When I was 29, I got a promotion at work and my new position required me to move halfway across the country. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I didn’t know anyone in the new city I would eventually call home.
Once I got settled in, one of my new coworkers took me out for a few drinks at a neighborhood pub. My colleague introduced me to the bartender, a friendly and likeable guy named Steve.
A few evenings later, after finishing work, I was bored and had absolutely nothing to do so I decided to return to the pub. Once again, I took a seat at the bar. Steve came over and asked me how the new job was going.
I can’t tell you how much it meant to have someone remember me in that new city.
To make a long story short, Steve and I became friends. Then, I noticed that almost every time I dropped by the pub, I’d get a free drink.
At first, I thought it was an accident – and to be clear, I still paid for my meals and most of my drinks, but not all of them would show up on my tab.
I appreciated the special treatment and always made sure to tip Steve well.
Why Do Bartenders Give Customers Free Drinks?
While I suppose there are attractive people who rarely pay for their own drinks, the rest of us are flattered and pleasantly surprised when a bartender wants to buy us a drink.
If you’re in the “flattered and pleasantly surprised” category, a bartender will occasionally give you a free drink for one of the following five reasons. (Bonus points if you can figure out which reason it is next time it happens to you!)
Reason #1: You’re Friends with the Bartender
Bars and pubs are social places.
Most bartenders like it when friends drop by for a drink and, if you’re friends with the bartender, you appreciate a free drink now and then. Add a generous tip and the whole arrangement is all but guaranteed to continue!
Some bartenders have “comp tabs” they can use at their discretion. This is a way for the bartender to reward an important or respected customer with a complimentary drink now and then. Many establishments even have a tab set up in their point-of-sale system to track comped drinks.
Reason #2: To Get You to Stay
No one wants to eat in an empty restaurant.
Think about it. Have you ever walked into an empty restaurant and found it a little too quiet? Maybe you even tried to leave before an employee noticed you. The same principle applies in a bar.
If you’re one of a handful of customers in an otherwise empty pub or bar, the bartender may buy you a drink to get you to stay longer. If you’ve been chatting with the bartender or fellow patrons, the bartender may comp you a drink hoping that the place looks busy and more customers will come in.
Reason #3: To Flirt with You
If a bartender finds you attractive, what better way to show interest than to buy you a drink?
At the very least, you’ll likely continue to chat with the bartender – even if it’s only to be polite. If you like the bar or the bartender, you’ll probably come back… and maybe bring a few friends with you.
Reason #4: To Get You to Leave a Bigger Tip
Any decent salesperson understands the principle of reciprocity. Do something nice for someone and they’ll likely do something nice for you.
It’s not a stretch to say that everyone working in the service industry is ostensibly a salesperson. If you’re a bartender, one of the nicest things you can do for a loyal customer is to comp them a drink. If you’re a customer and you want more free drinks, remember to tip well!
Reason #5: To Thank You for Tipping Well Last Time
If you leave a generous tip for your bartender, it’s very likely he or she will remember you the next time you stop by. If the gratuity that you left was particularly notable, the bartender may comp you a drink to say thank you.
Reasons #4 and #5 are both examples of reciprocity. The only difference has to do with who goes first!
Is It OK for Bartenders to Give Customers Free Drinks?
The only question we haven’t asked (and answered) is whether or not it’s OK for bartenders to give customers free drinks. Specifically, how do bar owners or managers feel about the practice?
Let me give you my opinion.
Aside from the story that I told at the beginning of the article about my friend Steve the bartender, I’ve only been given free drinks at a bar a handful of times over the years. When it happens, it’s always a pleasant surprise and I’m usually inclined to tip the bartender well when its time to pay my bill.
Hearing this, you might think that giving customers a free drink now and then is a way for bartenders to make more money in gratuities at the expense of the bar’s profits.
But think about it this way.
Let’s assume you go to two bars. Both have great ambiance, fantastic food and drinks, friendly staff… but in one of the establishments, the bartender says “Thanks for coming in. This round is on me!”
Savvy bar owners will treat the occasional free drink as a marketing expense.
All things being equal, I’m going to go back to the place that valued my business – and I’m bringing my friends!