How Bartenders Steal [& How To Catch Them]

how bartenders steal
Joe | Last Updated: November 20, 2023
I'm Joe, a veteran bartender with over a decade in the industry and a burning passion for mixing drinks.

As the demand for bartenders increases with a projected 3% employment growth from 2022 to 2032, it’s important to shine a light on the lesser-known aspects of the trade.

Behind the lively atmosphere of your favorite bar lurk subtle tactics, some bartenders use to steal.

In this article, we reveal these cunning tactics and equip you with the essential knowledge to protect against bartender theft, whether you’re working behind the bar or managing it.

Let’s get into it…

Common Methods In Which Bartenders Steal

1. Bootlegging Liquor

Bootlegging involves bartenders bringing in their own bottles of liquor, diverting payments for personal gain.

They may slyly pocket the cash from the sale by slipping it into the tip jar or manipulate the register, attributing an overage to their initial cash balance.

This cunning tactic effectively masks employee theft, making it harder for them to be caught stealing.

2. Faking a Walk-out

Exploiting the occasional scenario where customers leave without paying, dishonest bartenders in most bars seize the opportunity to pocket the cash after accepting payment.

By attributing the missing funds to a walk-out, they create a cover story that can easily go unnoticed, creating a theft problem.

3. Free Drinks and Over-Pouring

In an attempt to please friends and family members, bartenders may be serving wine and other top-shelf liquor, free of cost disregarding the financial repercussions for the establishment.

The practice of over-pouring exacerbates the problem, as inventory levels fall along with profit margins.

This seemingly innocuous act can accumulate into substantial losses over the course of just a few weeks.

As a bar manager, this is the method of stealing I see most, and although it may seem harmless it can cripple bars that are already struggling to make a profit.

Bartenders may even be peer pressured into giving free drinks, with their friends expecting them to dish out a free tray of shots.

4. Juggling

The bartender stealing act involves bartenders handling payments from multiple customers simultaneously.

They cleverly record only a portion of the transactions, covertly placing the full cash amount into the register.

At the end of their shift, the bartender retrieves the extra cash, leaving the drawer seemingly balanced while in reality, the inventory numbers drop.

5. Manipulating Credit Card Receipts

Bartenders may resort to altering credit card receipts to inflate tips and augment their income.

After taking payment, they tamper with the receipt behind the bar, either by adding a tip or adjusting the existing one to a higher amount, affecting the overall sales reports.

This deceitful tactic not only defrauds customers but also jeopardizes the reputation of the establishment.

6. Shortchanging and Pocketing Overages

Another theft risk arises when deceptive bartenders engage in short-changing customers during transactions, intentionally providing less change than owed.

The result is a surplus in the cash drawer at the end of the day, with the bartender discreetly pocketing the excess cash.

This is another very common method that is often seen in nightclubs where patrons may be too intoxicated to realize they’ve been short-changed.

This method, though seemingly small-scale, can significantly impact daily revenue.

7. Short Pouring

Short pouring occurs when bartenders deliberately pour less alcohol into mixed drinks than the recipe dictates.

The surplus liquor is then sold separately to other customers, and the cash payments are discreetly pocketed.

This deceptive practice not only compromises the quality of drinks but also contributes to revenue loss for the establishment.

It’s a harder one to notice as bar managers don’t monitor how much alcohol each bartender is pouring.

How To Catch Stealing Bartenders

1. Implementing a Pour Policy

A critical step in catching and preventing bartender theft is implementing a pour policy.

Over-pouring, intentional or not, can significantly impact profits, and if the bar is already struggling then it can tip the business over the edge.

By standardizing the amount of liquor poured per drink and using tools like jiggers or computerized pour spouts, bar owners can reduce internal and external theft.

bartender carrying two cocktails
Photo by Taylor Friehl

Training staff to measure the right amount for each drink ensures consistency and minimizes the risk of theft from the bar inventory through over-pouring.

This should be a part of the bartender’s training program, but as they become more experienced some decide to ditch the jigger and freepour instead.

Whilst free pouring is great when the bar is busy and you need to clear the backlog, it’s terrible for tracking liquor and can lead to a loss in revenue if not stopped quickly.

2. POS and Cash Register Procedures

Establishing procedures and policies for POS and cash registers is essential.

Closing the cash drawer between transactions, maintaining a clutter-free area, and making POS passwords known only to bar managers are key measures to prevent theft.

These practices create a controlled environment, making it harder for bartenders to manipulate transactions or hide stolen cash.

Regularly reviewing POS records allows owners to spot discrepancies and identify potential theft, resulting in effective bar theft prevention.

3. Locking Up Inventory

Securing the liquor storage room and wine cellars by keeping them locked and restricting access to bar managers is a crucial preventive measure.

This minimizes the opportunity for bartenders to steal full bottles of liquor, ensuring bar inventory safety.

I’ve seen some very sneaky bartenders over the years creep down to the cellar when it’s incredibly busy and hide full bottles in their pants until the end of the shift.

So make sure you lock up and don’t take any chances. By controlling access to valuable assets, bar owners can effectively curb theft and prevent inventory shrinkage.

4. Spot Checking Tabs

Regularly spot-checking tabs using the POS system provides insight into the business’s sales data and serves as a method to detect potential theft.

By cross-referencing customer orders with POS records, owners can identify unrecorded drinks, uncovering any attempts by bartenders to fudge transactions or pocket cash.

This proactive approach helps maintain transparency and prevents internal theft from going unnoticed.

5. Reconciling Cash Drawers

Cash drawers are a prime target for bartender theft, making it important to implement a practice of reconciling them at the end of each shift.

Closing each drawer at the end of the shift eliminates the opportunity for bartenders to directly steal money post-shift.

This measure places the responsibility for cash reconciliation in the hands of managers, reducing the chances of internal theft and ensuring a more secure financial process.

6. Policy for Tip Jars

Establishing a clear policy for tip jars is another effective way to prevent bartender theft.

Keeping tip jars away from the POS or cash register minimizes the risk of a dishonest bartender removing money from the drawer and placing it in the jar.

Not only that, implementing a policy that prohibits bartenders from making changes using tip jar money further safeguards against potential theft.

This creates a structured environment, making it more challenging for the bar staff to engage in theft.

Final Thoughts

Safeguarding your bar from theft involves a combination of smart policies and vigilant practices.

From controlling pours and securing inventory to monitoring transactions and fostering a culture of honesty, each step plays a crucial role.

Regular checks, clear communication about consequences, and leveraging technology contribute to a comprehensive loss prevention plan.

By staying proactive, continuously improving strategies, and hiring trustworthy staff, you not only protect your profits but also cultivate an environment of trust and integrity, ensuring the long-term success of your business.

The truth is, there are a lot of bad apples in the bartending industry, but as a bar manager it’s up to you to ensure they don’t get away with theft and you remove them from the business swiftly to prevent it impacting the business.

Hopefully, these steps have provided you with the insights you need to curb bartender theft in your bar.

See you in the next one.