Restaurant’s Guide to Serving Alcohol

Restaurant’s Guide to Serving Alcohol

This guide will cover information for:

  • Deciding if serving alcohol is right for you
  • Where to find information about state liquor licensing
  • Restaurant liquor service laws
  • Alcohol service certifications
  • Responsible alcohol service
  • Identifying and dealing with drunks

While serving alcohol can be a profitable move for your restaurant it’s important to weigh all the factors.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Choosing to Sell Alcohol in your Restaurant

To serve or not to serve, that’s the first question. If you’re considering serving alcohol in your restaurant, let’s cover why you may not want to.

Why not to serve alcohol in your restaurant:

  • Family restaurants — Some parents may not want to bring their children somewhere alcohol is being served.
  • Alcohol affects personality — There is an increased possibility of having to deal with unruly customers. They can also upset your non-drinking patrons.
  • Additional costs — The costs can add up. Licenses, fees, insurance, bar equipment and maintenance, and specialized staff training are just examples.

Despite these concerns, there are also a number of good reasons that you’d want to serve alcohol.

Why to serve alcohol in your restaurant:

  • Because liquor licenses are limited — It can put you at a competitive advantage.
  • Food pairings — Alcoholic drinks are a natural accompaniment to many types of food.
  • Margins — Profits on alcohol are much higher than food.
  • Waiting for a table — Many guests would rather get a drink at the bar while waiting for a table.

For some restaurant concepts it’s not an option if you serve alcohol. Your choice of target customer may require you to provide drinks with your food.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

State Liquor License

If you decide to sell alcohol, you’ll need to obtain a state liquor license.

Following State Laws

Every state has its own set of rules. Also, be aware that there are local ordinances that restrict restaurant sales of alcohol as well.

Your liquor license doesn’t give you free reign. It will specify the hours which you can sell drinks and what types of alcohol you can serve. There may be other restrictions included as well.

Make sure you carefully plan with your local Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) office before you build a bar, install equipment and buy supplies to serve alcohol.

Be aware that getting a liquor license can be a long and expensive process.

Qualifications for receiving a liquor license

  • State Quota — Some states have a quota. That’s a cap on the number of liquor licenses available. And if it’s already been reached, you’ll be on a long waiting list.
  • Contesting — Your license can be contested by locals. If they are not happy with the idea of alcohol being served in their community, you’ll have to go through further steps. You can appeal. But you may not win.
  • Zoning and local ordinances — You may not be allowed to sell alcohol at all if there are local restrictions. For example, laws restricting the sale of alcohol in proximity to schools and churches. Work with the city to get clear information.

    If you believe you need to serve alcohol in your restaurant, know the zoning laws before signing a lease.

Additional Liquor License Considerations:

  • You must have a valid Seller’s Permit from your state before applying for a liquor license.
  • Only individuals over 21 are legally allowed to sell alcohol.
  • Managers and other restaurant staff may be required to take classes or receive certification for responsible alcohol service.
  • If you have a criminal record, it will be more difficult and perhaps impossible to obtain a liquor license.

Liquor License Classifications

There are different classes of liquor licenses.

Some licenses only allow you to sell “soft” alcohol like beer and wine. Because this type of liquor license is cheaper and easier to obtain many restaurants are satisfied despite the limitation.

Licenses that include the sale of “hard” liquor and cocktails are more expensive, harder to obtain and carry additional restrictions.

The process of applying for a liquor license is quite involved. It’s a back and forth conversation with the alcohol control board, and the city. Expect multiple rounds of form-filing, with accompanying fees.

It’s best to contact your state ABC early on to get put on the right track from the beginning. You can find more information here. List of state alcohol beverage control boards.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Restaurant Liquor Service Laws

There are even laws regarding who is allowed to serve and bus alcohol in the restaurant. These rules vary from state to state.

For example, a minor may be able to place an order for alcohol but not pour or deliver it to a guest. This is another legal area that the local Alcohol Control Board will help you navigate.

Without exceptions you can only serve alcohol to patrons over 21 years old. Some states allow children to drink alcohol with a parent’s permission on private property.

But the laws vary widely and you need to check with the ABC as it could be in violation of your liquor license. A restaurant certainly cannot serve a child alcohol, regardless of the exceptions.

In addition to state laws, local ordinances and restrictions on alcoholic beverages will also apply to your restaurant. The only way to be sure you’re in 100% compliance is to work with your local ABC office.

If alcohol service is an integral part of your restaurant concept, know the restrictions before you lock in on a location. Here is a list maintained by the Department of the Treasury, with links to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board for each US state, Canada, and Puerto Rico:

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Mandatory Alcohol Service Certification

Depending on state laws, your restaurant staff may be required to complete a training program such as the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Alcohol program.

This is a complete training program that helps your staff identify intoxicated patrons, check for valid IDs and follow the laws regarding the service of alcohol in restaurants.

There are other similar programs that may or may not be approved by your state for certification purposes. Some states provide free resources for training staff on safe alcohol serving. Contact your local Alcohol Beverage Control office for Responsible Alcohol Service training programs that they recommend.

Even if you are not required by state or local laws to provide training to staff for alcohol service you should consider doing so anyway.

