Category Archives: Bar Practices

New Laws and Trends for 2019

Thank you friends and clients for a wonderful 2018!


My California clients should be aware of a few laws that might impact their business in 2019. For an overview of these laws, please read the linked article published in

EATER Los Angeles


Several clients have inquired about cannabis infused cocktails. In July, the California ABC issued a revised industry advisory that clarifies their position…

Cannabis and Alcoholic Beverages


I also found this article in Forbes interesting…

9 Beer And Spirit Predictions For 2019


I hope you each have the best NYE and 2019 ever!


Take care and be safe,





Protect your profits, ABC license, and peace of mind…



Our last post discussed different risks connected to minors getting alcohol in your business. Today, let’s look at some ways to reduce those risks.

This blog is especially for:

  • Restaurants with minors
  • Bars, clubs, and restaurants that morph into clubs that limit access to 21 and older

If your business is a late-night venue hosting 18 and older events, you’ll learn a lot by reading this. However, your business will need extra policies and procedures to responsibly run promotions—and this post doesn’t address those.

I am listing the recommendations below loosely in the order of their value in reducing risk:


Staff Alcohol Training

Before you start thinking, “He’s suggesting this first because he offers the training,” hear me out. Unlike the other recommendations, staff alcohol training can significantly reduce your risk of serving to a minor. But also, it can make you eligible for a mitigated (reduced) ABC penalty if, despite the training, your trained staff still sells to a minor.

Rule 144 of the California Code of Regulations, which specifies the penalty guidelines and penalty schedule for the ABC, states: “Mitigating factors may include, but are not limited to . . . documented training of licensee and employees.”

This is why, after training, I send training certificates to the client and email a Training Record to the client’s local ABC office.

Be sure any alcohol training course you use focuses on:

  • The Minor Decoy program, other specific ABC enforcement actions, and how to avoid violations.
  • How to inspect identifications, using real and phony identifications (yes, I have phony IDs for training, yes, technically confiscated IDs need to be turned into the police—I’m a rebel). Remember, if you sell to a minor and then that minor is injured, or injures another, your business is exposed to litigation under California dram shop law.

It’s important to mention: if your business is mandated (by the ABC, the city, or your lease) to train staff in an alcohol course, yet you do not, you’re rolling the dice. Let’s imagine a couple scenarios:

  1. Your ABC license already requires alcohol training and then the ABC catches the business selling to a minor. If the ABC investigation reveals you did not train your staff in accordance with the condition on your license, your business is now exposed to administrative ABC penalties for both issues—violating license conditions and sale to a minor. And if the city required training, then the city can take action against your permits, as well.
  2. A much more likely scenario: your city permit (or lease) requires alcohol training of your staff (often within 3,6, or 9 months of hire). Your business is sued. The lawsuit claims the over-service of alcohol (drunkenness) contributed to the cause of action. The civil complaint will be littered with allegations of your negligence and your failure to meet your legal duty of care. And that’s before the ensuing investigation reveals the staff was not trained in responsible alcohol service, in direct violation with your conditions to operate. Imagine the negative position your insurance carrier is now in, and that you’re in. The higher a claim settlement the higher your increase in general liability insurance. I’ve seen one $320,000 insurance claim settlement result in an $80,000 annual increase in general liability insurance to the business––and that was for an adult whose shoulder was wrenched. Keep in mind that a claim stays on your record for 5 years. If you are sued, judgments and settlements can be in the millions of dollars.

I strongly recommend training your staff in a robust alcohol course. Complete the training in accordance with any mandate placed on your business. If not mandated, do the smart thing and train new staff on a regular schedule (every 3, 6, 9 or 12 months).

For the record, when I owned the Shark Club, and after I saw the light, I did train my staff in alcohol courses (a decade before creating my own series of workshops). I used TIPs, ABC LEAD, and a course presented by Project Path. Those courses were fine, but failed to directly address the topics and solutions most important to business owners.


