Dine: Why won't restaurants shut off drunken diners?

One in an occasional series on dining and service.

At least once a week while dining around Pittsburgh, I see diners who are hammered. And almost as often, I see restaurants and bars wrestling with how to deal with them.

This is not an indictment of drinking. It's a diner's prerogative as to what and how much he drinks. It's when drunkenness is disruptive to other customers or it has the potential to be harmful that it becomes an issue.

In this scenario, many restaurants and bars treat drunk patrons as problems to ignore in the hopes that they'll go away.

I was reminded of this when a reader chronicled the unraveling of a group of drunken customers who were double-fisting, berating bartenders, having sex in the bathrooms and otherwise wreaking havoc at a restaurant in the Strip District. At no point, according to the reader, did staff step in, cut them off or politely ask them to leave, in part because they were extremely busy, making it more of a challenge to take charge of the situation.

This negligence is surprising in the wake of a $15.6 million settlement reached in May between the family of a 7-year-old girl who was killed by a drunken driver and Hofbrauhaus restaurant at SouthSide Works, where the man was allowed to leave after heavy drinking.

According to the settlement agreement filed with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Travis Isiminger consumed at least six liters of beer and several shots of liquor over 4 1/2 hours at the German-style establishment. His blood-alcohol level an hour after the December 2010 crash was 0.219, more than twice the legal limit. Isiminger is serving six to 12 years after pleading guilty to homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence.

So why don't restaurants do more to control drinking?

One reason bartenders dislike cutting off guests is because of the fallout that ensues.

"Really? You're going to buy the place and then fire me because I didn't serve [you]? Good luck with that, bud," tweeted a bartender when a customer raged after being cut off.

"I really wish bartenders would look for ways to not overserve patrons to begin with," said a frequent bargoer.

Some do. Many bars and restaurants serve water with cocktails. Others offer low-octane drinks such as an Aperol Spritz or session beers, lower alcohol brews below 5 percent alcohol. Serving food to a drunken patron also buys time.

Restaurant owners and management convey awareness of consequences and cite procedures for cutting off drunken patrons. But only some restaurants offer formal training for servers on how to deal with them, said David Christensen, a consultant recommended by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The state of Pennsylvania does not mandate training with a Responsible Alcohol Management Program unless the bar or restaurant has been cited for selling liquor to minors. Otherwise, RAMP training is voluntary.

"A drunk customer has to show several signs: slurred words, bloodshot eyes, spilled drinks, wild behavior," Mr. Christensen said. "It's not just one of those things."

The blood alcohol limit in all 50 states is 0.08. A man under 180 pounds typically will hit the 0.08 threshold after consuming four drinks over an hour, according to an online blood alcohol calculator. A 130-pound woman will reach that limit after consuming three drinks in an hour.

"The most important thing is to not let him drive," Mr. Christensen said.

In May, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended states drop the legal limit from 0.08 to 0.05, which has been challenged by liquor boards and restaurant associations because it would affect the average diner who consumes two glasses of wine.

Steel Cactus in Shadyside has a multi-pronged approach for dealing with intoxicated customers. A doorman on busy nights blocks obviously tipsy patrons from entering the bar and restaurant, said David McEachern, general manager.

"We try to avoid overserving in the first place," he said. The restaurant also has mandatory training from outside groups in how to address customers who have been overserved. Once a customer has been cut off, management often pays for cabs.

"The key is to recognize when someone's getting drunk before it escalates," said Maggie Meskey, beverage director for Salt of the Earth in Garfield and Harvard & Highland in East Liberty.

When she sees that someone is drunk, she emphasizes safety. "I'll tell them we want to take care of them and to make sure they are safe and they arrive home safe. Safety is part of hospitality. And hospitality is the most important part of this business."

Ms. Meskey says she also secures help. "Should we have to cut him off, there's less resistance when we enlist the help of friends."

There are graceful ways to handle overserved customers who make scenes or are too drunk to drive home. Develop relationships with cab drivers who the restaurant pays as needed. Prevent it by focusing on individuals rather than orders. And ensure management facilitates strategy discussions early and often, before the restaurant is mired in drunken diner dilemmas. Restaurants need to practice these strategies to better protect their guests and themselves.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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