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Tips From Your Bartender: When the Bartender Buys You a Drink

By Jacob Hall, Gibson General Manager

If you’ve spent any time at all in a bar and you’re any kind of a decent human being, there’s good odds you’ve encountered this particular gesture of goodwill:  the bartender buying you a drink (or more) on the house. Assuming you’re not a service industry worker and thus do not have quick rapport with service staff by the merit of your shared experiences, you should take a small measure of satisfaction here. Someone who deals professionally in social interaction found some aspect of your company enjoyable enough to reward with a perk. It’s no small feat for your personality to shine in the context of work that largely entails accommodating people’s--ahem, extra--personalities.

Sometimes though, rather than denote a modicum of personal goodwill, it serves the ulterior motive of a shameless cash grab. The unrestrained dispensation of free booze in an effort to bump tips at the house’s expense is bad form. Beyond a certain point and/or with a certain intent, bartenders are effectively stealing money from their employers by converting sales into tips. It’s hard to spot this behavior--frankly because the line gets blurry--but one telltale sign is a bartender giving away multiple rounds to multiple guests that were neither requested nor offered with an option to opt-out. This behavior is not to be encouraged.

That said, plenty of bars allow their staff to comp drinks with the tacit understanding that the proceeds supplement staff incomes and give staff a measure of influence over who becomes repeat customers (and thus who they have/get to deal with repeatedly). In this convention, eunoia and financial incentive are not mutually exclusive, and free drinks often are motivated by some balance of both.

I have given away countless drinks on the house tab in my years of bartending. The beneficiaries have ranged from my closest friends to tourists who will obviously never return to my bar again. Through it all, I’ve often reflected on a little conundrum:  if I’m giving away a round as a gesture of goodwill, what if anything is it fair to expect in return? On the one hand, I’m giving my guest something because I enjoyed the company--a statement that should require no kickback, least of all in an amount that erases the original gesture. On the other hand, a free drink is necessarily scarce and literally value-able, surely warranting some fiduciary reciprocation. It’s hard not to feel disingenuous checking for a larger tip when you hook people up--as it’s hard not to feel slighted when they do not return the favor by way of a larger tip. See? A conundrum.

As a bartender, I do have rapport with service industry workers. Though I stopped announcing my shared employment years ago, its virtually impossible to hide the fact, and this simple fact results in a number of free drinks dispensed. There is a foolproof formula for handling tip gratuity in this situation. It’s one that allows each party an act of gratuity that doesn’t undercut the other. It’s elegant, universal, and memorable when drunk. Ready? Pay less than you would have paid and more than they would have made. Stick to that rule and you will always be a valued bar patron. Here’s a number-laden demonstration of how it works. 

Pay less than you would have paid and more than they would have made.

Assume you’ve run up a $40 bar tab on four $8 beers. A normal 20% tip on $40 ($8) would run you up to a total of $48. If some affable bar-hand comped one of your beers and your tab is now $32, a 20% tip now amounts to $6.40. Don’t even think about tipping $6.40. By not meeting the $8 amount you would have tipped on the original $40 bill, you would be rewarding your bartender’s generosity by shorting them $1.60 from your original tip. But that’s just the first hurdle. Some people make the well-intentioned mistake of tipping slightly extra on the new subtotal. A normally generous 25% on the $32 bill works out to $8. Do you see the problem? You’re still right back where you started with an $8 tip. You’ve profited from the bartender’s gratuity, but the bartender has not. Herein lies your moment to shine, as long as you can do some simple math. To satisfy both parts of the rule, tip less than $16 (pay less than you would have paid) but more than $8 (pay more than they would have made). Reread this until the math makes perfect sense. It really is a simple rule and by following it you and the bartender live in a balanced state of generosity and financial gain.

It also calls for a moderate measure of situational awareness. You might find the effort rigorous and clunky at first. You will have to look at your bill and figure out what (if anything) was given to you, take stock of how much it costs and thus how much the original bill would have been, how much you would have originally tipped, and then do some quick math to sort out the difference. The whole ordeal can add a few minutes to your departure, and interrupt the flow of conversation in your party.

Who wants to go through all that effort?

Solid people who aren’t garbage people. That’s who. The kind of people this world needs more of.

Here’s the real beauty of the rule--abiding it will make you a better person that more people like and like to have around. Bars are, after all, public spaces that you share with other people. As much as they are a place to blow off steam, they are not any one person’s living room and so merit a small degree of constant consideration for the people around you. When you start exhibiting that level of consideration, I guarantee your drinks will flow a little more freely.