I was a thief.
I was a bartender.
In proper order I suppose it should be, I was a bartender. I stole. I was a thief.
It’s easier to say that now that the statute of limitations has expired on my crimes. Yes, I was a thief. In the restaurant business, almost everyone is a thief. An owner may have a cash register only for cash sales, a manager may comp a meal unnecessarily, a waiter may give away a soda, a guy in the kitchen may make himself a steak, a busboy may steal a piece of bread and bartenders, well, bartenders are in a league all by themselves.
First things first, let me say emphatically that not everyone that works in or owns a restaurant is a thief. Most are hard working and sincerely honest people.
How did I end up a thief? It’s hard to say really. Before I became a bartender I was a waiter and obviously, as a waiter, you deal with cash day in and day out. You work, you get paid. It is the best type of day laborer job available.
But bartending…everyone always understood that was where the real cash was.
After growing restless waiting tables, I took a 16 month foray into opening and managing another restaurant our owner had opened. But working 70-80 hours a week, managing servers, seeing dishwashers make more money than me and watching the general manager have an affair with a waitress while his pregnant wife would incessantly call the restaurant looking for him finally took its toll on me.
I was burned out and I crashed.
I took three weeks off to re-align my chi before I went to work at our other restaurant as a part time manager and to bartend a couple of days a week.
Bartending is a brotherhood, of sorts. As green as I was to the trade, I knew that learning how to make the drinks and being personable were the easy parts. It was being accepted into that brotherhood that was going to take time. Even though I had known most of the guys I bartended with for a couple years, they had only known me as either a waiter or manager. Bartending required taking their confidence in me up a few notches.
Trust was critical among the six bartenders I worked with. Primarily because we pooled our tips and if you couldn’t rely on the people you were working with handling the cash that was going to end up going in your pocket, well, that was a problem. But also, it takes time for your other bartenders to know you are not going to fuck up the relationships they have with customers.
You have to learn the ins and outs of which customers to take care of and why. It takes time to learn why one bartender may take care of a guy who seems like a dick and tips for shit. There are regulars that you know you have to start shorting the vodka count on their vodka and soda’s because you know they have no self-control but know they will tip you well, and on and on. There are so many subtle nuances to bartending that go beyond just learning drinks and personalities.
Eventually, I was accepted into our little fraternal order of bartenders. The jump in income from waiter to bartender was noticeable and took a little getting used to. In my logical head, the math didn’t make sense and I didn’t entirely understand how it was possible. I soon found out how it was possible and why we stood so united.
I worked with six guys back then and of the six, only two didn’t steal. Obviously, they were complicit because we pooled our tips, but I know they never actively participated in our thieving. One of them knew about it but was very vocal in not wanting to know the details and the other guy I suspect knew, but just never said anything.
And why did we steal? I could make an intellectual, and modestly legitimate, argument that when placed in an environment where you know theft is taking place, it eliminates your fear of getting caught. Most of us knew that the owner skimmed.
He would never admit it outright but would often make veiled comments about things he needed to do in order to remain “competitive” and by my calculation that included skimming about 300K a year.
Theft begets theft. It’s that simple. My logic was how could I get in trouble for doing what I knew my boss was doing?
As I look back now, I have mixed feelings about my active participation in stealing from the restaurant. One the one hand, I liked making the extra money, we all did. On the other hand, I knew it was wrong, we all did. The worst part was that none of us felt the need to stop it or felt any real sense of guilt, with the complete irony being that we weren’t amoral people. We were just kids in our 20’s trying make a living and have a good time doing it.
It may help to put some perspective on this; lest you think we were pulling some sort of Wall Street or Goldman Sachs like thieving. On a busy night, maybe we’d steal 150-200 dollars, which would end up being an additional 50-70 bucks per person. On the shifts we worked alone, that was our own business. I can tell you that I worked mostly lunches, so I became very adept at finding ways to make some extra money to take home.
Hindsight provides me with the knowledge that maybe it was the thrill of it or the idea of seeing what we could get away with. Honestly, it was just kind of pathetic. But for whatever reason, we thought the extra few bucks really made a difference.
So the big question, how did we steal? Oh, let me count the ways:
1. A computer crash on a busy shift would have the manager on duty frantically yell “Make sure you keep track of all the drinks!” as they went to restart the computer. Booze has the highest profit margin in the restaurant business and back then about 85% of our sales were cash, so…yea, we pretty much just kept track in our head and would enter about 10% of that back into the computer.
2. Happy hour. We used to have a corporate happy hour where certain local companies could come in on certain days and get discounted drinks. Unbeknownst to most of the managers and the owner, that idea was pretty much disregarded and every day we just had happy hour.
3. If you came in for happy hour and I didn’t know you, I would charge you full price and then ring in a happy hour price, pocketing the difference.
4. Abusing our buy back policy. If I knew you and knew you were going to tip me well, I would put most of your drinks on the buy back check (we did keep track). When you asked for your check there might only be one drink on it. Which technically isn’t stealing because the drinks, most of them, are accounted but it is an abuse that benefitted only us.
5. The classic no sale ring. You ring it up on the screen, delete it and make the change. Gives the illusion to everyone that a sale had been processed.
6. Don’t even get me started on those damn box pools for football and March Madness shit. Seriously, don’t, because I don’t fully understand how I profited from that, but I know I did.
7. VIP treatment. Once in a great while someone would come in and we’d be instructed to “take care of them”. To us, that order meant almost everyone at the bar would be taken care of. Where typically we would have one buyback check we would now have two. Again, technically not stealing because the drinks are being accounted for, but…
8. The WIT factor. WIT stood for “whatever it takes”. It worked like this: at the beginning of a busy shift, one of the three bartenders would say “I need to make X amount tonight” and then we would all nod in agreement. WIT was simply the incorporation of any and all of the previous ideas or whatever else you came up with. Periodically throughout the night one of us may ask, “WIT time is it?” to get an idea of how we were progressing. Not surprisingly, we always made what we needed to.
They say there is no honor among thieves and I’m not so sure about that. Trust was then, and probably still is, absolutely critical among bartenders. The people you work with are partly responsible for how much money you make. Even though it has been many years since I have tended bar, I doubt that has changed.
At least among bartenders, God only knows what goes on among those idiotic mixologists.
As I look back on my career in the restaurant industry, I have a lot of pride in things I accomplished and a lot of love for the people I met and became friends with. They account for many of the best times of my life so far. But, even now I wrestle with my own participation in stealing. I can rationalize it a ton of different ways but it’s really nothing more than some sort of gross rationalization for my own behavior.
Maturity and age brings wisdom and I would have to say that we, I, stole out of pure greed, immaturity and a stupid sense of self-entitlement.
I was a bartender.
I was a thief.
Name withheld by request.