The Devil is in the Details

Training Employees for Alcohol ServiceThe service of alcoholic beverages is one of the most regulated business activities in the United States. All operators know the pain of dealing with a state licensing agency to obtain the permits necessary to begin serving alcohol. Regulation, however, does not stop with the issuance of a liquor license.

You must thoroughly (and consistently) train staff to serve alcohol to your guests. To do that, you must have a written alcohol policy encouraging responsible alcohol service. In states with dram shop “safe harbor” laws, your policy should track the language of the dram shop statute so you can take full advantage of its benefits. For example, the policy should describe the company’s stance on serving underage or visibly intoxicated guests (NO!), tips for recognizing the warning signs of intoxication, specific roles of both employees (observe the scene and report to managers in the event anything is amiss) and managers (confront guests and resolve any issues that may arise).

Each employee should sign a copy of the alcohol policy, and the signed form should be kept in employee files. Even better, make the alcohol policy’s signature page a part of the employee handbook to ensure that you get the signature turned in at the same time as the handbook acknowledgement (you are doing that, right?!).

It is important to remember that training on your alcohol policies does not stop after new employee orientation. Alcohol policies should be periodically revisited in manager meetings (quarterly works nicely), and a written record kept showing each time the topic is addressed.

Many operators ask, “Why bother writing down everything my servers are supposed to learn in the certification course?” The answer is simple: It is for your own protection. Documentation of your policies, coupled with regular training, can be the first line of defense in a lawsuit involving the service of alcohol. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and state regulators can sink their teeth (deeply) into operators without good policies, showing that the very absence of a written policy equals laziness for the sake of profit-mongering.

Jason Kosmas, Beverage Director at The Village Marquee Grill & Bar in Dallas, Texas and co-owner of Employees Only and Macao in New York City, notes, “Observation is the key. People might come in after having a few cocktails at home, and sometime after getting to the bar those drinks hit them. You have to be okay with addressing that situation as soon as it happens. Managers have to be ready to confront the guest and get them into a cab and out of the bar. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the guest is safe.”

Remember, though, that if you do choose to create written policies, you must enforce them. The only thing a plaintiff’s attorney likes more than a company with no alcohol policy is one that has a policy and fails to enforce it, which shows your knowledge of the risks posed by alcohol service but an unwillingness to protect your guests for the sake of profit-mongering.


david t. denney - attorneyDavid T. Denney is an attorney licensed in both Texas and Tennessee, whose practice is devoted to hospitality clients.

He can be reached through his firm’s Web site at The comments provided herein are for educational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Please contact an attorney with experience in the hospitality industry should you require more information.