Ask Your Bartender: Running a Tab

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(I couldn’t find an appropriate photo, and I wanted to get this out there before I head to work tonight. Sorry – JM)

Hey Bartender

I went to the bar last night with a coworker, whom I was treating to drinks on my tab. When we got the bill, it was very high, so we asked to have an itemized list of the drinks we were charged for. That’s when another bartender told us that some girl had been charging Jack and Cokes on my tab, without my knowledge.

Well, long story short, our bartender, a young girl, came right back WITHOUT an itemized list, but with a smaller bill, excluding the Jacks, I guess. While outside, her friends said, “Do you think that girl (me) knows that we drank on her tab?”

So, now I am very leery of starting tabs, especially at my local, favorite bar. Got any suggestions to prevent this from happening in the future?



Hey Kat

It sucks, doesn’t it? When you enter into a trust-based relationship with a professional, there is an unspoken agreement that, to me at least, feels somewhat binding. What you’re saying, in effect, when you hand your card over to a bartender at the beginning of the night is, “Hey, bartender. I promise not to get so wasted that I leave this bar without signing my tab, stiffing you on the tip, or arguing about every single drink I promised to buy.”

What the bartender is saying is this: “Hey, customer. I promise not to be a gigantic motherfucking douchebag and charge you for a bunch of shit that you didn’t ask for.”

Kat, my dear, your bartender reneged on the contract. So, yeah, I’ve got a couple of suggestions to prevent this from happening to you in the future:

1. Don’t ever set foot in that bar ever again. I’m serious. A bar that can’t be trusted with a simple thing like your tab can’t be trusted with your safety. If they can’t keep a girl from charging her drinks to a stranger’s tab, do you really think the bartenders at this establishment are vigilant enough to prevent someone from slipping something in your drink, diffusing a potentially dangerous confrontational scene or handling any of the other potentially scary situations that can present themselves to female patrons in bars? My advice is to steer clear of this joint, and any other establishments owned by the same proprietors.

2. Only carry cash and never run a tab. Yeah, it sucks. Never mind the fact that you have to find an ATM, you also have to be walking around with a bunch of cash in your pocket. But think of it this way: even if you were to be robbed of your sixty dollars, or even if it fell out of your pocket onto the street or bar floor, wouldn’t that one time still be cheaper than letting everyone in the bar walk all over your tab?

3. Print this post out and hand it to the bartender in question. Then I’ll address the bartender personally. You ready? Okay, here we go:

Dear Bartender I’ve Never Met:

Hey, dumbshit. Some of us are trying to make a career out of this. And you’re fucking it up for the rest of us who actually take our jobs seriously. Did you really think it was okay to just throw a bunch of shit on my friend Kat’s tab without checking with her first? Do you think that anyone else, in any other business in the world, would let that kind of shit slide?

Here’s what advice I’m giving Kat: First, I’ve suggested that she never, ever set foot in your bar again. You’re reckless, unsafe, and a disgrace to the profession. However, if she decides not to heed my advice and does happen to pop in for a drink, I’m recommending that she pays for each drink, with cash, each time. And when she does, I want you to know that she’s only doing it because she doesn’t trust you.

Good luck to both of you. My readers and I all know you’re going to need it.

28 Replies to “Ask Your Bartender: Running a Tab”

  • Dave says:

    Depending on how much time has elapse between the charge and the inquiry you might be able to cancel the payment. If the person running your tab fails to come up with an itemized list of charges or separate the over charges then I would recommend cancelling the charge and let them take you to claims court. After all the bartender may have charged for drinks that were never served. That’s called credit card fraud. A red flag is that you are not given the itemize ticket to peruse prior to them running your card.

  • Amanda says:

    I hate to see posts like this where both parties are so ignorant of A: True Bar Tending B: Conscious Drinkers.

    Sad that there are so many ignorant people in this world.

    You’re worried about starting a tab? Then don’t, obvious answer.

    Sorry you are a dumb ass.

  • Mike says:

    I’ve been in London quite a bit for the past couple of months and the tab system works a bit different over here (at least at most of the pubs I’ve been at). When you start the tab you get a card with a number on it. When someone wants to order and put it on the tab they just have to bring that card up. That seems like a pretty easy solution that works well (especially since most of the time when I’m doing this its a company thing where one person is paying but they won’t be responsible for ordering for everyone all night).