Before-You-Serve Alcohol Policy and Procedure

Would you permit a bartender to pour drinks before you had evidence of their competence? Probably not, even though the downside is slow service or a poorly built cocktail. Why let someone sell alcohol before you know they understand basic ABC laws and law enforcement actions? The downside is so….down, as in getting stung in the minor decoy program, or selling to a minor who is then injured and cripples the business with a lawsuit, or over-service that contributes to a lawsuit claiming negligence.

I first created a Before-You-Serve Alcohol policy and procedure when I owned the Shark Club. No one was allowed to sell alcohol on their own until competing the Before-You-Serve Alcohol policy and procedure. The training acted as a bridge to the later, more formalized (and ABC recognized) alcohol course months later.

Recently, as a consultant and trainer, I’ve started to provide my clients with a Before-You-Serve Alcohol policy and procedure, customized to their business profile (without charging extra—I want my clients to be protected). The document includes several attached procedures, like a Checking IDs procedure. Collectively, these documents ensure new team members are armed with the knowledge and empowered with the motivation to sell alcohol in a manner that protects the business and the server. This document is provided after the training.


New Employee Checklist

The checklist ensures new hires complete the needed paperwork and training. If your business has documented policies and procedures, the checklist completion ensures the new hire receives that training. If you’re business is not inclined to create formalized policies and procedures, the checklist can remind a trainer of those topics that they need to discuss with new hires (e.g., ABC laws, Minor Decoy Program, and how to check IDs,).

Michele Stumpe is an attorney who has represented the hospitality industry for over 20 years. Her article, Three Critical Steps to Minimizing Alcohol Liability Risk, was published in Restaurant Hospitality (a member login site). Her big three steps (written policies, high quality alcohol training, and proactive monitoring) can be read in this link to her abridged article:

Let me know if you want an emailed PDF of her complete article.


Secret Shoppers

We’ve already shared plenty on what spotters can do for you. Suffice to say, we agree with Michele Stumpe. Spotters can identify a leak before it sinks your business. Is your staff carding youthful-looking customers? Is your staff serving alcohol to someone who’s obviously intoxicated? Is your staff following house policies?


Point-of-Sale System – Minimum Age Reminder

Often those employees who fail to pass muster during a Minor Decoy sting operation actually looked at the undercover minor’s driver’s license, but failed to correctly do the math. If you have an opening checklist, consider including the daily posting at each POS system the month, day of month, and year needed on a customer’s driver’s license for a customer to be 21.


Interview Process

The interview is the best time to start stressing the importance of carding customers and not serving minors, connecting the dots between those practices, and protecting the ABC license, the business, and the customer.

By the time orientation and training is done, the new hire should understand not serving alcohol to minors is vital.


The Gatekeeper – Security Working Entrance

I could go on and on about how important your ID checker is (and I do in trainings). For those who have someone at the door checking IDs, make sure they have the training, personality, and integrity to do that very hard job.

I learned the hard way that it’s generally better to have someone on the older side checking IDs at the entrance. If you have a minor checking ID’s you can be sure all their minor friends will be pressuring your gatekeeper to let them in.


Manager Audit

If you limit entrance to 21 and over, and you’re concerned there’s a leak in your security at the door or perhaps customers are sneaking in an emergency entrance, consider asking your floor manager to card the five youngest-looking customers inside the business. You might ask the floor manager to record the names of those carded customers and turn it in.


I hope these ideas inspire you to take actions that help protect your business, the public, and your peace of mind.




Risking everything…


If your ABC license permits minors in your business, or if your business is a place where minors try to sneak inside, this post may be the most important one you ever read here.

Sounds dramatic? Sure. But, it’s also true. Let me prove it to you…


PROOF #1 – The Human Risk

Perhaps the first evidence I offer you should be about how serving a minor might result in financial ruin. But I don’t think so. People I know, including my clients, value self-respect more than financial success. They make doing the right thing a core principle of their life.

