Most people get into the restaurant industry to do create a fun place for customers to enjoy great food and hospitality. Often, alcohol is part of the experience, whether you run a fine dining restaurant, a sports bar, or even a fast-casual restaurant. If you're planning to open a bar or restaurant, you'll want to create an environment that’s safe and enjoyable for all your guests and employees. Alcohol training for servers is a paramount aspect of this.
According to Toast’s 2019 Restaurant Success Report, only 53% of restaurants provide training for food safety and alcohol serving certifications. It’s risky stuff to not have your staff trained on food and alcohol service best practices. But even for profitable restaurants, training staff is one of the biggest challenges right now.
In this guide we’ll share everything you need to know about alcohol server training and how to implement it in your restaurant.
What is alcohol server training?
Alcohol server training is designed to educate your employees about local alcohol laws and safe serving techniques. The goal of the training is to ensure that servers, bartenders, managers, and anyone else who handles alcoholic beverages has the knowledge to sell and serve legally and responsibly.
Many cities and states across the U.S. require a license or certification before someone can legally sell or serve alcohol; in some states, like Massachusetts, there’s also an age requirement.
Although the specific requirements vary from state to state, alcohol server training generally includes educating staff members about topics including, for example:
Specific laws that regulate selling or serving to minors and intoxicated people
Laws that regulate selling to non-members of a private club (for employees who work in one)
The effects of alcohol on customers
The correct way to check IDs and prevent the sale of alcohol to minors or individuals with expired identification
How and why to refuse the sale of alcohol in specific situations
How to protect themselves and their employer from liability
One of the benefits of having staff who have been trained on alcohol service is that they’ll be able to prevent rowdy customers from ruining the dining experience for everyone, but the biggest benefit by far is that they’ll keep your customers and community safe.
When your staff knows how to identify when to stop or refuse serving a customer alcohol, they have the power to save lives. Ultimately, your staff are the ones who may be able to stop a customer from getting into their car and driving while under the influence or stop a guest from drinking to excess and risk hurting themselves or another person, either in your establishment or after they leave.
This is one of the big reasons why alcohol policy exists: to minimize alcohol-related harm and promote public health.
Why Should You Offer Alcohol Server Training?
Holding a liquor license is key to the success of most bars and restaurants, because alcohol is often the most profitable category of menu items. Losing your bar license can single-handedly cause the closing of the restaurant or bar you’ve dreamed of opening since forever.
As you can see with this interactive Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) calculator, it doesn’t take many alcoholic beverages to increase the risk of a crash on the road.
According to the World Health Organization, there are about two billion people worldwide who consume alcoholic beverages. The vast majority of the people who consume alcohol are light to moderate drinkers who occasionally drink at what would be considered a high-risk level. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines high-risk drinking — sometimes referred to as “binge drinking” — as consuming five or more drinks in one session for men, or four or more drinks in one session for women, regardless of the visible impact on the drinker.
By over-serving a guest or serving a minor, your restaurant could risk encountering legal repercussions, including, for example:
A suspended or revoked liquor license
A suspended or revoked food service license
A suspended or revoked business license
The forced closing of your restaurant or bar
And even jail time
Most states have either voluntary or mandatory alcohol seller-server training requirements. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are 19 states that have mandatory beverage service training requirements, while 16 additional states offer mitigation of penalties for businesses who voluntarily decided to have their staff complete training.
In states that don’t have alcohol server education requirements, many owners and operators still opt to voluntarily have their employees complete training to prevent the above mentioned safety and legal repercussions.
What Laws Exist Around Alcohol Server Training?
Here are a few examples of alcohol service laws and mandates you might encounter as a restaurant or bar that serves alcohol. Given the discrepancies from state to state, it's important to check out the local laws in your area and revisit them periodically to make sure your business is compliant.
1. Dram Shop Laws
Dram Shop Laws are some of the most common alcohol-related statutes — sometimes referred to as a “blue law” — that you’ll find across the U.S.
A Dram Shop is a commercial establishment, such as a bar or tavern, where alcoholic beverages are sold. A Dram Shop Law makes the business or server liable in the event that an over-served customer causes another individual bodily harm; Dram Shop Laws can also put additional liability on servers and businesses who are caught serving alcohol to underage customers.
To learn more about Dram Shop Laws and find out about the laws specific to your city or state, check out The National Conference of State Legislatures.
2. The TABC Safe Harbor Rule
In Texas, the TABC Safe Harbor Rule protects restaurants, bars, and private clubs that do train their staff about safe serving protocol from repercussions should a staff member over-serve a guest or serve a minor. A violation would be issued to the employee, but administrative action against the business’ selling licence may not necessarily be taken if certain criteria are met.
In the case of an alcohol-related incident, in order for a restaurant, bar, or private club in Texas to qualify for protection under the TABC Safe Harbor Rule they would need to prove:
The business owner requires alcohol server training for new hires within 30 days of their first day
The employee who was accused attended the alcohol server training course
And the employer can prove they had not encouraged the staff member to violate Texas law
If you’re a Texas-based restaurant and would like to learn more about The TABC Safe Harbor Rule, check out The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's website.
3. Mitigation Benefits in Florida
Another state that offers businesses a benefit for voluntarily participating in alcohol server training is Florida. Any business owner who voluntarily participates in the state’s “Responsible Vendor Program” may have their penalty for violations reduced based on their status as a responsible vendor.
If you’re a Florida-based restaurant and would like to learn more about The Responsible Vendor Program, click here.
How to Implement Alcohol Server Training in Your Restaurant
There are a variety of companies and organizations that offer or host alcohol server trainings tailored to your city’s or state's legal requirements. Many courses can be done online, but some include in-person workshops.
Some restaurants opt to host (and pay for) a course on-site once a year to make sure their entire staff is complying with local safe serving protocol. Others encourage new and existing staff to take courses recommended by their local restaurant association before they start. Whichever method you choose, get a copy of each staff member's certificate of completion after attending or participating in an alcohol server training course.
It's worth noting that safe-serving certifications often expire in a one- to two-year time frame, so existing staff members will likely have to retake their chosen alcohol server training course during their tenure at your restaurant.
Alcohol training during onboarding
On top of making sure your new staff member has a formal certification in alcohol serving, you should also do some on-the-job alcohol service teaching in their first weeks of work. If you can, train your best staff members to train your new staff, so that these responsibilities can be shared.
Show your staff you trust their judgment and that you’ll support them in cutting off a customer whenever they feel it’s necessary. Your staff’s safety is always more important than the money you could get from a group that’s looking to have dozens of drinks.
Teach your staff to spot the signs of intoxication, and show them how you want them to intervene. Every person reacts differently to alcohol, but there are a few clear signs that someone shouldn’t be given any more to drink.
Rob McShea, of Grind and Prosper Hospitality Group in San Diego, has been bartending since 2003. He told Tales of the Cocktail that when training his staff in safe serving, he tells them “to look for four major physical components when determining if someone has had too much to drink: bloodshot and glazed eyes, slurred speech, decreased motor control, and negative or aggressive interactions with other guests.”
In terms of how to cut someone off, McShea says he advises his staff to tell an overly intoxicated guest, quietly and without embarrassing them, that they don’t feel comfortable serving them any more drinks. He also says you can hand them the check or a glass of water as you deliver the message, and say that you’d love to serve them again another time.
You should also teach your staff your preferred way of de-escalating a situation with a guest who's gotten aggressive or rude, as each establishment will have its own way to do so.
Keep a thorough list of policies and best practices around alcohol service in your employee handbook, and have each new staff member sign the list to indicate they’ve read and understood their responsibilities.