An Ongoing Issue: Bartender in The Woodlands Arrested After Allegations of Over-Serving

The Houston Chronicle reported this morning that a bartender at the popular Baker Street Pub location at The Woodlands Waterway has been arrested for allegedly over-serving a patron. Chelsea Marie Willburn, 24, was arrested early Sunday morning after a patron whom she'd served at Baker Street was found stumbling drunkenly while shouting racial slurs. The patron was also subsequently arrested.

The arrest comes from Montgomery County's undercover "Bars and Cars" unit, a joint task force operation made up of the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Conroe Police Department and the Montgomery County Sherriff's Office.

The operation is part of an ongoing effort to curb Montgomery County's rampant intoxicated-driving record, which posts a fatality rate nearly double that of neighboring Harris County. Wilburn is the first bartender to have been arrested as a result of this new task force.

Recently on Eating...Our Words, Katharine Shilcutt discussed the nearly unenforced policy of over-service in Houston-area restaurants. She pointed out that while TABC training does address over-service, most restaurants are ill-equipped and hardly eager to address the issue.

The Chronicle also reports on TABC's ongoing struggles to investigate allegations of over-service. The articles came in the wake of two separate fatal traffic incidents along the same stretch of I-45, each involving wrong-way drivers. In incidents that eerily mirror this most recent incident at an establishment in The Woodlands, both drivers were found to be heavily intoxicated and both were allegedly served in excess of 20 drinks each at Montgomery County bars.

Commenters on Chron.com and threads like this one at Texags.com seemed focused on the futility of Willburn's arrest, calling them "witch hunts" -- despite the long-standing and clearly stated responsibility of bartenders and TABC-licensed businesses regarding over-service. As one commenter so deftly put it: a blood alcohol level of .13 (well over the legal limit to drive) is "Hoarsheet" and "nothing."

While jumping to the defense of those dangerously intoxicated and those responsible for over-service may seem fairly obtuse, Texas's lax and haphazard enforcement of TABC policy over the years can also be cited as a contributing reason why many Texans see being served until they are blind drunk as a God-given right.

This latest arrest is likely a warning shot across the bow for bartenders and owners regarding the policy of responsible service as TABC officials and law enforcement across the state struggle to keep pace with DUI incidents. Wilburn was charged with sale of alcohol to an intoxicated person when she was arrested by undercover Conroe police, and whether or not her case will be prosecuted, the arrest itself is -- in all likelihood -- seen by officials as a deterrent and warning to the service industry.

Interestingly enough, this is the third time Baker Street Pub has been mentioned by the Houston Press in relation to over-serving in the last year. The bar's Tomball location was investigated for over-serving by the TABC in 2011. And in a much more serious incident, the bar's River Oaks location was permanently closed after off-duty HPD officer Jose Coronado, who'd been drinking at Baker Street that evening, killed fellow patron Omar Ventura in a parking-lot incident in February 2011.

"Ventura's survivors have sued Coronado and also the bar, blaming Sherlock's Happy Hour policy for overserving the officer," wrote our own Rich Connelly after the closure was announced. "A former executive of the bar's owners also filed a complaint over the cheap-drinks policy."

And while it seems as though Baker Street locations are becoming well-known and well-reported for instances of over-service, they are hardly alone in their transgressions. Bartenders often report their hesitance and uncertainty about cutting patrons off. As Sean Beck, beverage director at Backstreet Cafe, Trevisio and Hugo's, told us earlier this year: "I know I've lost customers over it because I cut someone off...hopefully they're not creating a scene with your guests in the meantime."

If a 15-year veteran bartender and service director can acknowledge the difficulties in refusing service to intoxicated patrons, how does a 22-year-old bartender trying to earn tips and keep regulars happy hope to fare? It's a complex issue rife with catch-22 issues that are not easily solved.

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