Some might say not selling alcohol to minor is the socially responsible thing to do. And while that’s true, my experience suggests it much more personal than that.

In the last years of owning and operating the Shark Club, University of California Irvine fraternities bussed hundreds of students to the club for a special college promotional event. The night was a huge success, and it seemed all went smoothly.

It hadn’t.

The next morning my manager, Heather, called me crying. She‘d taken a morning call and heard that one of the students, Ralph Nunez, left the club, walked half a mile to a freeway ramp, ran across the freeway, jumped the middle divider, and was hit by a vehicle. He died from his injuries.

Immediately, the ABC visited the club and investigated. Ralph could neither be seen entering the 21-and-older entrance nor seen on any video.

New stories quickly came out that Ralph was consuming jungle juice (a concoction of several liquors/liqueurs) on the bus.

The timing of when the bus arrived and how long it took customers to get in (massive lines from busses arriving at same time), and knowing when the tragedy occurred, made it unlikely Ralph got in. Yet, his friends said he did, for a short time. They also said he didn’t get alcohol inside the club.

After my club was initially named in a lawsuit, lawyers for Ralph’s family discovered the many safeguards we had in place to prevent a minor from getting alcohol, or even being in the vicinity of alcohol. As a result, we were removed as defendants from the complaint.

I had to go to the California Highway Patrol office to obtain the medical report for the insurance company. I regret reading the report. The information included the injuries Ralph suffered and the toxicology report. His alcohol blood alcohol content was extremely high and he had multiple drugs in his system.

The Shark Club staff couldn’t remember seeing Ralph that night. Still, I will always wonder if any of our outstanding staff members saw him walk away in a noticeably impaired manner and didn’t engage Ralph.

If I knew our business served alcohol to Ralph, or ignored his impairment, my life would be diminished. As it is, I frequently think about him.

Tragedies involving youth are particularly sad and haunting.

The reason California has a dram shop law that holds licensees civilly liable for serving obviously intoxicated minors is the same reason the ABC runs the Minor Decoy program year-round: the California legislature and State government have long recognized that minors are at a significantly higher risk of harm when exposed to alcohol.

A few statistics demonstrate the higher risk of harm for minors:

  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens and one out of three of those is alcohol related. (NHTSA, 2009)
  • In the United States, the crash rate per mile driven for 16-19-year-olds is four times the risk for older drivers. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2009)
  • Relative fatal crash risk for drinking drivers with a BAC at or above 0.15% ranged from 382 for drivers age 35 and over, to 15,560 for male drivers under 21. (Zador et al, 2000)

Let me be very clear about that last statistic: a minor with BAC at or above .15% is 15,560 times more likely to die in a fatal vehicle accident than a sober person.

Minors simply do not have the same life experience, driving expertise, and judgment as an adult. In addition, the still-developing brain of minors results in thrill seeking, riskier behavior and significantly more alcohol-involved tragedies.


PROOF #2 – The Financial Risk

As mentioned above, California’s dram shop law allows for civil liability if you sell alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor and that minor injures or kills somebody else.

Please click on either, or both, of these links, before continuing to read:

The first link chronicles a $40 million jury award against a Riverside TGI Friday’s. The jury found the restaurant owner was 55 percent responsible for the death of a customer. In a nutshell, the bartender served a minor, and over served that minor, who then stabbed and killed another customer.

The second link described a recent lawsuit against a Salinas restaurant for serving a minor who then died in a car crash.

Both cases expose the financial vulnerability of California alcohol businesses if a minor is served alcohol, and injuries follow. If injuries occur, assume the ABC will find out…

When a minor is served alcohol, becomes intoxicated, and injuries themself or another person, law enforcement will connect it back to your business through the Target Responsibility for Alcohol-Connected Emergencies (TRACE) program. In this program, law enforcement investigates the source of alcohol in any incident (crash, alcohol poisoning, etc.) involving a minor and alcohol. The goal is to hold the source–whether it be a store, bar, or an individual–legally responsible for the harm.

