What About Drunk Customers?

Handle inebriated customers without offending them

All’s fun and games until somebody causes a scene—or worse. Drunken diners can be a restaurant’s ultimate nightmare. They can be loud and belligerent, disrupting other customers. Even more damaging, they can be a liability if they get into a wreck on the way home. 

Inebriated or not, these people are still your customers. You don’t want to lose their business once they sober up (unless they’re repeat offenders). Here’s some advice from those in the trenches on dealing with customers who’ve had a few too many.

Grab the Snacks

“We always get food of any kind—french fries, chips—in front of them. A drunk person with food in front of them will nibble on it.  After we tell them we can’t serve them more alcohol, we let the server get on the side of the patron. That way, they’re not mad at their server. They’ll say, ‘I know it sucks. Let me see what we can do. My manager won’t budge but I’ll keep working on him. In the meantime I brought you cheese fries on the house.’ I like to distract them from the fact they’re drunk with conversation. I ask them about their vacation. Sometimes it can be ridiculous, but it lets their mind free them from the fact they won’t be served. Then they forget they’ve gotten cut off.” 

Nick Sharp
Operations manager of Steamboat Restaurant Group in Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Backstory: Worked in the restaurant and bar industry for 15 years

Cut at the Source

“Stop serving them immediately. This needs to be done politely but firmly, as we cannot be associated with an over-pouring situation. Be aware of how they will depart the establishment. Call them a cab (suggest Uber or Lyft, which offer discounts and free rides for firsttime users) or, if they are with others, ensure they will not be driving and someone sober from their party will be. If they are on foot, we can escort them to the corner, or someplace close, and ensure they are safe enough to arrive at their destination.” 

Lisa Holt
Managing partner at Build Pizzeria Roma in Berkeley, California
Backstory: Designed and developed restaurants and hotels for 30 years; owned and operated hotels and restaurants for 15 years

Educate Your Staff

“Have posters up, or indications on the bar menu, that promote responsible drinking. This may not guarantee that customers will drink responsibly, but it will indicate to them that your restaurant promotes drinking socially and not dangerously. 

Train your servers and bartenders to keep tabs on customers to make sure they are not in danger. Managers need to ensure that the servers and bartenders are communicating to one another. Have them discuss which customers need a more watchful eye. To avoid offending the guests, say and do everything politely. You are still in the customer-service field.” 

David Mitroff
Restaurant consultant at Piedmont Avenue Consulting in Oakland, California
Backstory: Industry advisor in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years

Evaluate The Situation

“Each situation is different. Sometimes drunk people come in and it’s somebody else’s problem they’re bringing to us. We’ll offer to pay for a cab. We’ll try to diffuse the situation, move them outside, try to talk to them in a calm manner. It’s the other people in the restaurant we worry about. Once we remove them, we buy everybody half a shot to try to lighten the mood and make everybody happy again.” 

Bill Cipriani
Co-owner and executive kitchen manager at The Post Sports Bar & Grill in St. Louis
​Backstory: Degrees in culinary and foodservice management from Johnson and Wales University

Keep Calm and Move On

Handle inebriated customers the right way and you just might woo them back under better terms. Here are some go-to tips:

Don’t lose your cool.  A one-time offense might not be worth losing a longtime regular. Speak calmly to the offender and other customers to avoid creating a circus.

Train your staff. Consider a program like TIPS (Training for Intervention ProcedureS), a 30-year-old training system that helps employees prevent and deal with intoxicated customers. 

Find them a ride. Get to know services like BeMyDD, the nation’s largest designated-driver service. This company employs drivers that will chauffeur drunken customers home using the customer’s car. 

Get help. Enlist the people with the drunken customer to help cut off their friend. Slow down service at a problem table. Suggest non-alcoholic drinks. Once you’ve cut someone off, be firm yet respectful.