Award-winning bartender and bar consultant Brian Van Flandern says he truly believes the customer is always right. He means that bartenders and servers need to work to please every guest. But he also knows some patrons present particular challenges.
A former actor, who attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory and appeared in Robert Redford's Quiz Show, Van Flandern became famous for what once was a moonlighting job for him. He was hired to run the bar at chef Thomas Keller's high-profile New York restaurant Per Se. When then-restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave Per Se a four-star rave review in The New York Times in 2004, he mentioned the bar offerings, which included Van Flandern's house-made tonic water. This came at the dawn of the current craft cocktail movement and Van Flandern, excited by the culinary standards Keller set at Per Se, discovered a similar passion behind the bar.
"I became a lot more famous behind the bar than I ever was as an actor," he says.
Van Flandern speaks at a Tales of the Cocktail panel about one of the less glamorous sides of bartending: dealing with problem customers ("86'd: Tales of Social Responsibility," 1 p.m. Friday).
"When I consult, I have a five-day program," he says. "The first four days are about drinks, spirits knowledge and bartending tools. The fifth day is about dealing with customers and (legal) liability."
In his career, Van Flandern has seen just about everything. He's dealt with customers getting ill, belligerent and naked — he once had to unlock a bathroom where he found an undressed couple passed out. But even the more common problem of an inebriated customer isn't always easy to spot.
"People tend to assume a customer coming in to the bar is sober," he says. "That's not true."
He relates a situation that spiraled out of control when he worked at a trendy bar in Portland, Oregon, the Veritable Quandary or VQ.
"This gentleman came in right before happy hour was about to kick in," Van Flandern says. "The bar was relatively quiet and, clear as a bell, he asked for a Scotch and soda."
After Van Flandern poured the drink, he realized the man was drunk.
"The guy said in the most slurred voice possible, 'Where's the bathroom?'" Van Flandern says. "I immediately grabbed the untouched drink and pulled it back."
Van Flandern pointed out the rest-rooms, but when the man stood up, he headed for the front door. Instead of pulling the door open, he pushed on it and struggled. Frustrated by his failure to open it, he leaned forward against the door and urinated on it.
"I ran around the bar and said, 'Let me get the door for you,'" Van Flandern says. But things only got worse.
"He fell straight forward and cracked his head on the concrete," Van Flandern says. Van Flandern has EMT training, so he helped the man and asked a patron to call 911.
"The cops showed up; the ambulance showed up," Van Flandern says. "He had a concussion. The police took my statement and they were skeptical."
Police assumed he had served the man too much alcohol, and Van Flandern was fortunate his regular customers backed up his story, though police remained suspicious. Van Flandern was afraid he'd lose his job and get sued.
"I later learned that when someone is totally drunk at one bar and gets kicked out, they've got a remarkable ability to pull themselves together until they get the next drink in their hand," Van Flandern says. "So he totally suckered me."
In his seminars, Van Flandern offers bartenders advice on how to spot a customer who's already had too much to drink. The best advice he has, however, is not to confront a customer in a way that makes them defensive, but try to help.
"Offering someone water or coffee or food won't sober them up," he says. "But it will buy you time."