Advice from bartenders: How to get a free drink at a bar

Actually, it’s not that easy.

Photo by Jill Collins PR (Touart); Photo by Alex Mangione Photography (Kavaldjian)

We asked veteran bartender A.J. Touart, who worked at Clyde’s in Tysons Corner for almost 40 years and is now behind the bar at American Prime in McLean, and newcomer Aislin Kavaldjian, who’s been bartending for the past four years at Old Ox Brewery and Delirium Cafe and is now at Leesburg’s SideBar, about how guests can score a free drink. Don’t get your hopes up.

How can someone get a free drink from a bartender?

Touart: The worst thing is trying to get free drinks. I don’t think there’s a real good way to do that.
Kavaldjian: When it comes to getting free stuff, asking for it is the death of all hope.

But really, what can someone do?

Touart: If you come in and customers act with—it’s kind of a cliche—but respect … if you have manners and you’re polite.
Kavaldjian: The best advice I can give is to be nice and sincere and to care about your bartender and ask, and maybe remember, their name.

If you do give out a free drink, when will it happen?

Touart: I buy them a drink because I would like them to come back, first of all. Repeat business is one of the holy grails of a restaurant or a bar. They’re here now; I want them to come back tomorrow or next week. I think a free drink at that point, or buying them a round, might trigger that. I just want to show them I really appreciate them coming to our establishment.
Kavaldjian: We had a couple come in after getting a divorce and got a drink together because they were so happy they were divorced. That would be the one that really stood out.

What if it’s someone’s birthday?

Touart: Birthdays are one of these things that people can sort of wiggle in that area of, “Hey let’s get a free drink.”
Kavaldjian: If it’s your birthday, let me know because I’ll probably still buy you a beer even if you ask me for one.

How do free drinks work on the back end?

Touart: A good restaurant or a good bar, the owner trusts his staff. You just don’t willy-nilly start giving stuff away because basically you’re stealing. And that’s where the free drink category gets blurred. You’ve got to have a guiding light there. It’s usually a percentage. It’s kind of a feel. A smart saloon, a smart bar, will give the bartender flexibility there.
Kavaldjian: It’s important for consumers to realize that I am actually buying things when I do that; I’m not just forgetting to leave things on the tab. As a manager, I have to account for every drop that leaves the building. For me, when I’m buying someone something, it is actually a gesture that involved a transaction. When we’re talking about free, we’re not talking free to me or free to the business.

We get it. You don’t give out free drinks. But just throw out a number.

Touart: Last Thursday was a busy night. I probably gave away five drinks. Let’s say 10 [bucks] a pop. That’s 50 bucks. And if I rang $1,000, [that’s] 5 percent. You kind of get a feel for it. You just know you can’t get crazy back there. Free drinks are rare.
Kavaldjian:  There are evenings when it never happens. It’s so related to the vibe. A lot would probably be six or seven.

(Dining Deals 2017December 2017)