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Fighting Underage Drinking in Your Stores

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A restaurant’s ability to curb underage drinking begins with education, vigilance, and consistency.
By Daniel P. Smith October 2011 Beer

Greg Carey knows his guest base.

The president and chief operating officer at Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group, the Chicago-based company that oversees 18 Flat Top Grill locations, Carey and his cohorts have embraced Generation Y’s connection with customized meals and strategically positioned many of Flat Top’s restaurants in areas with youthful client bases.

In the Big 10 college towns of Champaign, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, youths flock to Flat Top to create their own stir-fry dishes in an atmosphere high on energy and action. The young audience, however, can clash with one of Flat Top’s key profit areas: alcohol sales.

“We attract a young clientele, but we have established standards as part of our culture, and we don’t serve minors,” Carey says.

For restaurants across the country, underage drinking remains an issue threatening an operation’s viability and reputation, precisely why restaurant leaders such as Carey take the issue seriously and follow best practices.

The importance of being honest

Though alcohol sales remain a key revenue stream for restaurants, operators cannot allow the push for profits to overrun responsible business. While not an official federal statute, the 21-year-old drinking age is common among all 50 states, and penalties for noncompliance can run high.

In Oregon, for instance, a first offense of bringing alcohol to a minor can bring a $1,500 fine, while an escalating penalty schedule further drops the hammer. If an operation garners a second offense within the next two years, the fine can reach $5,000; a third offense could bring a 30-day liquor license suspension; and a fourth offense could jeopardize the establishment’s license.

“Even so, I’m not sure the vast majority of operators recognize just how great their liability is,” says Clay Hosh, the National Restaurant Association’s (nra) ServSafe Alcohol master trainer.

Beyond penalties, a strict, responsible alcohol service policy is merely the right thing to do, as negligent service can endanger others’ health, safety, and futures. By abiding by the law and insisting on compliance, restaurants show themselves as responsible corporate citizens intent on running a professional operation.

“Not only do you adhere to the law to avoid penalties, but also because there is no beneficial business practice to serving minors,” says Bob Rice, a veteran restaurateur and commissioner with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

Training and education

Training and education sit at the top of any reputable operation’s effort to curb underage drinking.

“People want to do the right thing, but they need to know what that is,” Hosh says.

When educating staff, operators should clearly define expectations—when, where, and how individuals should be carded. Through scripting, role playing, and instructor feedback, employees can gain the confidence to do what is right.

Restaurant leadership should also pursue continuing education, as training cannot be a one-time deal. Managers should routinely remind staff of, enforcement activities, trends, and the need to check identification.

During pre-shift jumpstart meetings at Hooters, for instance, managers will communicate points of emphasis, such as getting managers involved in unclear situations or sharing details from local law enforcement on fake ID developments. For example, there’s been a recent increase in the number of fake IDs young people are purchasing from China.

“You can’t just lay down the law. You need to provide consistent guidance as well,” says Duke Tufty, a Portland, Oregon, attorney who specializes in alcohol regulatory work.

Many states’ license-issuing departments provide alcohol service training for restaurant staff; in some states, in fact, the training is mandatory. At Flat Top, for instance, servers and bartenders must earn certification in alcohol awareness from their local Alcohol Beverage Control (abc) department. By taking part in such programs, restaurants not only arm staff with important information and skills, but also mark themselves as operations serious about following the law. Subsequently, any violations can be reduced.

In addition to in-house training and state programs, many restaurant operations insist on third-party certification. All Hooters Girls, Hooters COO Sal Melilli says, are certified by TIPS (Training for Intervention Procedures), a skills-based program for responsible alcohol service.

Finally, there is ServSafe, the NRA-directed program developed by industry veterans. In addition to an online program, ServSafe hosts regular alcohol compliance classes through state restaurant associations. ServSafe also provides state-specific supplements to help operators learn local regulations.

“Look at what’s out there to help you do your job better,” Tufty advises. “These set programs provide structure and allow your operation to stay on the ball.”

Connect to the individual

Operators must make it clear to staff that compliance is the establishment’s paramount requirement and one that holds consequences for the individual server as well as the licensee.

In the event of an underage drinking offense, the server incurs personal responsibility, subject to the punishment of the employer as well as the regulatory authority. In addition to losing their jobs, staff members can be fined and have a mark on their criminal records, which can influence one’s ability to gain graduate-school admission, pursue professional opportunities, or even obtain a home loan.

“When they see how personally inhibiting this can be, that wakes them up and motivates them to execute,” says Robert Poitras, the owner-operator of two Carolina Brewery operations in North Carolina.

Many operators also remind servers and bartenders that the onus always rests on their shoulders. If a doorman misses a fake ID, for instance, a server retains liability should a minor receive alcohol. As a result, servers should avoid assumptions, resist any fear of recarding, and call upon management in uncertain situations.

“You don’t want to count on someone else,” Hosh says. “If there’s a question in your mind, the best practice is always to ask.”

Always, always check IDs

Servers often express discomfort at requesting ID because it implies the customer may be lying. Remind servers that the law is non-negotiable and that checking identification is the single most important way to avoid noncompliance pitfalls.

Resist guesswork and establish a rigorous carding policy that is enforced consistently and uniformly. Most establishments maintain the industry-accepted “30 Rule”: If someone looks under 30, check ID. Another rule should also prevail: when in doubt, request ID. Make sure to match the person to the ID photo.

