House Rules

The ever-present shift drink dilemma.

Flatlay of ice cubes, whole limes and lime wedges, and shot glasses with salted rims on black background.
Is providing shift drinks right for you? Here's food for thought.

Closing time: That prized moment when the last guests trickle out onto the sidewalk, the doors are locked, and the music cranks up. The crew, either buzzing from a good night or bedraggled from a rough one, gather at the bar for their shift drinks. Shots, beers, Jack and Cokes—whatever it may be, the staff lines up, leans in, and collectively decompresses. Another night in the biz—check.

This tradition, in all its morale-boosting, commiserating glory, is knit deeply into the psyche of the industry. And yet, in recent years, the shift drink has been getting a closer look, even an overhaul. “When I was coming up in the business, it was a nightly occurrence to call for drinks and beer to the line,” says Pete Ryan, owner and executive chef of the Plimoth in Denver. “We definitely made use of the free booze. Fortunately, I have better habits now.”

Ryan’s awareness of the trappings of alcohol abuse and mental health has guided the Plimoth’s shift drink policy: With rare exceptions, they’re only available on Saturday nights and only when all guests are gone and all individual tasks are complete; consumption must be done out of sight of those still working. Drinks—usually beer, wine, and soft drinks—are rung into the register and poured by either the bartender or manager on duty. “We only do Saturday nights so as not to encourage nightly consumption, which could raise safety concerns as well as financial problems,” Ryan says. “It’s really just a way to wrap up the week, say thanks to everyone, and then we all usually just chat for a couple of minutes.”

“It costs the restaurant a lot of money—serious money.”

Samantha Cordts-Pearce, the Wild Fig, Steakhouse No. 216, CP Burger, the Monarch, and Woody Creek Tavern

In Aspen, Samantha Cordts-Pearce, who with her husband Craig co-owns the Wild Fig, Steakhouse No. 316, CP Burger, the Monarch, and now also Woody Creek Tavern, says she has mixed feelings about shift drinks and that, as a company, they moved away from the tradition years ago. “There were a couple of benefits, mainly [that] employees love them and it adds to a sense of team building at the end of the night,” Cordts-Pearce says. “But it costs the restaurant a lot of money—serious money. Even if half the staff clocks out, you still have a bartender who is on the clock. They’re working longer and it extends their shift and adds on to the length of the night.” And then there’s the sticky situation of serving one’s coworkers and creating an atmosphere of unintended consequences. All that said, Cordts-Pearce says that occasionally, on a particularly busy or brutally slow night, owners or managers will offer the staff a round as a reward.

Cristina Kelly, owner of Cala Pub & Restaurant in Dillon, isn’t overly concerned about the financial consequences of comping drinks. She offers two beverages per employee, which along with shift meals, totals about $100 per day. “The liquor cost is really insignificant,” Kelly says. “With the markup, a $6 shot is really costing me 60 cents.” She concedes that she’s pretty accepting of shift drinks because she recognizes the practice for what it is: a morale booster. “I was a server and I know what it’s like to be in the trenches,” she says. As for those who choose not to partake, there’s no peer pressure. She has some employees who take their (unopened) bottle of beer home with them, while others drink soda. “It’s all OK,” she says.

Colin Overett, bar manager of Union Lodge No. 1 in downtown Denver, agrees the shift drink is about a lot more than just consumption. “It’s more or less the gathering and that decompression rather than the drink,” he says. “You’re taking that time with your peers to talk about what was going on over the night and what you’re doing tomorrow.” For those not drinking alcohol (an increasing trend in the industry), bartenders can use that time to play with n/a combinations. Still, Overett says it’s important to pay attention to employees and their habits, and the shift drink might offer clues into problematic behavior. 

When Heather Lundy, a licensed professional counselor and the founder and CEO of Khesed Wellness, considers the shift drink, she weighs the pros of gathering and camaraderie and the cons of misuse. As a whole, she encourages employers to look at the big picture: What’s best for the human inside the uniform? “The line between decompressing and having a drink with friends to numbing and misusing a substance to relieve stressors is a fine line,” she says. “What does the culture of shift drinks do to affect other experiences? Rather than going home after a shift and going to bed, or even working out, there’s a ripple effect of how that space relates to a person’s daily life.”

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