Three-Finger Discounts

Way back in grad school, the Burning Question crew devised a cunning plan to wrest free beer from our favorite nightspot.

Our scheme involved weekly visits to the bar, befriending the owner and dating the waitresses--and it worked well. Indeed, even now, when we revisit our past, the DJ plays our requests first, the owner buys us a drink or two, and the waitresses dump the aforementioned freebies on our heads then stomp off in disgust.

We don't go back often.

When we approached Dallas-area bartenders with this week's Burning Question--What are the tricks patrons pull to score free drinks?--we learned that people in this area often resort to methods far less subtle, to schemes annoying, illegal and downright immoral. "It's always trifling shit, things like birthday shots, name-dropping," says Jordan Lowery of Whisky Bar. "It's ridiculous."

It's also costly. According to Bevinco, a Toronto-based company that monitors alcohol products sold at bars in Canada and the United States, "shrinkage"--the loss of revenue as the result of freebies, theft and overpouring--cuts bar profits by an average of 20 percent.

Bartenders face some sort of free-drink ploy at least once or twice a night. "There are the guys who keep $50 or $100 on the table so you don't run a tab, then they take off when you're not looking," says Will Morgan, bartender at Champps in Las Colinas. "Or when we're busy, they'll just grab a drink after we've poured it and set it on the bar. We'll turn around and it's gone." Morgan once pursued one such patron for three blocks through downtown Fort Worth when he tended bar in that city. "We used to chase them in the old days, but we're not allowed to now," explains Ben Shirai of Café Brazil. Yes, Café Brazil. We needed to sober up. "It sure was fun in the old days, though. Bouncers from the bars would block the sidewalk and help us out."

Most free-drink scams involve less legwork. "They'll pick up an empty glass, then bring it up and say, 'Hey, someone drank my beer,'" reports Bruce Bauman at the Green Room. "The most frequent line is, 'Someone took my drink,' followed by, 'Someone spilled my drink,'" agrees Blake Williams at The Old Crow. They also try to add drinks to a stranger's tab, often after overhearing a name.

"'Someone else bought that,' is fairly common, or, 'Oh, he's buying that,'" Morgan says. "They're all kinda similar."

Some patrons resort to classic tactics. "I've had people say, 'There's a hair in my drink,' says Zubar's Andrea Seer. This scheme, however, also realizes only limited results. "If the drink is full, sure, I'll give them another. If the drink is empty, obviously the hair didn't bother you." Seer became suspicious, too, when we complained about a South American creeping frog in one of our drinks, pointing out that the species lives only in rainforests south of the Yucatan.

Indeed, few of these amateurish and annoying tricks work consistently. Bartenders typically fault patrons for a purloined or overturned drink. More often than not they check the driver's license of someone claiming "birthday shot" rights. And they often request permission before adding someone new to a person's tab.

Some tricks require a lot of gall. Ian Green at The Londoner recalls when two women skipped out on a $14 tab. "We hadn't seen them in a while, and they called to ask if they could add more to the tab," he says with some disgust. Green denied their request. "I had a guy blatantly ask for two free drinks," adds Mike Fortune at The Old Monk, amazed at the patron's direct approach, which also failed. Other bartenders report numerous incidents of people claiming to know the owner, then mispronouncing his or her name.

Despite the outright stupidity of some approaches, Dallas bar patrons occasionally craft a con difficult to unravel. "With a big group, some people always leave early and stick others with the tab," explains Phil Natale, bartender at Steel. "There's always a dispute, which we prefer to avoid." One common method involves groups of three or more lingering for hours at the bar. "When they get their tab, they start picking it apart--'I don't remember drinking that,' and, 'We didn't drink that much,'" Morgan says. "You either call them a liar or eat the cost. I've done both."

"A lot of times it's just easier to say, 'Here's your fucking drink,'" Lowery admits.

Their evident frustration stems from the cost factor. Bartenders themselves often end up paying for drink scams. "At 90 percent of the places, bartenders are responsible for the cost," Morgan estimates. "Everything has to be accounted for," Seer adds. "It's a business."

In cases of clear theft, management generally absorbs the cost. But many bars plan for a certain amount of spillage by providing a few complimentary drinks--known in tavern parlance as comp drinks. It's difficult to predict, in dollar amounts, the losses occasioned by patron tricks: "We may do $30,000 in a night and comp $5, or do $10,000 and comp $500; you never know," Morgan says. But the practice of complimentary drinks creates an acceptable cushion for spillage losses, at least from the management perspective. Dallas-area establishments allow bartenders to comp anywhere from one to five drinks each night. "But otherwise it's our cost," Morgan explains. In other words, anything missing beyond the prescribed comp amount and not attributable to outright theft cuts into the staff's take-home pay.

"I try not to make it come out of my pocket," Williams says flatly.

Bartenders prefer to reserve comp drinks for regulars and big tippers. Each bartender defines a regular in slightly different terms, of course. But they begin extending the courtesies due a regular--a greeting, a handshake, etc.--when they know a patron's name and favorite drink without hesitation.

Tipping seems to enhance their memory. "No matter how busy you are, you remember who tipped well and who didn't tip at all," says Bauman. "The guy who throws out a buck here and a buck there, we know it, and they get service." Big spenders also receive special treatment. "We have customers who spend $50 to $100 every time they come in," says Smokey Hill, bar manager at Sipango. "Of course we're going to buy them a drink."

"To say, 'There's no Crown in here,' will get you nowhere," warns Matthew, the surnameless Samba Room bartender. "Put down a five and say that it's light, and I'll pour half a bottle in there."

But flashing a few bucks seems like an expensive route to a free drink. The Burning Question crew tried it with some success, but we were using crisp bills pulled surreptitiously from our editor's petty cash drawer. (Editor's note: He's lying. We don't consider any amount of cash "petty.")

The most effective trick patrons use to score free drinks involves female breasts and the public display thereof. "Something that always works for a free drink is showing their tits," Bauman confirms. It's a fairly common practice at Dallas-area establishments, and the Burning Question crew considered it so crucial to this week's research that we spent an inordinate amount of time spotting flashers--you know, to confirm the information. Hell, it even works on female bartenders. "I bought a girl a drink for that before," Seer admits. "It gets guys riled up, and they start buying drinks."

Unfortunately, no male equivalent exists. We tried.

But attractive women often receive preferential treatment at bars, including free drinks. "A pretty woman will bring 20 guys to the bar, and the guys tip," claims Hill. "It's our payoff."

All in all, however, it seems slight recompense for an evening subjected to complaints, lies and fraud. "It's just part of the business," Williams reasons. "It's not a surprise, but it's definitely annoying. It's just a $3 or $4 drink. People will lie for nothing." Still, that nothing may end up costing bartenders or the bars plenty.

"If they're really good [at scamming], we'll never know about it," Morgan says. "We'll just come up short at the end of the night and say, 'How'd that happen?'"


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