For many restaurants, alcohol sales play an important role in boosting their bottom lines. But serving alcohol also comes with great responsibility. In most states, a restaurant and its employees can face criminal charges for serving alcohol to a minor or an intoxicated customer. They can also be held liable if an intoxicated customer’s actions lead to a death, injury or property damage.

April marks National Alcohol Awareness Month, making it an opportune time to check that you’ve established the proper procedures for responsible alcohol service. Here’s how some operators are shouldering the responsibility.

Training and tracking

Make sure employees are versed in the fundamentals of responsible service by requiring training in a program such as the Association’s ServSafe Alcohol. Check on the training requirements of your state and local jurisdiction.

Granite City Food & Brewery requires certification in ServSafe Alcohol as a condition of employment, instructing new hires to complete ServSafe Alcohol’s online training option prior to starting the job. “That way we ensure 100 percent compliance,” says Michelle Mason, senior director of operations development and training.

If an employee’s certification expires, Granite City’s scheduling software won’t allow the worker to be assigned a shift. Expiration dates are stored in HotSchedules, which automatically sends email notification to the employee and management three weeks ahead, followed by several reminder messages that note that the employee won’t be scheduled until recertified.

The Minneapolis-based company, which operates 30 Granite City restaurants and five Cadillac Ranch units, received the 2014 VIBE Vista Operator Award for Best Responsible Alcohol Service Program at the VIBE (Very Important Beverage Executives) Conference in March. The award is sponsored by the ServSafe Alcohol program. 

Identifying minors

Granite City uses a POS reminder to prompt employees to check IDs. The reminder specifies the birthdate that guests must be born on or after to be served alcohol. At each pre-shift meeting, managers remind employees of that critical date, and employees must record it on a “server ready card” with other shift information.

“Empower employees to check IDs closely,” advises Kevin Settles, president and CEO of Bardenay Restaurant & Distillery, which operates three units in Idaho. “It can be intimidating for team members; sometimes they are only 21 themselves.” He recalls police compliance checks at neighboring restaurants, where employees asked for IDs but failed to notice that the guests were underage. “You don’t get bonus points just for asking for an ID,” he quips.

Failing a police compliance test, or “sting,” can result in fines and a suspension of your liquor license — which means a loss of income. It also can cause a damaging blow to your reputation.   

CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, whose restaurant concepts include Gordon Biersch, Old Chicago and Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, instructs employees to card any customer who looks 35 or younger. The company uses the Bars Program to check compliance. Bars sends “customers,” aged 21-25, into client restaurant locations to check carding procedures. “The program helps us monitor whether our carding policies are being followed,” says Matt Thomas, vice president of training for the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CraftWorks, which has nearly 180 corporate-owned or franchised locations across the United States.

Knowing when to say “when”

Buffalo Wild Wings requires all front-of-the-house employees to receive ServSafe Alcohol training. “Even greeters and cashiers, who are not serving alcohol, need to be aware,” says Sally Lannier, director of operations training for the Minneapolis-based chain, which has more than 1,000 restaurants across North America. In fact, greeters serve as a first line of defense in identifying customers who could be under the influence upon entering the restaurant. Buffalo Wild Wings won the 2013 VIBE Vista Operator Award for Best Responsible Alcohol Service Program.

When a customer orders a third drink, team members alert managers so they can help monitor the situation. If a guest needs to be cut off, managers take on the delicate task, Lannier says. “They’re trained in guest communications and know how to hold their ground.” If a situation begins to accelerate, management doesn’t hesitate to call 911.

Responsible salesmanship

At Granite City, alcohol sales have increased by nearly $500,000 in comparable restaurants and $3 million across the brand in the past year, even as the company remained vigilant about responsible service. Mason attributes the sales bump to an increase in special promotions and a heightened emphasis on educating team members about the wines, spirits, beers and cocktails on the menu. Over the winter, it ran an Operation Warm promotion, featuring drinks like Poinsettia Cocktail and Buttered Toffee Martini. A percentage of sales went to Operation Warm, which provides winter coats to children in need.

Every training session on the alcoholic beverage menu incorporates a responsible service component to reinforce its importance. “We tell employees: We want you to make a lot of money; we want the restaurant to be successful,” says Mason. “But we want to do it responsibly.”