Restaurants, bars serve one less for the road

Insurance industry, safety groups pressuring businesses to curtail servings of alcohol

February 25, 2007|By Lisa Anderson | Lisa Anderson,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- You don't even need to drive a car anymore to get a DUI.

A DUI with a difference, that is: "Dining Under the Influence."

Really.

More so than at any time since the end of Prohibition, restaurant and bar owners across the country say they're ready to curtail cocktails when they decide a patron is plastered or approaching that state. Even in upscale establishments, where the average tab runs to three figures per head. Even though bar bills can represent more than a third of a restaurant's profits.

While bars and restaurants long have been legally responsible if customers in their cups run amok after leaving the premises, the difference now is that the stakes never have been higher nor official scrutiny more intense.

"Not as much as it is today," said Ted Lanzi, a partner and director of operations in five Manhattan bars. Over the past year, he has sent more than 120 of his 200 employees to daylong classes in the new industry-developed ServSafe Alcohol program at $85 a head. Students learn the physiology of alcohol intoxication, how to recognize it, how to prevent it and how to handle cutting off service to tipsy customers.

Such education protects the customer and the establishment, Lanzi said. "It's such a litigious society, if someone as much as trips, there's a lawsuit," he said.

That is just one of the factors driving the industry's heightened focus on alcohol safety. Others include higher insurance rates and, in many cases, no liquor liability coverage for establishments operating without safe alcohol education, as well as more lawsuits and higher settlements against restaurants if drunken patrons are responsible for loss of life, limb or property.

Although some insurance companies long have required alcohol training for servers, the big push is fairly recent, said Neil Owens, vice president at Elias B. Cohen & Associates, New Jersey-based insurance agents, brokers and consultants. "I would say that beginning five to 10 years ago, people started asking the question. More recently, in the last three to five years, more companies have made it a requirement, and now it's a widespread requirement," Owens said.

Also, with increased scrutiny at the state and local levels, there is increased risk that precious liquor licenses might be lost for alcohol-related offenses.

The penalties for such offenses also are rising. "Things that used to be misdemeanors are felonies, and [offenders] can serve jail time," said Debbie Fox, director of training for the Palm Restaurant Group; Fox helped develop the ServSafe program and teaches it to Palm employees.

In 2004, New Mexico became the first state to make it a felony to provide alcohol to a minor, an offense that could mean 18 months in jail. Jail time also is possible in other states, such as Illinois, where such offenses are misdemeanors.

Moreover, there is a shift in attitude about alcohol that some call the "new temperance movement," said Stephen Greger, loss control director for commercial business at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. The California-based insurer made alcohol safety training a requirement for liquor liability coverage about 10 years ago.

"There is a growing societal awareness of drinking because of MADD and SADD," he said, referring to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Destructive Decisions, and noting that pressure from such groups contributed to the 2000 federal law lowering the legal blood-alcohol content limit for driving in the United States to 0.08 percent. Some experts said there is pressure to further revise it downward to 0.05 percent.

"There also seems to be a movement in the country against drinking in excess. You see that on college campuses. There seems to be a little more conservative outlook in many areas, and this is one of them," said Greger.

"The implications of this are very important," said John Braschi, Fireman's Fund product director for hospitality sector commercial business, referring to the growing social, legal and economic forces pushing safer alcohol service. "Insurance would be nearly unaffordable without the server training, the laws in place."

"The operator has a lot at stake," said E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York City chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association. Hunt, a certified instructor, teaches monthly classes using the new ServSafe Alcohol curriculum developed by the Chicago-based National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

ServSafe replaced an older, less rigorous program. During 2006, the new program's first full year in operation, 50,000 bartenders, servers, managers and other personnel took the course, 2,800 of them in Illinois, according to Sam Stanovich, director of the ServSafe Alcohol program at the foundation.

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