Does Over-Serving at Restaurants Go Under-Investigated?

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Photo by Bob Franklin
If the wine list is making you see double, it's time to cut yourself off (even if the restaurant doesn't).
UPDATE: The TABC has responded to some of our concerns and cleared up some errors and misconceptions about over-serving investigations. Carolyn Beck, director of communications, especially wished to stress that the quote from the Houston Chronicle below regarding one TABC agent for a county with over 800 establishments was untrue. Please read this updated post for more.

A few weeks ago, I endured a rather unpleasant dinner at The Rouxpour -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- which had nothing to do with the food itself and everything to do with two very drunk patrons.

After being harassed by the two men throughout the evening, I finally retrieved a manager and told him bluntly: "These guys have clearly been over-served. Can you please do something about it?"

My request fell on mostly deaf ears, as the men -- regulars, by their account and that of our waitress -- were allowed to stay. And, it seemed, to continue drinking.

I spoke with Lincoln Ward, one of The Rouxpour's owners, about the incident a few days later. Ward was appropriately upset at the actions of the two customers and his manager, but assured me this was not common practice for the Sugar Land restaurant.

As genuine as Ward was, however, I had a hard time believing that The Rouxpour had never over-served a customer before. The entire restaurant and patio that Thursday night had been packed with loud-mouthed, inebriated customers. And the subsequent Monday night -- during Monday Night Football -- was almost equally rowdy.

But this isn't a problem endemic to The Rouxpour. It's a problem across the state of Texas, where, according to a July 14 article in the Houston Chronicle by James Pinkerton, the understaffed Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission struggles to investigate hundreds of over-serving complaints across thousands of establishments -- sometimes with only one agent in a given county to handle upward of 800 liquor outlets.

In the last year alone, the TABC only investigated one complaint of "Sale/Serve/Deliver AB to Intoxicated Person" in Houston, which took place at a bar called The Playground, which used to be a Mr. Cash payday loan store according to records pulled from the TABC's Public Inquiry database. In 2011, there were two investigations: one at an illegal gambling parlor and one at the Baker Street Pub in Tomball.

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Photo by spike55151
This shouldn't be what customers see when they leave a restaurant.
Because these kinds of incidents have traditionally been confined to bars and pubs, it's at restaurants where situations can often get out of hand more easily. It's often difficult to tell when customers have been over-served until it's too late -- and even more difficult to figure out what to do with them next.

"Alcohol is a huge amplifier of peoples' personalities and you can't always just stop someone who's engaging in bad behavior," says Sean Beck, beverage director at Backstreet Cafe, Trevisio and Hugo's. "In my 15 years here, I know I've lost customers over it because I cut someone off."

Once you cut a customer off, you can't allow him to drive home -- and you're responsible for finding him a ride. "Sometimes it's a 45-minute wait for a taxi, and you can't babysit a person for 45 minutes at a time," says Beck. " Hopefully they're not creating a scene with your guests in the meantime."

Technically, anyone who serves alcohol in a restaurant is supposed to go through a certification program through the TABC, a short course that teaches the basics of serving alcohol in Texas. "That certification process is there to give you all the guidelines you need" to identify people who've consumed too much alcohol, says Beck. "But it's really tricky because even if you don't serve someone and you refuse to serve them, just the fact that you didn't stop them from leaving your establishment could also make you liable." Liable as an establishment and as an individual server.

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Photo by Damien Gabrielson
The end result of drunk driving.
Two bars in north Houston recently found this out the hardest way possible, after five people died as the result of two drunk driving incidents in one weekend. Both drunk drivers were over-served at bars in The Woodlands, one of the drivers consuming a staggering 22 beers in one evening. The bars have not yet been identified as TABC investigations are ongoing, but one very famous establishment recently went through a similar ordeal and spotlighted a problem not often discussed in restaurants.

Husk, the venerated South Carolina restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock, recently settled a $1.1 million wrongful death lawsuit after a man was killed by a drunk driver who'd been over-served at the restaurant. To make matters worse, the drunk driver was Husk's own assistant manager and sommelier, Adam Joseph Burnell, who had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit in South Carolina when he left the restaurant and slammed into the back of a Mustang at 4 a.m., killing Quentin Gregory Miller.

It's rare to hear of a restaurant being held responsible in incidents of over-serving, as the majority of these take place in bars. Even the TABC generally concentrates its investigations on bars and underage drinking at those establishments. But more restaurants could be held accountable, judging by what happened at Husk.