The Salinas lawsuit referenced above occurred after a TRACE investigation:


PROOF #3 – The Liquor License Risk

The most well-funded ABC enforcement action, by far, is the Minor Decoy program. While typically run by ABC agents, it is also run by local police (usually the result of receiving an ABC GAP grant), and jointly by the police and ABC agents.

If your business gets in trouble with the ABC, it’s very likely the result of a Minor Decoy sting operation.

While your first violation typically results in a suspended license or payment of a fine, it’s the cumulative impact of multiple violations that is most concerning. And after one violation your business will have caught the attention of the ABC, so you should expect more undercover operations, increasing your risk of a second violation. Three violations for selling to a minor in three years and your license is revoked.

Here’s a link to ABC press release on the revocation of a Canoga Park restaurant for receiving three violations for serving to a minor:


Next post we’ll discuss how to protect your business against serving alcohol to a minor.


Secret Shopper Chronicles: Part 4



In prior Secret Shopper Chronicles we focused on bartender over pouring. Why so much attention to this issue? Because if you have over pouring going on, and most of my clients do, and if you eliminate it, you will significantly increase your bar profits.


Today, we’ll look at what else our spotters commonly find during covert visits to client bars. First, I have to tell you, we often find bartenders who are simply great at their job. Who have a passion for what they do. So, one huge benefit of secret shopper reports is they give you an opportunity to thank your superstars. A later blog post will give you tips on staff feedback. But for now, let’s just say the more feedback the better, as long as the observations are fair, sincere, and respectful.


On to spotter observations….


  • Bartender theft. Sad, but too often true. The Internet is full of doomsday articles about bartenders stealing. Our spotters have found a wide range of theft, from outright cash sales not being rung-in during the entire shift, to the more common practice of giving away free drinks. In the near future, look for our post on ways to prevent bartender theft—it’s a long list.


  • Bartenders who ignore customers. The spotter and other newly seated customers arrive at the bar, but the bartender doesn’t acknowledge their presence. The bartender notices the customer but simply carries on whatever they’re doing. Often the bartender is chatting with a friend, checking their phone, or simply not in the mood to engage a new customer. It infuriates the spotters!! Keep in mind, most of my spotters are current or former bar managers.


  • Bartenders who are rude. We’re not talking about rude as in ignoring, but rather, in your face rude. Think angry worker. Enough said.


  • Bartenders who aren’t a people person – at least that’s how we perceive them. The bartender might be responsive, and properly perform their duties, but just doesn’t smile or engage the customer. With that said…we have found to our pleasant surprise, that sometimes when a client shares our observations with the staff member, the employee comes alive and values their customer (or job).


  • Bartenders and security not carding customers who clearly look under 21 years old. One of my spotters took her friend, a young-looking minor, to a bar/restaurant. The bartender asked the minor what she wanted to drink without first asking for ID. We often see questionable carding practices. With the California statute that holds bars liable for incidents involving minors, and increased enforcement programs, more than ever bars need to run a tight ship with minors. We’ll soon blog on the risks associated with serving minors.


  • Bartenders who are customer favorites, yet do not over pour. It’s always fun to share secret shopper reports with an owner who assumed their most popular bartender is liked by customers because the bartender over pours or gives away free drinks – only to discover that popular bartender is also their most honest and professional one. Customers like bartenders who give them great service and make genuine contact. Kudos to these bartenders.


  • Bartenders who aren’t inclined to ask a customer if they want a refill. It’s interesting how often spotters record they would have ordered another drink if the bartender ever came back. Spotters may have an empty drink for 10 minutes or more without being asked if they want another. We aren’t for pushing drinks, but we are for constant attentiveness and monitoring.


