On the House is our weekly column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Your resident proprietor is William Tigertt of Freemans.
Buybacks are a formal name for the informal practice of buying customers free drinks. Some restaurants, mostly smaller privately owned ones, actively practice buybacks as a casual loyalty program. The bartenders are given a set budget and allowed a certain amount of drinks they can give away to regulars on a special tab. There are also a lot of bartenders who practice their own buyback programs where they give away free booze to solicit extra tips and hook up friends. This is also known as “stealing.” The truth is most good establishments operate somewhere in between these two extremes. They hire good people, trust their judgment, and then provide enough oversight to make sure things don’t go sideways. So there it is: There's free booze to be had. Now how to you get it?
The rules are gray, but a few generalizations can be made. Industry people get these rules intuitively, and therefore more often they get lots of free drinks at their peers’ restaurants. Now you can join the insider ranks:
Go out alone or with only one other person. No place in town is going to underwrite the whole martini party. Keep it intimate, and go on a slower night like Monday or Sunday. Weekends are “money nights,” and you don’t want to be taking up valuable space with your steak au poive while the bartender could be throwing vodka & tonics at the dozen guys behind you trying to get a space at the bar. So pick your fights and nights carefully.
Come often, spend money, learn everyone’s name, and most importantly tip well. The first thing to do is pick the right place. Corporate restaurant chains or large restaurant groups are out of the question. Big business in the hospitality industry is based on consistency, cost, and economies of scale. None of which is going to help you get the hook up. Head for the smaller places. Mom & Pop places where the manager is the bartender are your best bet. Wine bars are also excellent, as they have the advantage of giving the bartender the ability to top off your glass, and pour heavier portions.
So once you’re at your soon-to-be-favorite place, the first thing to do is ingratiate yourself with the bartender. Introduce yourself and make polite small talk. If it’s a restaurant, eat at the bar. The bartender will mostly likely get the full tip from your meal and make them more invested in your dining experience. Flirting is an option. Sex does sell, of course, but I don’t recommend it unless you really know what you’re doing (and if you have to ask, you don’t know).
Be pleasant and easy going during the meal. Practice saying things like: “when you get a chance” or “take your time” after asking for things. Remember you want good service, but the real goal here is to get things without paying for them. Bring the honey, stow the vinegar. Don’t make bad jokes, don’t linger, and don’t get too drunk. That should all go without saying.
The most important part of this whole exercise is at the end. When it comes to the tip, leave at least twenty percent of the bill or two bucks a drink whichever is higher, in cash preferably. Also here’s the kicker that most day walkers don’t get: tip fifty percent of the price of any booze/food they give you for free. If you get a free glass of ten dollar wine, leave a fiver instead of two dollar tip. It’s a pay to play scenario, and everyone makes out better in the end. A great tip is an investment in getting more love out of your next visit. They will remember you. Trust me.
When writing the Bad Bar Survival story, I couldn’t pay for a drink at any of the places I visited, but I did leave stacks of cash on each bar as I left. Although it might take a bit of an initial investment if follow these general rules, and you will quickly become a regular with all the perks of an insider, and once those doors are open you might be surprised at where they can lead.