According to Beck, "the growth of wine bars and BYOBs and restaurants having more significant bar programs" means that it's possible even more restaurants such as The Rouxpour could be struggling with how to suss out and prevent over-serving of patrons. And that's especially difficult when restaurant staff haven't been trained by their management in either area, training that's more of a given at bars and pubs, where staff are accustomed to serving alcohol day in and day out (this training is given on top of what's offered by the TABC). Many restaurants don't have the same programs and management oversight when it comes to over-serving as most bars do. At a restaurant, the focus lies primarily with waiting tables and serving food.

"The best thing you can do is catch it early on," Beck says. "Notice when someone's ordering doubles, notice when someone's pounding their drinks, when their voice is going up and down and all over the place. Maybe...send them out some complimentary apps, keep refilling their water until they sober up." And if you can't catch it ahead of time, restaurants and bars simply have to do the best they can to prevent that customer from consuming any more alcohol -- even if the customer puts up a fight.

"It's never easy, it's always intense when it happens. Some people will never forgive you for it," Beck says. " But whatever you're doing, you're doing in your and their best interest."



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Location Info

The Rouxpour

2298 Texas Drive, Sugar Land, TX

Category: Restaurant

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10 comments
Huckle_Cat
Huckle_Cat

I find it interesting that restaurants are so concerned about losing a customer if they cut him or her off. Do they realize how many they are losing by allowing obnoxious drunks to remain? So the drunks go home and complain to their friends about getting cut off. I don't know how many of those people will say, "I'm sure not going to a place where management exercises good judgment." But the patrons who are being harassed, and those who are observing the failure of management to control the problem, will certainly tell their friends, and those people are much more likely to avoid a restaurant that lets customers crash into other people's tables and call them "bitches". I know I would because I spend my money at restaurants to have a nice evening, not just to eat good food. So hm, piss off one guy who might kill someone on his way home and cost you a lawsuit, or piss off five parties who tell all of their friends and cost you future patrons. Katharine Shilcutt just told several thousand of her closest friends. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

paval
paval topcommenter

There is a factor not touched in the article. Most servers not only have the sword of Damocles of their job pending over their head, when making or not the decision to cut someone off, but they also would probably say goodbye to their tip if they cut someone off. Since their income is made from tips for the most part, that is a heavy decision for a server. Eat and keep job or loose job and loose income. Also a lot of people tend to get drunk at places they feel comfortable at, so most likely the drunkard is a regular. Cut off a regular, that is chum with the managers or owners, or just overlook it and cash in tip and save from reprimands.

There is one solution that would also solve a lot of other problems I observed in the restaurant world in the US. Salaried waiters and tip pool. Would built team spirit in a restaurant, free waiters of the loss of money if they stand up for the law, have at the end better, competent and more durable service (opposed to friendly or fake friendly service in expectancy of a tip).

 

Fluerie
Fluerie

Restaurants are bourgeois. Bars and pubs are prole. That's the reason. Period.

NikJ
NikJ

A very smart club GM explained to me recently the purpose of their valet parking program: to be in total control in the case of a drunk patron. If you have the keys, he can't drive anywhere. That simple. Although I personally hate valet parking, I'd prefer it to drunk drivers.

texmex01
texmex01 topcommenter

So are you more disturbed by the fact they were over served, or that they disputed your meal?

 

gardulest
gardulest

 @Fluerie So that's why the cops are out in force on Wash Ave bar scene? And not so much around the Montrose restaurant scene? The perception is that these foodie folks are upstanding and under-drinking citizens ...but it's just perception like you point out. Many goobers getting polluted in restaurants who should be cut off, myself included on occasion.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @Fluerie You're right. I've never been to a bougie bar and I've never been to a proletariat restaurant. Ever.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @texmex01 I was equally annoyed that they were overserved (something I just generally don't expect to find in a restaurant, especially one in a nice development like Town Square) and that they bothered us all evening.

EverybodyLightenUp
EverybodyLightenUp

 @kshilcutt  "You're right. I've never been to a bougie bar and I've never been to a proletariat restaurant. Ever."

 

"Ever?"

That's a really bourgeois statement, Katherine.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

 @kshilcutt  @texmex01 Restaurants don't care about anything more than making money, and drunk people spend it like it was going out of style. But correct it's not an isolated incident, any given bar nightly will have patrons slumping over, barely able to speak or walk, and low and behold if they order another drink chances are they will be served. I like to ride my bike, but in the morning and afternoons it's people distracted and on their cell phones -- some lady nearly came up the curb on her cell  this morning while I waited for a bus downtown, and after dark it's sloppy inebriated louts who *think* they can drive.

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