Nightmare on bar street: Dealing with difficult customers

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Drinks: Drinks
Other: Service, Venues

Bar-goers are, on the whole, as docile and lovely as fluffy bunnies, but every now and again you get one who’s a bit of a hellraiser. Alice Lascelles asks some top bar folk how they read the omens so they can deal with the Friday night Freddie Kruegers


Start as you mean to go on

‘Dealing with nightmare customers, in my opinion, starts the second they walk up to the bar,’ says industry veteran and author of The Joy of Mixology Gary Regan. ‘That’s when the bartender has the opportunity to lock eyes with a new guest, ask them how they are feeling today or tonight, and wait for the answer.

‘After the guest answers, the bartender must respond to whatever they said, letting the guest know that she or he is actually listening to them.’

This, he says, creates a strong first impression, making the guest more likely to listen to staff if a ‘situation’ should arise.
Declan McGurk, bar manager of the American Bar at The Savoy, agrees that you want to start building a relationship with your guest from very early on.

‘If you build that relationship with them, they’re more likely to be receptive to you later on if things get difficult,’ he says. ‘The better you know them, the better you can manage them.’

Deal tactically with groups

‘If it’s a group being disruptive, then before I intervene I’ll scan the group,’ says Balthazar’s Brian Silva. ‘There’s usually one arsehole among them who’s causing most of the trouble, and there’s almost always someone reasonable in the crowd too, and that’s the person you want to appeal to for help.’

Bartender and P(our) co-founder Simone Caporale recommends a similar approach. ‘I generally start by singling out the sober one or the one who seems to have the weaker character,’ he says. ‘They will likely want to deal with a challenge and convince the naughty one to behave without me doing very much – which is basically the outcome you’re looking for.’

Check your body language

‘As you approach the table, think about your body language,’ says McGurk. ‘It should be open, but authoritative. Don’t invade their personal space, and think about your facial expression – if there’s a problem you don’t want to approach the table with a big smile on your face, but you want to look engaged and ready to discuss the problem, too.’

Easy does it

‘If you’re reasonable with someone, they’re usually reasonable back,’ says Silva. ‘Instead of simply saying, “No, you can’t have another drink,” I might say, “Come on, you don’t want to ruin your evening cos you wanted one more G&T, there’s no reason for this to happen.”’

Monica Berg, fellow co-founder of P(our), seconds this, seeing it as an opportunity to strengthen relations with customers.
‘If someone’s drinking really fast, you might try to slow it down,’ she says. ‘Get them something to eat and get them into the mindset of going home. Just quietly, so people don’t overhear, I might say, “You’re welcome to come back any time, but maybe today it might be wise to start thinking about going home.”

‘This is how you end up getting regulars, because they trust you to look after them. Some places you end up having so many regulars that it’s almost like the organism rejects people who are behaving badly anyway, which is the ideal outcome!’

Try the conspiracy theory

At Speakeasy Entertainment, the group that owns Nightjar, Oriole and Swift, there is a whole document dedicated to dealing with tricky customers. ‘It’s very hard to reason with a drunk person,’ it advises. ‘Much easier to get them on your side. Therefore, as much as possible, approach people who have had lots to drink in a friendly, conspiratorial manner and ask them to do your bidding as a huge favour rather than telling them what they should do. This method should yield results in most situations.’

Avoid direct accusations

Sometimes a bit of humour can save face for everyone, says Silva. ‘At the Bison Bar at Home House, we used to have these lovely little pictures on the wall and one day I noticed one of them was missing.

‘I went to the group at the table next to them and said, “Something really funny just happened, I think someone just rearranged the room. If I go away and come back in again, I wonder if it will rearrange itself back again.”

‘I came back in a few minutes later and the picture was back on the wall and nothing more was said about it.’

A unified front

‘I’ve seen the level of rudeness in our industry increase dramatically in the last few years,’ says Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender at Dukes Hotel. ‘I think it’s partly down to the fact that you now have all these managers who just care about getting good TripAdvisor reviews, so they don’t support their staff properly and let guests get away with bad behaviour.

‘It’s very important that a manager never undermines a bartender’s decision or version of events in front of a customer.’

Berg agrees it’s vital that managers back up their staff.

‘If a bartender cuts a customer off because they’ve drunk too much or are behaving inappropriately, the manager should never, ever override that decision in front of a customer,’ she says.

Behold the house rules

One or two house rules can help prevent conflict even before it starts and stop the bartender having to play the bad guy in a difficult situation. At London’s Duke’s Hotel, for instance, they famously limit customers to two Martinis a head.

Lay down the law…

Everyone’s had a customer who’s happily polished off a round of cocktails and then demanded their money back claiming they didn’t like them. At Nightjar, staff will happily replace or refund a drink if a customer lodges a complaint before they’ve drunk half their drink. But its guidelines also point out that if the customer fails to notify staff of their complaint and then refuses to pay, they are in breach of contract.

‘They do not have the right within the law to do this and it should be made clear to them,’ they say.

Whether you choose to enact civil legal proceedings to recover the cost of those drinks is up to you. But it’s another string to your bow if a customer looks like they’re taking the piss.

But keep things light

‘You don’t want whatever conflict is taking place to spoil the atmosphere for everyone else, so sometimes you need to do whatever it takes to get them to leave,’ says Nick Strangeway, creative director of bar consultancy Strange Hill.

‘I once had a guest from the trade who was being really obnoxious, and who was getting out what I believed to be
drugs at the table. I said, “Look, you need to leave. I’ll comp you the meal, but I just really need you to leave now.” Then
we just took everything off the table, so they were sitting there with nothing in front of them. That made them look pretty silly and they left pretty quickly after that.’

Preventative measures

‘The problem is some bartenders can be oblivious until it’s too late,’ says Silva. ‘It’s important to assess your guests as
soon as they walk in the door, and a good bartender will always be aware of what’s playing out in the room.

‘We have a three-drink rule – if someone’s had three drinks then we’ll take a look at them. We also really try to discourage people from going to the bar after lunch as that often can be where the problems start.’

Watch yourself

‘At the end of the day, we are choosing to serve – there’s no point in having delusions of grandeur,’ says McGurk.

Caporale agrees that the problem can be closer to home than we like to admit. ‘Most of the time, things don’t get sorted smoothly because the person behind the bar is actually less sober than the guest, or the bar operator’s ego is higher than the Shard,’ he says.

All’s well that ends well

‘Once when I was at Scott’s,’ recalls Silva, ‘a customer asked for another drink. I knew he’d driven, so I said, “You can have another drink, but only if you give me your car keys.” To my surprise, he handed them over, I served him and he came
back the next day to get his keys and gave me a £50 tip. He was really grateful! That was nice.’

About Author

Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles is a founding editor of Imbibe and also the spirits and cocktails columnist for The Sunday Times and The Times. She has been writing about drinks for more than a decade during which time she's also been a regular contributor to the Financial Times, Prospect and Square Meal, with further writing credits including The Telegraph, Time Out and The Spectator. When she’s not drinking for a living, Alice has a second life as a musician which has seen her tour with the White Stripes and record sessions for BBC 6 Music, Xfm and Radio 2. She lives in London.

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