Monday, December 17, 2012

American bartenders

I have touched on this subject on here once or twice before (can't now discover where), but I wanted to return to it briefly before I retire this blog.

Now, I love American bartenders - most of them, anyway, display an impressive level of technical competence, while working their tips effectively by projecting an upbeat and outgoing personality (without getting over-the-top about it), being friendly and helpful to strangers trying the bar for the first time. The stark contrast with Canadian bartenders can help you appreciate these virtues even more keenly.

But one thing that always causes me some discomfort about American bartending culture is the way they'll trim your tab.

This goes far beyond merely comping you a drink every once in a while. That's an elementary piece of good customer relations, and something that any bar owner should happily acquiesce in. But I've frequently encountered American bartenders who will 'lose' 30% or 40% or even more of your bill at the end of the night. [I had one experience last summer where my bill was at least 70% less than it should have been; and it was only that much because the food I'd ordered had been put through a separate till, hence my over-friendly barman couldn't erase that sum.]

Of course, this is very gratifying on the financial level. And on an emotional one, too: it makes you feel very good that someone is being so generous to you - and that this implies a favourable judgement of your character or personality, that you have in some sense earned this discount by being 'a good customer'.

Ethically, though, it makes me feel very awkward. You fear that in these more extreme discount cases it might be being done without the knowledge or approval of the bar owner, that you are in effect colluding with the bartender in stealing from the bar owner.

I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed too that other customers may resent your getting such preferential treatment. If there were a fairly standard discount policy for customers who'd run up a good-sized tab, I'd feel much more comfortable with this - if, say, it were an unwritten rule of the bar that 'regulars' and big spenders always get 25% knocked off their tab. But when the bartenders seem to be just making it up as they go along, nobody quite knows where they stand: Am I being treated particularly generously? Or am I being stiffed, in comparison to that guy over there who didn't spend half as much as me?? And is the bar owner OK with this? Or is this bartender quitting tonight, and trying to rip the place off as much as possible??

And then there's the further practical difficulty of deciding on an appropriate tip. This is tricky enough, anyway, for an Englishman like me - unused to the idea of tipping bar staff. I often feel inclined to pay what I think the full tab should have been, just to ease my conscience about the possibility of having cheated the bar owner; but, of course, the 'theft' - if such it is - is going to happen anyway, with the mercurial bartender pocketing all the extra for him or herself. So, I have then over-tipped outrageously, failed to save myself any money, and indeed, you might say, ungratefully spurned the generous gesture being made to me. And possibly still condoned or facilitated a crime against the owner. Man, it's a minefield.

I really feel I would be happier with an accurately kept tab. And a standard discount, or a couple of free drinks.

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