Remember the Buy Back?

That’s when a bartender buys you a drink for buying drinks from them.

Photo: Henrik Johansson/Flickr

The buy back, a long-lost tradition that, according to this brief cultural history over at Bon Appétit, has disappeared almost entirely (obviously) because of money — and the changing nature of the bar scene.

This One’s on Us: Whatever Happened to the Buy Back?

Yet the buy back may not have died so much as evolved, says Abigail Gullo, bartender at the New Orleans restaurant Compère Lapin.

“I’ll tell you, behind the scenes, our margins are far slimmer than when you’re just serving beers,” she says. “And I think that giving away free drinks is kind of like stealing from your boss. Sometimes you get bartenders who give away drinks in return for huge tips from the customers. Buy backs like that are embezzlement under the cover of service.”

Instead of tradition dictating the buy back, it is now a very trackable and reportable line item, meant to be accounted for just like that margarita, those french fries and that order of nachos you paid for, too.

In modern bars, Gullo says, when the house does step in, free drinks are often categorized as service recovery — i.e., a tax-deductible business expense for placating unhappy customers so that they might come back, or at least not spread bad word of mouth. And it goes straight into the point-of-sale (POS) system as a trackable line item to be pored over by the owner and accountants — far from the empty shot glass that served as a buy-back marker years earlier.

Basically, buy backs have disappeared as a way of life because it is simply much more expensive to own and operate a successful bar these days. There’s also some tips from a bartender about how to better increase your chances of getting a buy back at a bar which are helpful to read if you feel like a buy back is somehow your right. Mostly they are tips for how not to be a bad person at a bar.

The last time I was in a fancy bar, I was visiting friends who were staying at a very nice, scene-y hotel in SoHo. There was nowhere really to sit, so we stood awkwardly in the hotel bar near a very large plant. The beers cost $9 each, but we drank them because it was cold out and it felt fun to do something Fancy when we are generally not. When I was looking at the bill, something seemed off; we had ordered four beers, but he had charged me for three. I stood at the end of the very crowded bar for fifteen minutes. When the bartender came around, I whisper-shouted across the bar that he forgot to charge us for a beer.

“That’s on me,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

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