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Karl Kozel Headshot

Tis The Season

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There is no question that the world becomes more corporate as each year passes. This corporatization and its seemingly unrelenting momentum, has been the cause of much of the unrest in this country and in the world. There seems to be a disconnect between corporations and people at times, and many gather now to protest in great numbers with disparate messages but the theme seems to be a united stand against greed, corruption and the lack of real representation in government.

We all know the advantages of big business or at least we know the marketing of it ad naseum, but we also know of the fundamental difference there is between a small local business and a national or international one. We bemoan the lack of personal connection that we get when we call to complain about a bill or service and are put into a "menu" of choices all involving using your touch-tone pad, and less an involvement with a real human. The human element or the interaction between two humans is lost.

The restaurant and bar world has also become more corporate over the years. As this was occurring, bar and restaurant owners began to look more closely at the "bottom line" and the bean counters made decisions that were slowly mimicked by smaller business. Among those decisions was the idea to do away with one of the great traditions of the bar, namely the buyback. It became a symbol to corporate heads of excessive largesse and was phased out in many establishments over the years. It was done, presumably to insure maximum profit, but at what cost?

We need to first define what a buyback is, and its purposes. There are many theories as to when it became established, but a buyback is a drink or drinks that are made and delivered "on the house." It was often announced with a quick two or three knock of knuckles on the bar by the bartender after setting the drinks down, and by that action a customer knew that the drinks were a gift from the house. Sometimes the bartender would actually say, "These are on the house," or "These are on me" or something to that effect. Now that we have defined what a buyback is, we need to understand its purposes in its most honest terms.

The fine art of buybacks was designed as a reward. It showed gratitude from the house for a customer who'd become a regular. It also rewarded the well-mannered lady or gentleman, those who introduced the bar to other good customers, and yes, those who spent an unusually large amount of money. The old rule was a free round after three rounds. This rule was modified somewhat due to societies changing tolerance for public drunkenness, but then went out with the street phone. For a bartender, it was a tool to help "shape" a bar crowd and knowing when to use it was just as important as knowing when not to. If someone was a nebbish or couldn't handle their liquor and truly was a problem, they never got a buyback. By this notion, anyone who asked or demanded one was never given the "gift". There was a tacit understanding between the bartender and the house that buybacks were to be used wisely, and not just to line the pockets of the barkeeps.

Thus to get one meant that you were ok, and that you were liked and you were a class act because god knows someone has to keep an eye on things and that would be the bartenders responsibility to do so. So if the customer got a buyback, they might return many times and therefore, the house would ultimately benefit, as well as the bartender. They had just built a loyal customer, one whom they'd like a lot more of, and by practicing good bartending and buyback practices, they'd accomplish just that.

One of the tenets of good bartending that I inherited from my predecessors was that one did not have to give away the house in order to insure a good income. That is a point that seems lost on some bartenders past and present who give drinks away primarily to make a lot of money. That is not a buyback, that is stealing and I stand on that. Bartenders are basically vendors, and they need to know that the very health of the establishment they toil in lies in its ability to stay profitable. They are bound by their professional code to look after the house first.

Bartenders whose regulars are always looking for the free drink, isn't doing the house any favors. That's because those so-called regulars are usually gone when the practice is aborted once the house discovers the dishonesty and fires the offending bartender. If you tend the bar by being efficient, courteous, caring and you are a good listener, and make drinks and serve food with passion, you'll do just fine in the pocketbook. You aren't practicing good buyback policy by simplifying it for your own gain

Every bar should have a buyback check so that everything made is rung up. The bar isn't losing the entire amount of the drink, but rather the cost of that drink which amount to around 20 percent of the total price. More often than not, houses who examined their bottom line, didn't understand that, and only saw the total price of the drink on the buyback check. That number is misleading because it's only the cost of the drink lost. What has been gained isn't measurable by any accounting formulas that I know of, but the continued patronage of a regular who is generous, and who brings more business to the establishment is gold in my book.

Buybacks can be very useful tools, especially when we are all looking for that personal touch. Code of conduct is important in this day or any day, and tending the bar is often a much more complicated concoction than the one you are making in your shaker.

Last year I was asked to contribute to a book called "Let's Bring Back" by Leslie Blume. In the book the author expresses nostalgia for things that have been lost over time, and I included some behaviors that bars and bartenders maintained that were lost. I didn't include the buyback because I was on the fence as to whether or not it truly was lost. It isn't quite but it is on the endangered list. So... in keeping with Ms. Blume's theme, Let's Bring Back the Buyback!!

I'll see you when I see you!

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