An essay from Sam’s forthcoming book, You Can’t Stay Here: Tales from Behind the Bar, out Winter 2020.
If you’re ever feeling like you don’t have any friends, all you need to do is open a bar.
People you haven’t heard from in years suddenly show up. Your kindergarten classmate, your accountant, the guy from Jiffy Lube who changed your oil in 2006. It’s like owning a pick-up truck; most of the year, you’re forgotten, but when it’s time to move, you’re more popular than Mark Hamill at a Star Wars convention.
“I was his roommate at the Academy.”
At first I thought it was nice, an old Navy buddy stopping in to say hello, but once the number of patrons claiming to be my boss’ roommate grew into the 30s, I became dubious.
“He sure did have a lot of roommates,” I said to one supposed cohabiter. “Did you guys have bunk beds?”
People who ask for discounts fascinate me, because it’s not something I’d dream of doing myself. I don’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and say listen, I see your prices are posted right there, and I understand you’ve probably done some significant legwork to arrive at that product’s value, but is there any possible way for me to pay less?
This type of confrontation never fazed my grandfather, a man I watched dicker over bills at restaurants, retail stores, and service centers. I once heard him ask for a discount on his electric bill with a straight face. “Can’t you go any lower on this?” he asked. “Last month my bill was almost $40 less.”
I thought my grandfather’s breed was a rare one until I started bartending.
“You should make that price lower,” a customer said while I closed his tab. He gave one of those hacky old man belly laughs when I expressed confusion, like he was kidding but, you know, wouldn’t be opposed to some sort of deduction if that’s something I was into.
I charged him full price.
Are you really that concerned about the 35 cents I’m going to take off your beer by flashing your military ID? Or is it more for the satisfaction you’ve somehow won by paying slightly less than the sucker standing next to you?
Maybe it’s the sensation of exclusivity, the excitement of giving the secret handshake that gets you behind the velvet ropes. And I totally understand that desire. Aside from my son being born, the most joyous moment of my life was walking into In & Out Burger for the first time, touching the side of my nose, and saying “and an order of fries. Animal style.”
One time a dude I didn’t recognize ordered a beer, and when I asked for his tab, he pointed to a table of regulars. “I’m with Scott and Jeff over there.”
This guy thought saying the regulars’ names was some kind of password, but that’s not how it works. “So I should put it on Scott’s tab?” I asked.
He fumbled and slumped his shoulders. “I think Scott has a tab, yeah,” he said.
“What a nice guy, buying you beers,” I said.
I scrub the toilets and mop the floors and lug the kegs into the fridge so I can grant a menial discount to the people I find worthy. Why in god’s name would you take that joy from me by ASKING?
This winter I served a customer who set two six packs on the counter and handed me his credit card. “Go ahead and throw the friends and family discount on there for me also,” he said.
Our friends and family discount is 10 percent, which like, I get more off with coupons at Bed Bath & Beyond. So I wasn’t about to argue with this dude about whether he was or was not eligible for F&F. I gave it to him, but not before making him the object of my enjoyment.
I made a show of surveying his face. “Are you a friend, or a family?” I said.
“I’m friends with Rich,” he said. Of course he was. Rich had been a brewer since we opened, and his skeezy friends were always hanging around.
“Rich?” I repeated.
“Rich, the guy who works here,” Friend said.
“Sorry man,” I said, “there’s nobody named Rich here.”
Friend gave me the smug you must be new here face and pointed to Greg, the other bartender. “Ask him about Rich.”
“Yo, you know a dude named Rich that works here?” I said.
Greg thought for a second. “Not that I know of,” he said.
Now Friend was getting confused. “Did he quit or something? He’s worked here forever!”
I apologized again. “Look man, I’m happy to give you the discount, but you might want to hit up your boy Rich and ask him why he’s fucking with you. Because he definitely doesn’t work here.”
He stood there dumbfounded for a moment, and tried one last time to figure out if he was losing his mind.
“Yo dude,” he said to the barback. “You know the guy Rich who works here? He’s a brewer.”
“Sorry man, I only work here one or two days a week,” the barback said, whisking by him to pick up a pair of empty glasses.
Even though I’ve been a bartender for 5 years now, the exact rules of the industry discount are still a little slippery to me. The gist, though, is if you’re also a bartender or server, you get hooked up.
In return, it’s good form to leave a tip equal or greater to what your tab would have been without the discount. It’s less about saving money and more about fostering goodwill amongst bartenders.
Of course, there are dickheads out there who can’t get this right either.
Not long ago, a customer asked me to close his $24 tab, and as he started to sign the receipt, he looked up at me.
“Do you guys do an industry discount?”
Oh come on, dude. First off, the only rule of industry discounts is you don’t talk about industry discounts. Second, you’re asking for a discount AFTER you close your tab? That’s so fucking tacky.
In situations like this, I never outright say no. You want to morph into a douche dispenser to save the cost of a Red Bull? Go for it.
He pointed to his shirt, emblazoned with the name of some brewery I’d never heard of.
“You just walk around wearing the shirt of the brewery where you work?” I said.
“Sure, why not?”
“I dunno man. Isn’t that like working at Target and rocking a red vest to the mall?”
I refunded his $2.40 and handed him his new receipt. He left a $3 tip, like a real industry pro. Cool, dude.
For a while, we had this really annoying girl who’d come in weekly, and since she worked at a brewery down the street, she mostly drank for free. We never liked hooking her up because she was a pain in the ass, but we honored the industry code.
Then she got fired, and there was no greater pleasure than seeing her face when I handed over her bill the next time she came in.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Your bill?” I said.
“But I don’t pay. I’m industry.”
I explained in order to receive the industry discount, you generally had to be employed in the industry.
“I AM!” she said. “I’m a hostess at Ruby Tuesday’s!”
The punchline here should be self-evident, but it wasn’t for this girl. I compromised by giving her the friends & family discount. She saved $4.
It can be easy to get wrapped around the axle each time some undeserving buttplug shames me into giving them a discount, but if I let every weasel get to me, I’d be climbing a clock tower with a bolt-action rifle.
The trick comes in focusing on the customers who can read the room. They entertain you when business is slow; they shut up and drink their beer when you’re in the weeds. Those customers are the ones who’d never dream of asking for a discount, and that’s why they get one. It’s never much; a dollar here, a beer there, but they always show their appreciation for my lifting the velvet rope and letting them into the secret club.