Kyle Agha, owner of two bars in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says a good trick for those confronted with a potential fake ID is to ask the ZIP code. While most card carriers will know the birthday, he says. the five-digit zip code confounds many.

“Just by regularly checking IDs, you’re discouraging minors and reducing your chances of a violation,” Tufty says. “Don’t rely on your gut. Check the ID.”

Thereafter, arm staff with information. Make sure employees know what type of ID is acceptable—generally, a driver’s license, state ID, and passport are the only valid options. Invite law enforcement to share information on trends and fake ID components, and, finally, provide an ID checking guide for those out-of-state IDs that can trip up staff.

Being known as an establishment that “cards hard” can be an advantage. It not only expresses a restaurant’s law-abiding intent to the industry and authorities, but also keeps many members of the fringe, fake ID-carrying crowd at a distance.

Create a culture of compliance

When servers get busy, checking IDs is often one of the first casualties. A culture of compliance flowing from the management to the front lines, however, promotes the consistent adoption of best practices and house rules.

Managers should praise those who do a good job and intervene with those who may have taken a misstep. Poitras says any staff member ignoring Carolina Brewery’s clearly defined policies regarding underage drinking is subject to immediate termination. But using the carrot as well as the stick, Poitras also offers an immediate $20 reward to any staff member who confiscates a fake ID.

“Servers are motivated by money, and that reward’s a motivation to do the right thing,” Poitras says.

As important a role as education and training play, operators must monitor and follow up with staff, particularly since serving minors can open a Pandora’s box. Posting and enforcing specific policies, such as a one-drink-per-ID rule to restrict an above-age patron from passing drinks onto an underage diner, can further insulate an establishment from problems.

“Minors talk, and if your restaurant gains a reputation for serving minors, then you exacerbate the problem,” says Tufty, a former bar manager himself.

With training, defined standards, and management support, Flat Top’s Carey says, a culture of compliance runs throughout his operations.

“We’ve never been called out because we make sure our mindset is on responsibility,” Carey says. “Our policies have become almost rote, established standards that are a part of our culture.”

By adopting a strict attitude of compliance, operators resist falling into gray areas that put the restaurant in peril. On underage drinking, operations need to be black and white, all day, every day.

“Problems arise when you’re not consistent in your approach,” Carey says.

Consistently control the controllables

Though some operations worry about alienating a certain customer base by “carding hard,” Flat Top’s Carey says such concerns cannot enter one’s mindset.

“If somebody’s embarrassed or takes offense, we can’t worry about the fallout,” Carey says. “We have a duty and responsibility to follow the law.”

In an establishment such as Hooters, where the environment is fun and light-hearted, Melilli says, servers are trained to have positive interaction with customers that resists confrontation. The establishment uses its casual atmosphere to its benefit by viewing an ID request as an ice-breaker moment to create interaction with guests.

For restaurants as well as customers, alcohol service is a privilege, not a right. Restaurants can deny alcohol to anyone if they are uncomfortable with a given situation.

Utilize tools and resources

Spotting fake IDs has become increasingly challenging with technological advances. While disreputable people have always been present, novelty items, home equipment, and the Web have made it easier than ever to obtain a valid-looking counterfeit ID.

“Even though the penalties for fake ID manufacturers are stiff, it’s still a lucrative field,” Hosh says, noting that states’ firm fines for fake identification have helped curb the practice. “Every time you come up with a system to do the right thing, there’s someone out there working to counter that.”

To that point, it’s critical operators utilize available tools and resources, including law-enforcement and state agencies, which have become more accessible, collaborative partners to derail underage drinking.

Poitras invites the local enforcement agency into Carolina Brewery each year to provide news and training to staff. The session, mandatory for anyone serving alcohol, offers information on fake IDs, signs of intoxication, and carding best practices, such as checking all IDs on a pitcher of beer. The training also prompts dialogue, defuses rumors, and shows Poitras and his staff as partners in minimizing underage drinking.

ID guides are another crucial resource. Often available from beer or liquor distributors as well as state liquor licensing agencies, these annual guides help reduce deception by highlighting the distinctive characteristics—holograms, text, and imagery—of all 50 state IDs.

Operators can also utilize a range of on-the-market technology. Scanners can blow up IDs on a screen, thereby affording staff a better look at imagery and text. ID scanners and bar code readers, meanwhile, use the latest technology to validate an ID’s authenticity. Amid the high-tech rush, however, don’t forget a basic tool: the flashlight, which allows staff to view IDs in dim locations.

To further minimize underage drinking, get clever.

At The Last Resort in Winston-Salem, only Agha or his partner works the door. A bar that allows 18-year-olds in, of-age drinkers must show a valid ID to receive the wristband that allows them to order and consume alcoholic beverages. The wristbands are an ever-changing collection of colors, text, and even language to prevent reproduction.

“We don’t have any wristbands that are readily accessible because that just invites problems,” says Agha, who purchases errors and overruns online.

With his bar sitting in the shadow of 7,000-student Wake Forest University, Agha has also crafted an open relationship with university officials and college police. The collaboration helps create a culture of compliance and punishment students wish to avoid.

 “The students are more scared of the university than the police department, which is why it’s important to look at the university as a partner,” Agha says.