  • Bartenders who make popular cocktails with the wrong ingredients. Our reference to properly build a cocktail are the recipes taught in bartending schools. In the same bar, we find cocktails (Mai Tai, Adios, etc.) made different ways.


  • Bartenders who make their own specialty cocktail. Why is this a problem? It’s not if management has approved the drink and its price. Typically the bartender’s personal specialty cocktail contains premium liquors or liqueurs, lots of alcohol, and is priced waaay too low.


  • Bartenders rarely suggestive sell. Meaning they do not ask the customer if they’d like something from the food menu. This is a lost opportunity to make money and help slow intoxication.


  • Bartenders very rarely upsell. Meaning the bartender doesn’t ask the customer if they’d like a premium liquor in their drink, as in “would you like that with Grey Goose?” Another missed opportunity. If you sell your well vodka tonic for $8 and use the least expensive well vodka, your net profit is around $7.60. If that drink was upsold to Goose, and you sell your Goose for $12, your net profit is around $10.20. An increase in profit of $2.60 for every such upsell.


  • Bartender uses a jigger but then trails the liquor. I’m not a huge fan of jiggers as a general practice, unless you’re a craft bar. A separate jigger blog will explain why, but for now, suffice to say: a jigger does more harm than good when the bartender fills the jigger and as the bartender dumps the jigger the bartenders trails the jigger dump with more pouring. This is the norm at jigger bars we visit.


  • Bartenders drinking alcohol on the job. Do you think a bartender who is impaired is more or less likely to give away drinks? Do you think a bartender who is impaired is more or less likely to professionally deal with an angry customer? Do you think a bartender who is impaired is more or less likely to cut off a drunken customer? Do you think a bartender who is impaired is more or less likely to be a liability risk to your business?


  • Bartenders who serve customers who are completely drunk – and it’s obvious. We have even seen a drunken customer pass out, only to be awakened and asked if they want another cocktail. Oh my.


  • Bar staff who do not clear and clean (and keep dry) the bar counter. Usually when we find this, it’s reflective of a much broader customer service problem.


  • Bartenders who ignore house policies. Different bars have different policies. Sometimes these polices are ignored. Maybe the policy is, no eating behind the bar, or no use of cell phones while working, or place a receipt (or updated receipt) in front of customer after every transaction. If staff are violating a “small” policy, it’s likely they are shunning more critical ones, as well.


  • Bar uses several different pour spots. One bar had 12 different style pour spouts. Not all pour spots are created equal. There are generally three different pour rates, with some extra-fast pour spots on top of those. I test pour spouts (yeah, I know, get a life). I’ve tested client spouts that have poured as fast as .82 ounces per second, to as slow as .48 ounces per second.


  • Filthy (and unstocked) restrooms. We take photos to show just how bad it can get.


  • Unprofessional security staff. Rude, aggressive, too physical, or simply not engaged in job, looking the other way, and waiting for a check. We’ve seen it all. Undisciplined security could be your Achilles heel. Studies show security is implicated in a significant percentage of assaults or batteries. (Tomsen, Homel, and Thomenny, 1991; Tomsen, 2005; 1997; Stockwell, 1997; Homel and Clark, 1994)


We strongly encourage you to read your Yelp and Google reviews. Multiple studies (including the Harvard Business School Study, 2011; and the Berkeley Study 2012) have shown the financial benefits from having a higher Yelp rating. If you have a security department, it’s likely your biggest opportunity to increase your Yelp rating is to improve the professionalism of your security. If the majority of your sales are alcohol, but you have no security, it’s likely your biggest opportunity to increasing your Yelp rating is improving the professionalism (attitude, attentiveness, friendliness) of your bartenders.


Using properly trained and instructed spotters, and then taking corrective action (or sharing positive feedback with staff) based on spotters’ observations, will increase your profits, improve your customer experience, and guard both your ABC License, and your insurance premiums.