It takes a real lifer to belly up to the bar at just past 9 on a foggy Wednesday morning, the kind of professional alcoholic who considers bourbon the breakfast of champions, a drinker who needs to head off his hangover at the pass.
Brent Lewis certainly doesn't fit the part as he walks into the Obzeet Bar in Plano. Dressed neatly in jeans and a black pullover, a shave and a shower in his recent past, Lewis doesn't look like someone who's planning to go through a bottle today. And he's not. Lewis plans to go through dozens of bottles today, all before lunch. That's his job.
Lewis is the local representative of BEVINCO, a Toronto-based inventory control company that keeps an eye on every last ounce of alcohol its clients buy and sell. Since Barry Driedger founded the company in 1987, BEVINCO's business has grown to more than 300 franchises in the United States, Canada and a dozen other countries, all owned and operated by independent auditors such as Lewis, who owns three franchises in the Dallas area.
Which means Lewis is more or less a cop for bartenders, coming in every week with his computer and his scale, poring over their pours to ensure every drink is made the same way and every one of them is rung up on the cash register. Not only can he figure out where the liquor is being lost, his reports can help the owners make more efficient orders, since they know where every drop is going. To bar owners, he's a hero. To bartenders? Not so much.
"In the beginning, they look at me as the bad guy," Lewis says. "And a lot of them end up leaving or getting fired, and I'm sure I'm still the bad guy. They're just somewhere else. I'm sure those people think, 'Hey, I'm not gonna ever work at a place that uses that service.'"
That's easy enough. There are only a few bars employing Lewis' service: Obzeet, Carsons Live, C.J.'s, Sterling Bar, Sterling Sport and The End Zone. (He's waiting for a call back from Sambuca.) While he tries to drum up business by calling bar owners and mailing out brochures, it's easier for him to show than to tell. Problem is, most bar owners think their business is running just fine. No one wants to believe they're losing as much liquor as Lewis claims. Twenty to 30 percent is the industry standard, Lewis says, thanks to theft, giveaways and sloppy bartending.
Obzeet owner Joel Kirshenbaum wasn't immediately won over by Lewis' sales pitch, but he decided to hire him for a month, just to see if there was anything to what Lewis was talking about. That was almost five years ago.
"The best way for Brent to get into a company is go in there and do a month's worth of auditing when nobody knows," Kirshenbaum says. He should know. After Lewis' monthlong trial period was over, Kirshenbaum saw that he was losing between $800 and $1,000 a week in potential bar sales. He was sold. "It went fast with me, because with Brent, I took it to heart. I'd take it to the point where I'd catch them red-handed on the reports. 'We checked before you started your shift. We checked after your shift. This is what you sold. This is what is missing. Understand? You're fired.'"
More than a few Obzeet bartenders were on the other end of that conversation. Some didn't wait around for it. Over the next couple of years, Kirshenbaum says, "the entire bar changed. Every single staff member, from top to bottom." The system has worked so well at Obzeet that losing "half of 1 percent" is too much for Kirshenbaum now.
BEVINCO's service could tell bar owners such as Kirshenbaum if he was missing as little as one shot--and from which bottle it came from. Each week, Lewis comes in with his office in a suitcase: his laptop computer, a UPC scanner and a digital scale. He weighs every open bottle and uses BEVINCO's software to compare the measurement to last week's number, then against this week's sales. At Obzeet--right now, anyway, during its slower winter season--this will take him two, three hours; at a bigger place like Carsons Live, his audit will last six hours easy. Then he gives the owner a report, which, as Kirshenbaum says, can be startling.
"I've become kind of like the firewall for the liquor, if you will," Lewis says. "What I'm able to do is generate a report that says, 'OK, overall, here is what happened,' and then detail here's how much Crown you're missing, here's how much Jägermeister you're missing, how much Tuaca--just right down the list. Show them in a manner to where they can look at it and go, 'Well, my bartender drinks Tuaca...' And they'll keep an eye on it. They'll be able to use the information to then go at the right angle to catch them if they are doing something of that nature."
That's why bartenders aren't always his biggest fans. If Lewis is around, more often than not it means that the owner is suspicious. That can make for difficult working conditions--whether you're up to something or not.
"Oh, yeah, they hate it," Kirshenbaum says. "You're taking their freedom away from them." He takes a drag from his cigarette, then adds, "You're taking away their time when they're locking up and they can get piss drunk. On me."
Not all bartenders feel that way. Howard Kelley, who used to tend bar at XPO Lounge and Double Wide, admits he "probably would have taken it personally" if his owners had called in BEVINCO. But he also knows there is a good reason to have someone like Lewis around. "I mean, it's the bar business," Kelley says. "People get in the bar business, and they're around alcohol, so sometimes they kind of need that sense of discipline." Most of the bartenders we talked to echoed Kelley's words.
But there are others who just don't want Lewis around. And some who can't escape him.
"I have gone into a bar where I went in, started doing an audit, a bartender quit," Lewis says. "I ended up picking up another account. That same bartender was working there. He saw me walking in the door, and I never saw him there again. They know it's much easier to just go get another job, because I can't be at all of the bars."
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