This Thanksgiving, say 'no thanks' to problems for your bar

UPDATE (November 2016): With the passage of Pennsylvania's Act 39 in 2016, valid forms of ID now include Canadian drivers' licenses and other forms of bona fide Canadian identification, such as valid passports.

For better and for worse, the night before Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest, busiest drinking holidays of the year. So much so that the Wall Street Journal reports that some have dubbed the pre-Thanksgiving ritual "Blackout Wednesday."

All of this has a dark side.

In four of the past five years for which data are available, Thanksgiving surpassed even New Year's in terms of alcohol-related driving fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Journal article reported.

So along with Thanksgiving's influx of customers come numerous perils for Pennsylvania Liquor License holders. This is why I always advise the owner and management of every licensed establishment to remain extra vigilant. The care that establishments take with Thanksgiving should remain the norm throughout the holiday season, as Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's are just around the corner.

Every alcohol server should be schooled to say "no thanks" to VIPs - Visibly Intoxicated Patrons - and anyone without ID. As an attorney who focuses on liquor license issues at Scaringi Law, I can tell you that vigilance around VIPs and IDs are the two most effective ways to avoid having one's booming holiday bar business be marred by an infraction that threatens one's liquor license.

This means having trained staffers who are directed to observe and communicate with customers. This advice is especially apt when serving hard alcohol or so-called "high gravity" craft beers, which can pack two or three times the punch of a regular brew. Make sure servers know the strength of the beers they are pouring and that they communicate this information to customers.

Drawing upon my 16 years of experience representing license holders at renewal hearings, enforcement actions and liability cases, here are a few more tips to help your establishment avoid trouble during the holidays.

On the lookout for IDs and VIPs

To avoid license problems and the potential liability stemming from VIPs, I recommend keeping drink specials sane - no wild price breaks on large quantities of high-test alcohol that entice overdrinking.

Keep servers on the lookout for VIPs, too. While people metabolize alcohol differently, the standby signs of a VIP are much the same for everyone: bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, compromised balance and nodding off at the bar, to name a few.

Another major holiday threat to an establishment's liquor license is serving underage customers. Thankfully, this Turkey Day danger can be effectively neutralized by doing two relatively simple things: Use an electronic ID scanner to verify the age of anyone who appears to be 30 or younger, and station an employee at the door.

The electronic scanner demonstrates a good-faith defense should an ID prove to be fake. Data from the scanner are stored and can be presented at adjudication actions as evidence of your attempts to verify age.

By stationing an employee at the door, the establishment is easing the pressure on its service staff to check IDs. During the busy holiday season, this can be crucial as servers often struggle to keep up with drink orders and might overlook checking IDs amid the rush.

Remember, licensees are liable for direct service of alcoholic beverages to minors and if a minor gains access to alcohol. For example, should an of-age person purchase an alcoholic beverage from a bartender and hand it to a minor, it is the licensee who has violated Section 493(1) of the Liquor Code for furnishing alcohol to said minor.

Especially for establishments that don't use an electronic ID scanner, it's critical that staff know that customers must have one of the following forms of valid ID:

  • A photo driver's license or non-driver's photo ID issued by Pennsylvania or any other state.
  • An armed services ID with photo.
  • A passport or travel visa with photo.

Keep in mind that the ID must be current. If it's expired, it's useless.

Finally, employees must use common sense. If the ID appears suspicious, it's probably a fake. Run your finger over it to see that it is smooth and not glued together piecemeal. Examine the photo. If it doesn't look like the person presenting it, it's probably an attempt at deception. Ask questions pertinent to the ID: date of birth, address, ZIP code, etc. If the presenter stumbles, he has failed the entrance test.

Bottom line: It's not worth risking your livelihood over service to minors and VIPs this holiday season. Not only do you risk your liquor license but you can open yourself up to possible civil liability and all its related legal costs.

A customer overdid it. Now what?

Just like Santa, with his rosy cheeks and bright red nose, VIPs will make appearances at most establishments over the holidays. How an establishment handles these VIPs makes all the difference in terms of liability. Liability for drunken-driving accidents can boomerang back on the establishment that overserved the driver.

Ply VIPs with water, soda or coffee, affording them time to sober up before calling a cab to take them home.

Remember: It's not against the law to have VIPs in your premises. But a responsible establishment allows them time to become sober while arranging transportation.

RAMP up staff training

So your Thanksgiving game plan is set. But a licensed establishment is only as good as its weakest link on the serving staff. This is why I highly recommend that establishment owners become certified in the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's Responsible Alcohol Management Program, or RAMP. The five-point program provides alcohol-related training to management and all alcohol service staff.

It is not enough to merely go through the RAMP training. To earn the all-important certification, establishment owners must submit to a PLCB inspection, display proper PLCB signage in their establishment and meet all RAMP requirements. But it is well worth it.

Only by completing RAMP's five-point process and earning a certification will establishment owners benefit from the program's enforcement protections for first-time offenders in liquor law enforcement actions. RAMP-certified license holders are eligible for lighter sentences after first-time enforcement adjudications.

Closing-time concerns

It pays to keep a close eye on the clock. Last call is 2 a.m., but merry patrons are wont to stay past 2:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. for clubs). Don't let the holiday cheer go into overtime.

Make last call a hard-and-fast deadline, not an arbitrary moving target. Make sure staffers know it's not OK to let holiday revelers party on or linger over their last-call drinks.

Approach the holidays with a strong dose of sober common sense and enjoy all the trimmings: a robust business, happy and safe customers, and an unimpinged liquor license.

Now that's a recipe for a truly joyous holiday season.


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