It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
Hey Bill, as you know I spent some time as a bartender in my younger days. One of the basic
principle as it was first introduced to me in Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology, is that ,in general, if
the customer orders 3 drinks and you buy them the 4th. The purpose of this "buy back" is
Here's how I see it. If a customer comes in and has two $10 drinks but one of those is given
away for free, the bar loses $10. If you give the customer a 3rd drink, the bar losses only $3
but makes much more eventually since the customer will come back. We both know that liquor
and beer especially is actually quite cheap. I believe that it's really difficult to run a successful
bar of regulars while at the same time encourage new ones to return without the buy back.
Now before you take me to task Bill, please remember I'm saying don’t give away sales, give
away product, sparingly.
At one time I worked in a bar that did not have a buy back policy. My solution was to reach into
my own pocket and actually purchase a drink for the customer, pretending it was a house buy
back. Almost always I got that cost and much more back in my tip. And the customer usually
came back which meant more revenue for the bar.
When I go to a bar for the first time I really don't expect a buy back even though it's good
policy. I'll still tip generously. After the third or fourth visit if I don't get a buy back the tip will be
fair but not overwhelming and I'd consider not returning to the place. What I'm saying is that
buy backs need not go to someone who walks in off the street but they are a necessary perk
for patrons who are repeat customers and who are trusted by the staff. This is not a policy to
get someone hammered but a marketing tool to grow the business. Any bar owner who is a
truly savvy businessman, will have a buy back policy to thank a customer for their current
spending and to encourage regular patronage.
One of the bars I worked at gave each bartender a comp account. I saved it for birthdays and
my favorite regulars that would actually appreciate it. It worked well and everyone seemed
comfortable with it. It was one way for management to keep a handle on things so nothing
became excessive. Simply giving away beverages is essentially stealing. A well thought out
buy back policy is part of the bar's business plan.
Lastly I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on how to tip if you receive a buy back. If you see that you
have had drinks removed from your tab, the minimum you should tip is 30% of what the total
should have been. My personal policy is to tip the cost of the buy back. It might be a bit more
than most would tip but as I've discovered people who were bartenders at one time are the
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next month.
Hey Gina, hope you're sitting down when you read this but I actually agree with a lot of what
you've said. Look, buy backs 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 10%
discount for buying a case of 24 beers rather than six-packs? Absolutely.
On the other hand, when I go into a bar, including places where I know the bartender well, I
always expect to pay for every drink. It's just my mindset and by the way, complementary beer or
not, I'm still going to leave a nice tip. Of course I get the occasional free drink but it's usually
because the bar manager has a system of discounts not an unauthorized employee just handing
out free beer.
So we stand together that buy backs are essentially a good marketing tool and is a fair and
appropriate reward the kind of people that you want to see returning to your bar. However,
some bartenders may use this tool wisely while others abuse it and can hurt business overall.
Like you Gina, I worked as a bartender in my younger day - hey no age jokes. Each bar owner
had a different policy. 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. One place simply gave me a $75-100
allowance per their shift for comps. As long as I had a clearly spelled out policy I was happy.
And for the record, when I could comp at will I didn't do it for better tips, I did it for the business.
which I saw as a way to increase customers ultimately benefiting me well as the owner.
The bar industry is an industry of return customers and word of mouth. A bar does not ‘lose’
revenue by giving away one drink, only cost. What they 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’.
Here's looking at you, kid! See you next month.