Should the 'Buyback' Die?

Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo credit: Keiko Iwabuchi/Getty

Ever been the recipient of a buyback? It’s the practice of bartenders doling out a gratis drink to patrons who have already bought two or three drinks. Sweet deal, huh? 

Well, although a free drink may be tempting, buybacks are a controversial sticking point within the industry—and may have negative consequences for the drinker, too. Earlier this month at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual booze industry event in New Orleans, a panel of influential bartenders and consultants agreed that buybacks were a dangerous business practice.

"People will come and pay for their drinks anyway if you consistently make the cocktails well,” said Brian van Flandern, founder of Creative Cocktail Consultants, according to The Spirits Business. “We don’t want to cultivate these clients anyhow because they want to get drunk for cheap.” Rewarding a heavy drinker with more drinks may encourage over-consumption, members of the panel also noted.

Abigail Gullo, a bartender of the celebrated SoBou in New Orleans, Louisiana, agrees that buybacks aren’t a good idea. Gullo told us via Twitter that doling out free drinks are “something that could get me fired,” and that she’d “much rather pour a taste to educate or bite of food to encourage responsibility.”

For Danny Shapiro, head bartender and partner of Scofflaw in Chicago, Illinois, however, the issue isn’t black and white. “It can both benefit your business (engendering camaraderie [between patrons and bartenders]) and harm it,” he tweeted, adding that “sometimes we do an ‘amuse’ [drink for Scofflaw] guests at the bar, which can be anything from a mini gimlet to a zombie.”

But David Shenaut, bar director at Raven and Rose in Portland, Oregon, is a proponent of comped drinks. “We allow up to 10 percent of a given shift’s sales to be comped without questioning it,” he tweeted. Raven and Rose bartenders “are trained to know that its purpose is to build business.”

The debate will likely continue to rage on; as long as some bartenders sling free drinks, customers will continue to slurp them down.