  • Thanks, Nicole. And don’t forget to vote – wink.

  • Nicole says:

    This post is simply awesome. Just found your blog from the Foodbuz awards and proceeded to tweet this and send the link to my husband. I very much agree with you, but also think DC Buck has a wonderful point. It is outrageous what that bartender did.

  • KMAPLC says:

    I agree with many of the previous comments and feel for Kat. I assume you love this bar and feel somewhat safe as a female in that establishment. As a former bartender I know people are thinking I was tyring to screw them. I had the benefit of working Sundays, giving me time to get to know my regulars and be more detailed on the tabs I would write out by hand. And whenever a large group does come in and drinks under one tame I always do a detailed list of their orders to help them and myself at the end of the nite. This is the same advice I have given to new bartenders and waitresses at my old bar.

    As a cusotmer, I never start a tab in a place I have never been before or don’t know a bartender or manager personally. If I feel the must b/c of the crowd I use Amex. It seems this Credit Card company is more helpful to their members when issues of fraud arise.

    I suggest you DO GO BACK, insist on using a waitress and paying cash for each drink. Or sit at the bar and use another bartender if possible. Get to know the rest of the staff, you can quickly tell who there are friends or just plain co-workers. Seek out the manager / owner and start up a conversation and breifly mention the situation but not the person unless they push upon you to point out the person.

    Best of Luck

  • Brian12566 says:

    As a member of the NYPD and frequent filler-outer of ID Theft reports via credit cards at bars. I highly highly recommend cash. Sure it sucks to drop the 100 cash on the floor. But consider the alternative, your card goes missing it could be much more expensive. Perps have caught onto the hide-under coats trick. Perps also take the purses from under the table, walk down to the subway and purchase hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of Metro cards(subway) and then in turn sell them. So, before you even know it, your credit card has been removed and you just bought 5oo bucks worth of subway rides.

  • TwoBlindPigs says:

    Please do hand it to the bartender and let us all know what the response is!

  • Bernhard says:

    Jeffrey I like you answer, after 15 active and some 10 passive years in the business, I’d just like to add: Give the owner of this Bar the chance to react. If an employee cheats the guest the owner should know that. And it is highly likely that not only the guest was cheated.
    Anyhow his only reaction can be to apologise and get rid of the employee.

  • Bbq Dude says:

    Amen. Nicely done. Handling a tab should be the easiest part of being a bartender. I would fire any bartender who couldn’t handle that (as a consumer, the only way I would fire that bartender is by never frequenting their establishment again, or sitting somewhere in that bar such that I never needed to buy drinks from that particular bartender ever again).

    Again, amen.

  • Jason says:

    I’d refuse to pay for the whole tab to be honest.

  • Scooter says:

    Wow. That bar looks really clean and well organized. Must be a Wednesday or Thursday.

  • David says:

    Um… defiantly? Sorry as I defiant as this post might make me feel, I actually meant to say definitely.


  • David says:

    Hey Kat, i ‘ll tell you one thing for sure. If this crappy bartender did this to you, it is most likely a trick that they play out quite often on unsuspecting guests. I would say that this is no longer just about what happened to you on that particular night, this is about saving other people from getting taken advantage of while they are out on the town having a good time. I don’t know about actually printing the blog out, but I would most defiantly get in touch with the manager -or- owner and let them know what happened asap. That bartender needs to be effing canned!

  • Marcel van der Ben says:

    There are a lot of people out there who are making a career out of bartending (Including me!). I think it should be normal for every person who is working behind the bar that the person who opend the tab is the only person who can put things on the tab.

    Well at least that is the policy that I learn my bartenders.

  • We have a local pub in town that only accepts cash. They have an ATM as well, and offer the additional incentive of giving customers back the $1.00 fee when they bring their withdrawal slip to the bar.

    While we’re on the subject, what are others’ thoughts about tipping? Do you tip per drink, tip up front for a night’s service, or at the end of the night? How much does tipping influence your level of service? Should it?


  • timmy says:

    +1 on give it to the manager: they will appreciate the insight into the integrity of their employee, someone stealing from patrons is stealing from the business.

    I like the tag idea for a busy bar: another solution that I have seen is a handheld card reader carried by the bartender: the patron’s card never leaves their hand and each round is settled individually.