How to Avoid Over-Serving

The key to responsible alcohol service is identifying intoxicated guests and not over-serving. Hosts are the first line of defense, as they can help determine if guests have arrived pre-intoxicated.

Care should be taken, however, as certain disabilities can present similar signs as intoxication. Body language such as slurred speech and stumbling may indicate a neurological or muscular disorder. To avoid offending guests careful judgement must be used.

Keeping Track Of Drinks

The human body takes an average of one hour to process the alcohol from a single drink.

A “drink” is defined as:

  • A glass of wine
  • One beer
  • A single shot
  • One mixed drink

However, because the ability to process alcohol varies greatly from person to person, the ultimate judgment rests with the bartenders, servers, and managers in the restaurant.

As a rule of thumb, guests who have ordered a third drink should be watched closely and evaluated before served another. You may want to ask front-of-house staff to alert management if guests have had more than three drinks.

Management may choose to chat with the guest and evaluate their level of intoxication. Managers can gauge the guest’s fitness for driving and offer to arrange safe transport by cab, Uber or Lyft.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

Identifying Intoxicated Restaurant Guests

The consequences of not cutting off a patron before they are drunk can be drastic, even life or death. Intentional or negligent over serving can put your business at risk for legal trouble. And you can lose that expensive liquor license you worked so hard to obtain.

Drunk patrons can create negative experiences for other diners and need to be dealt with effectively. That’s why it’s important to spot a customer who’s had enough to drink before filling their next order.

Watch for these signs of intoxication:

  • People who return to the bar quickly
  • Guests who are being loud
  • Interacting with multiple groups who are likely strangers
  • Individuals with glassy eyes
  • Signs of decreased motor control

Empower your bartenders, managers, and servers to use their best judgment. Stand behind their decisions in the best interest of the restaurant.

Once a guest is told they are cut off by one member of staff, honor that decision and remain firm. Often drunk customers will try to get a drink from someone else. This is where teamwork and communication are essential.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure

How to Cut Off Intoxicated Patrons

How you cut off a customer at the limit takes tact and skill. The goal is not to embarrass or create a negative experience for your intoxicated guest. At the same time, it is important that they understand that you are serious and they aren’t getting any more drinks.

One technique recommended for bartenders is if the bartender doesn’t feel comfortable serving the next drink, close the tab. Serve them a glass of water with the check and a smile. Give a nice comment like “Thanks for coming in. We’ll be happy to serve you again tomorrow.”

When serving drinks to a table a similar technique can be used. Servers and managers can offer to give the guest a drink on the house. Provide them with a glass of soda or lemonade. Bringing a large glass of water and an app on the house as another hint that they should fill up with something alcohol-free.

Many times you’re not the only one who has identified that they’ve had enough to drink. Enlist the help of their sober friend. Ask them if they have a safe ride home. This is another subtle indicator to the guest that they’ve had enough to drink.

Removing Belligerent Drunks

Sometimes guests who are drunk need to leave the restaurant to maintain the quality of service for the rest of the diners.

It’s important to remain confident when communicating with drunk guests. While intoxicated, adults regress to a childlike state. In this state they may be quick to anger if they perceive a confrontation.

Let them know that you care about their situation and want them to have a safe night. To show that it’s not a confrontation, invite them to come back tomorrow for a “drink on the house.”

They may or may not remember the invitation, but the point is to extend a kindness that makes it clear they are not getting any more alcohol tonight and you’d like them to leave.

If a guest who has been asked nicely to leave becomes confrontational, it’s important not to let it ruin the night for your other guests. Take the customer outside the restaurant and don’t allow them back in.

Unfortunately a restaurant who sends a driver home intoxicated may be held liable for injuries. Call them a cab or have them contact a friend to pick them up to avoid this.

If a drunk customer has become belligerent and violent, contacting law enforcement protects you and them. Police will deal with the drunk, making sure they don’t harm themselves or others. Resist the temptation to engage with them or provoke a situation. But don’t let them back in.

Read More: Choosing a Restaurant Business Structure


Consider carefully if you want to serve alcohol in your restaurant. If you choose to serve alcohol in your restaurant understand that getting a liquor license is a complicated and expensive process.

There are many laws that govern the sale and service of alcohol in the restaurant. Some laws are state laws and others are local regulations. Work with your local Alcohol Beverage Control Board to make sure you don’t run afoul of these rules.

Before choosing a restaurant location, make sure that you’ll be able to get the type of liquor license you want to. After you obtain your liquor license, make sure your staff is fully trained on responsible alcohol service. Have them certified if required.

Understand the importance of responsible alcohol service and avoid over serving guests. If a guest needs to be cut off from ordering additional drinks do so with tact and concern for their well-being.

If a drunk and belligerent diner is degrading the experience for other guests, remove them from the premises and call them a cab. If they become violent, contact law enforcement and do not provoke or engage with the drunk.

This guide for restaurants serving alcohol is part of the free resource library provided by Rezku. Rezku is a leading restaurant management technology solutions provider. Learn more about Rezku on our home page. Schedule a free consultation today and find out why restaurant owners across America choose Rezku for their restaurants, bars, nightclubs and cafes.

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