The decision to allow staff to drink during a shift (or immediately after) is a question that the management team of every alcohol-serving restaurant will have to address at some point. In the states where it is legal, some restaurants and bars choose to allow bartender drinking, or even encourage it.
Others avoid it like the plague.
As someone who managed restaurants, high-volume bars, and a nightclub across a couple different states, I have to side with the second group of restaurateurs. The consumption of alcohol while working behind the bar should be avoided at all costs.
1. It's a Liability
Everyone knows that a restaurant is a high-risk business. You've got allergies, dietary restrictions, strict labor laws, and health codes, so introducing any additional risk should be avoided.
For most restaurants and bars, one of their most valuable assets is their liquor license and it needs to be protected as such. Whether your venue does only 20% of its sales in alcohol or 100%, losing the ability to sell alcohol (and the fines associated with that loss) could be crushing blow to your business.
What many owners fail to see is that they are often just as liable - if not more liable - than the bartender when things get ugly.
On The Border, a casual dining Mexican restaurant chain, was found liable for an employee's hit-and-run accident after that employee allegedly had gotten drunk after his shift. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the franchise owner was ordered to pay $1.5 million after a jury found them responsible for the actions of an employee who "allegedly got drunk after work and then mowed down a skateboarding Taiwanese exchange student."
For most restaurants, a settlement of even half of that would result in the boarding up of the doors and windows. It’s just not worth the risk.
2. It's Expensive
In all my years managing bartenders, I have yet to meet the mythical bartender who follows the strict pour guidelines you create for your bar when making their own drink. A standard 1.25oz or 1.5oz mixed drink can quickly turn into a double, a triple, or as I've seen, a pint glass full of rum with a splash of coke to top it off.
This creates issues for determining areas of improvement on your beverage cost as you can’t accurately determine where the missing alcohol has gone if the order isn't entered into your bar POS.
Bar and liquor inventory tracking is hard enough as it is. Not only can staff drinking be classified as theft, but when alcohol goes out of the bottle untracked, that messes up an owner's inventory forecasting, pricing model, and bottom line.
Ask yourself: do you really want to pay for your employees to get buzzed while working?
3. There Are Major Safety Concerns
With glass breaking, bottles flying, fire flaming, and water spilling, there's no need to add any more risk behind the bar.
Any great bar manager knows that there are plenty of ways to accidentally injure yourself when you are completely sober - all of which are heightened with the addition of alcohol.
With the more relaxed and carefree feeling alcohol gives a person, accidents are more likely to happen.
One of my most capable and focused barbacks once reached into our dish machine of glasses like he had done a thousand times before. This time, though, he was distracted by the group of friends who had come in to see him and didn't realize the bottom of a glass had popped off during the wash cycle.
As he reached in, well... I'm sure you can imagine what happened next. Anyways, the end result was a trip to the hospital to have 18 stitches put into the palm of his hand and thumb, numerous follow-up visits, and surgery scheduled to repair nerve damage going to his thumb and index finger. This all happened sober with a slight distraction - so why add alcohol to the mix?
4. It Breaches Hospitality & Professionalism
I think that most people can agree that the purpose of any food or alcohol service business is not only to serve food but also to provide an experience.
A restaurant is no different than any other business in the sense that employees need to be professional. How would you feel if you walked into the dentist’s office and the receptionist was relaxing and enjoying a couple drinks with the dentist you were scheduled to see? Or waiting in line to finally get seen at the DMW only to find out the person you had been patiently waiting two hours to reach was sipping on champagne?
Neither of these scenarios would be deemed acceptable and the same standard should hold true for a restaurant.
Guests expect a quality experience from your restaurant or bar. That should be the focus of your staff at all times. They represent your brand and should act accordingly.
"But Isn't Drinking Part of the Job?"
Now to tackle the argument that a drink is needed to help staff relax. I'm not a surgeon but it’s probably safe to assume that performing open heart surgery is stressful. I wouldn’t want my surgeon taking the edge off with a couple margaritas before diving into my chest cavity.
No other industry I can think of would find it acceptable for a professional to have a drink to take the edge off while performing their job duties.
If you need a drink just to do your job, maybe this isn't the job or industry for you.
The Only Exception
I know I just gave multiple reasons why drinking during shifts should not be allowed, but here is my exception to that rule.
Any time that a drink can turn into an educational experience should be considered another tool to develop knowledge. A new specialty cocktail should be looked at the same way as your nightly special. It can be very important for staff to be able to accurately describe and sell your new creation.
Here is what has to be remembered, though. A taste is just that - a taste. A staff training situation is not a reason to justify the "chug! chug! chug!" chant.
In the End, It's Your Call
I know that the restaurant industry is full of gray area and has a lot of room for operating in different ways. Ultimately, the decision to allow drinking during a shift - if legal - will have to be one made by owners and management and not based on what I said here.
Let me leave you with this, a restaurant is a business just like any other and must be treated as such. A large part of running any business is avoiding any unnecessary risk. Allowing staff to drink alcohol invites that risk right through your front door and into your establishment.