    BTW this is one of the many reasons why my bar is cash only. We provide an ATM in the bar.

  • Tokyo Tea says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself JM! That is why you oversee this communal forum where we all learn from each other. For all the stupid sh#t I have said in the past, I’ve always been grateful when someone opens my eyes to a different hitch in the trail than previously traveled.

  • Philip says:

    A very cool thing I first saw many moons ago at AKA bar in London was this: you start a tab, hand over the card, and get a plastic numbered tag in receipt, like a coat-check tag. This is your tab’s number, but – here’s the cool part – you or whoever is ordering has to show the tag every time they order, no exceptions. This means anyone in your group can order – just give them the tag – but no-one else. Genius for the larger, busier, more hectic type of bar.

  • DC Buck – I’m also a dumbshit, but not the kind who tries to steal from people. I’m the kind of dumbshit who hastily cranks out a volatile blog post half an hour before heading to work.

    Kat, DC Buck is totally right. Don’t even bother showing this to the bartender in question and instead take your story straight to the owner or general manager. If you really love this bar, don’t let anything like a bad employee or a crummy blogger ruin the experience for you.

    Good luck. And thanks, DC Buck. It’s that kind of audience participation that makes maintaining this website worthwhile for me.


  • DC Buck says:

    I have been reading the blog for a while now and generally agree with Jeff, but I have to speak up on this one, cause I think he is way off base.

    If you never return to this bar (or return, give her the printed out blog, and leave forever) you are letting this girl off the hook way too easy. I mean think about it. The person that has caught her in her little crime disappears while she is free to try this on the next group that comes in. This bartender could care less if you ever show your face again…in fact she probably never wants to see you again.

    This bar is your favorite bar for a reason, right? Good drinks, nice atmosphere, and (usually) good service have brought you back time and again. Every single one of us in the industry knows of a bad bartender that has ruined great bar. It’s tragic! Ownership and management seemed to have made a bad decision on this particular bartender, who will probably continue to steal from guests and continue to give this place a bad name.

    You have a chance…NAY!… an obligation to save your bar. Instead of printing out this blog and giving it to the bartender, I think you need to print out this blog and give it to the owner of the place. For those of us that have been in the unfortunate position of managing a bar, or anything for that matter, you know how difficult it sometimes is to fire someone. Words like “Unlawful termination” and “Discrimination” give restaurant and bar owners nightmares. You never know, her boss could just be waiting for a reason to get rid of her. YOU can be this reason.

    This sounds to me like a “bad apple” (and some poor oversight) instead of an institution wide problem. If you say nothing, you allow her to continue screwing others and allow the management and ownership no chance to rectify the situation. You walk away in a huff and bad mouth this bar all over town. All this really does is hurt all of the other bartenders, servers, bussers, and barbacks that have made this one of your favorite places to come.

    Give the ownership of the place a chance to make the situation right…if they fail to do anything and this girl continues to be employed there, then you boycott it.

  • Dan says:

    Damn, Jeffrey is throwing down a tank sized gauntlet here.

    This is awesome. Go Jeff.

  • Jeffrey,

    You used the word “gigantic”. I’m offended!


    PS – Just kidding.

  • tkw says:

    and as i understand it, bartending jobs are very sought after in this economy. its sad that there are bartenders who suck this much ass when there are thousands of people who would love the opportunity to do the job right.

  • Kat says:

    Hey, this was actually the BARTENDER herself putting her drinks on my tab. I only found this out when I was leaving and overheard her stating that she had put them on my tab-possibly giving them out to her friends, or drinking them herself I don’t know. Either way, I’m still pissed. But I will hand this to the bartender-I love the response!!

  • Boozemonkey says:

    As one who has many friends who are ‘tenders, and has been behind a bar a few times myself this just makes my blood boil. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit telling people that bartenders don’t just pull a tap, they look after their customers (as you pointed out). To have a f**k like that do something like this is…Just…Gah!

  • Jen says:

    remind me to never cross you. nice response, well done my friend. 🙂

  • GregBCarlstrom says:

    Amen! When I set up tabs, only, and ONLY the person opening the tab can put stuff on it. If anyone else says, put it on, (fill in name)’s tab, I make sure to first consult the tab’s owner. That’s BS what happened, and I would second never stepping foot inside that establishment.

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