Does Over-Serving at Restaurants Go Under-Investigated?

UPDATE: The TABC has responded to some of our concerns and cleared up some errors and misconceptions about over-serving investigations. Carolyn Beck, director of communications, especially wished to stress that the quote from the Houston Chronicle below regarding one TABC agent for a county with over 800 establishments was untrue. Please read this updated post for more.

A few weeks ago, I endured a rather unpleasant dinner at The Rouxpour -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- which had nothing to do with the food itself and everything to do with two very drunk patrons.

After being harassed by the two men throughout the evening, I finally retrieved a manager and told him bluntly: "These guys have clearly been over-served. Can you please do something about it?"

My request fell on mostly deaf ears, as the men -- regulars, by their account and that of our waitress -- were allowed to stay. And, it seemed, to continue drinking.

I spoke with Lincoln Ward, one of The Rouxpour's owners, about the incident a few days later. Ward was appropriately upset at the actions of the two customers and his manager, but assured me this was not common practice for the Sugar Land restaurant.

As genuine as Ward was, however, I had a hard time believing that The Rouxpour had never over-served a customer before. The entire restaurant and patio that Thursday night had been packed with loud-mouthed, inebriated customers. And the subsequent Monday night -- during Monday Night Football -- was almost equally rowdy.

But this isn't a problem endemic to The Rouxpour. It's a problem across the state of Texas, where, according to a July 14 article in the Houston Chronicle by James Pinkerton, the understaffed Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission struggles to investigate hundreds of over-serving complaints across thousands of establishments -- sometimes with only one agent in a given county to handle upward of 800 liquor outlets.

In the last year alone, the TABC only investigated one complaint of "Sale/Serve/Deliver AB to Intoxicated Person" in Houston, which took place at a bar called The Playground, which used to be a Mr. Cash payday loan store according to records pulled from the TABC's Public Inquiry database. In 2011, there were two investigations: one at an illegal gambling parlor and one at the Baker Street Pub in Tomball.

Because these kinds of incidents have traditionally been confined to bars and pubs, it's at restaurants where situations can often get out of hand more easily. It's often difficult to tell when customers have been over-served until it's too late -- and even more difficult to figure out what to do with them next.

"Alcohol is a huge amplifier of peoples' personalities and you can't always just stop someone who's engaging in bad behavior," says Sean Beck, beverage director at Backstreet Cafe, Trevisio and Hugo's. "In my 15 years here, I know I've lost customers over it because I cut someone off."

Once you cut a customer off, you can't allow him to drive home -- and you're responsible for finding him a ride. "Sometimes it's a 45-minute wait for a taxi, and you can't babysit a person for 45 minutes at a time," says Beck. " Hopefully they're not creating a scene with your guests in the meantime."

Technically, anyone who serves alcohol in a restaurant is supposed to go through a certification program through the TABC, a short course that teaches the basics of serving alcohol in Texas. "That certification process is there to give you all the guidelines you need" to identify people who've consumed too much alcohol, says Beck. "But it's really tricky because even if you don't serve someone and you refuse to serve them, just the fact that you didn't stop them from leaving your establishment could also make you liable." Liable as an establishment and as an individual server.

Two bars in north Houston recently found this out the hardest way possible, after five people died as the result of two drunk driving incidents in one weekend. Both drunk drivers were over-served at bars in The Woodlands, one of the drivers consuming a staggering 22 beers in one evening. The bars have not yet been identified as TABC investigations are ongoing, but one very famous establishment recently went through a similar ordeal and spotlighted a problem not often discussed in restaurants.

Husk, the venerated South Carolina restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock, recently settled a $1.1 million wrongful death lawsuit after a man was killed by a drunk driver who'd been over-served at the restaurant. To make matters worse, the drunk driver was Husk's own assistant manager and sommelier, Adam Joseph Burnell, who had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit in South Carolina when he left the restaurant and slammed into the back of a Mustang at 4 a.m., killing Quentin Gregory Miller.

It's rare to hear of a restaurant being held responsible in incidents of over-serving, as the majority of these take place in bars. Even the TABC generally concentrates its investigations on bars and underage drinking at those establishments. But more restaurants could be held accountable, judging by what happened at Husk.

According to Beck, "the growth of wine bars and BYOBs and restaurants having more significant bar programs" means that it's possible even more restaurants such as The Rouxpour could be struggling with how to suss out and prevent over-serving of patrons. And that's especially difficult when restaurant staff haven't been trained by their management in either area, training that's more of a given at bars and pubs, where staff are accustomed to serving alcohol day in and day out (this training is given on top of what's offered by the TABC). Many restaurants don't have the same programs and management oversight when it comes to over-serving as most bars do. At a restaurant, the focus lies primarily with waiting tables and serving food.

"The best thing you can do is catch it early on," Beck says. "Notice when someone's ordering doubles, notice when someone's pounding their drinks, when their voice is going up and down and all over the place. Maybe...send them out some complimentary apps, keep refilling their water until they sober up." And if you can't catch it ahead of time, restaurants and bars simply have to do the best they can to prevent that customer from consuming any more alcohol -- even if the customer puts up a fight.

"It's never easy, it's always intense when it happens. Some people will never forgive you for it," Beck says. " But whatever you're doing, you're doing in your and their best interest."

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Katharine Shilcutt