp drinks to patrons likely to, um, attract other patrons? What’s that called?

  • While I have had a free drink or two thrown my way, I’m always surprised and humbled when it happens.

    That being said, I think it’s important for readers to remember that the original emailer wasn’t looking for free drinks. She was looking to pay for her drinks. She was so intent on paying that she brought it up the next time she was in the bar. To be honest, I don’t know many people who would come back for a second argument about not having been allowed to pay.

  • Heather says:

    In all my years of drinking, I don’t think I ever have walked into a bar expecting to be comped, no matter what my relationship with the bartender is. If you can’t pay, you can’t drink, right?

    However, it has happened occasionally and it’s always a lovely surprise. I always just roll the price of the (free) drink into my tip, since I was prepared to shell out that amount anyway.

    Susan’s situation would make me uncomfortable – nothing in life in free, so what exactly is this guy expecting in return? I hope the cocktails were really good.

  • Doc – Great point you raise, there, but we’re talking about a company-sponsored system of discounts at the time of purchase versus an unauthorized employee just handing stuff across the counter.

    And I agree with everyone here: showing up to the bar (or the coffee shop, or the liquor store) and expecting a free of discounted item is just madness.

  • Marleigh says:

    The free drink thing has always baffled me, as well. When I go into a bar where I know the bartender, I always expect to pay—not only for my drink, but they’re probably going to get a nice tip (because the bartenders I know make great drinks, not because I know them).

    I get the occasional free drink, especially when a bartender wants to use me as a guinea pig for a new cocktail, but I don’t expect them to shower me in free booze any more than my clients expect me to shower them in free design work.

  • Vidiot says:

    The rule for free alcohol should be: if you have to ask for it, you’re not getting it. If you don’t expect it, the occasional surprise is much nicer than wheedling for a freebie and only sometimes succeeding.

  • Liesel says:

    Not to mention that in the bigger picture if you are heading out to the bar and expecting the drinks to be free, you are in essence telling the universe that you can’t pay for nice things and nice experiences so therefore, you don’t need the means to do so. It’s a downward spiral. Of course the occasional “treat” is a beautiful thing, but the expectation that things that cost others money and time should be free for you – is a mentality that will not reap you anything more than the occasional free drink and a head scratch as to why you aren’t able to pay your way in other areas of your life. Participating in the financial or otherwise, demise of another is participating in the demise of the same in you. Never do business with a douchebag. Douchebags don’t even make good drinks.

  • Doc says:

    Buybacks are hardly unique to bars; they’re just called different things because most things aren’t packaged like cocktails. Bulk discounts, Baker’s Dozens, Loyalty cards/promotions, and Lagniappes are all in the same spirit: a reward for a cumulatively larger purchase with hopes of future customer loyalty. The fourth six-pack for free? No. But 25% discount for buying a case of 24 beers rather than six-packs? Absolutely. (10-20% case discount at a liquor store is very, very standard.)

    In my wallet right now, I have a transit pass that got a 15% bonus for spending more than $20, and two punchcards that say my tenth hot dog and cup of coffee will be gratis. I’m not saying I’m entitled to anything free, nor that any employee should ever steal from company merch, but I can certainly understand why customers believe that large and repeat purchases lead to freebies.

  • Bean says:

    It seems Susan was also under the misapprehension that her bartender friend was paying for her drinks out of his own pocket.

    “He said they were on him…he was losing $14.”

    This was certainly not the case, and as you point out, unless it’s the owner comping your drink, it very likely never is.

    However, as a regular at various bars over the years, I’ve definitely received buybacks from an owner or managing bartender. And the same is true for small restaurants and coffee shops I’ve frequented, where the owner was likely to be working; once a week or so, sometimes the bagel and coffee is free.

  • MissMeaghan – I, too, have been granted a house account at many of the bars I’ve worked in. A comped drink is still a great way to reward good, regular customers for their patronage. But the beauty of a house account is that it can be tracked and worked into the cost of doing business – it’s not a lawless situation.

    Jenny – Thanks, I know how much the word “douchebag” resonates, I’m glad I could help.

  • MissMeaghan says:

    So glad you did this post…I’ve been a server and a bartender and while no one has ever asked me for a free dinner I’ve certainly been harassed for free booze. I have worked at bars with house accounts to be used with discretion and my rule was if you asked you never received! I saved comps for birthdays and my favorite regulars that would actually appreciate it and not expect it. And I agree with Jenny…love the “Douchebag and thief” line!

  • Tiare says:

    I have a bartender in my family and too often when she mentions her job to people she doesn`t know, their instant reaction is “but then i may come by your work place and you may give me a free drink!”
    Its like the word “bartender” and the word “free drinks” is the first thing that comes to their minds.
    I have never ever during my years in restaurants experienced anyone expecting free food, so why bars?

  • Jenny Adams says:

    I think my favorite line of all time …. out of all your blogs …. might just be

    “Your friend isn’t a savvy businessman …. but rather a douchebag and a thief”

    Genius. The next time some bartender comps me a cocktail, instead of “thanks” I am going to reply with:
    “You sir are a douchebag and a thief!”

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