It’s not uncommon at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to find bartenders at South University establishments politely telling certain patrons it would be best if they didn’t take that next shot.
Though bartenders are mandated by Michigan state law to “cut off” these excessively drunk customers, owners and managers of South University bars say they largely navigate the enforcement guidelines themselves.
Every bar and restaurant with a liquor license is regulated by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. However, the commission has no defined guidelines detailing how bar owners and managers should enforce liquor provisions.
Shannon Bush, Liquor Control Commission district supervisor for Lansing, said a commission database tracks the certification of bartenders and bar managers within the state. Bush said at least one certified staff member must be in the bar at all times, but he or she can be certified by several different state-approved programs.
One state-approved program is Techniques for Alcohol Management. David Puck, education coordinator at TAM, said the curriculum focuses on the clinical effects of alcohol. Classes are taught in a classroom, and certification must be renewed every three years. While there is no state-mandated curriculum that teaches alcohol safety and use, Puck said TAM teaches its students how to enforce Michigan state law.
“There really isn’t a law that says how to do it,” Puck said.
Brad Wilson, the bar manager at BTB Cantina — the only 18 and older bar on South University Avenue — said he is TAM certified. According to Wilson, BTB serves about 150 patrons on a busy night and the staff cuts off alcohol service to about a dozen of those patrons for being intoxicated. Cutting off patrons is a “touchy process,” Wilson said.
“It’s my discretion,” Wilson said. “They kind of put it on my shoulders.”
A new drunk driving law took effect over the weekend, which increased legal consequences for drivers caught with a Blood Alcohol Concentration above 0.17. While police use breathalyzers to measure a person’s level of intoxication, bar employees can only use their own judgment.
BTB provides a party bus to transport patrons home. As part of his TAM training, Wilson said he gives intoxicated patrons water and time to sober up before leaving. He said he also talks to friends of the intoxicated customer and the management at Good Time Charley’s — a bar located beneath BTB — to make sure the patron is cared for and does not seek drinks downstairs.
School of Public Health graduate student Christopher O’Rourke was at BTB Friday night and said “there’s a strong divide” between the South University Avenue bars, where undergraduate students frequent, and Main Street bars, where graduate students tend to go.
“I would say that around here, in the undergrad area, they are much more unlikely to cut off someone, and I’ve seen many people that should be cut off that are not cut off,” O’Rourke said.
University Law School student Matthew Zita, who is friends with O’Rourke and was at BTB Friday, said he agrees that bars don’t intervene when they should.
“I probably should have been cut off a couple times and have not been,” Zita said. “I’ve never seen anybody get thrown out.”
Kyle Froelich, the night manager at Charley’s, said the bar doesn’t have a specific policy for cutting off intoxicated patrons, but employees use their discretion.
Charley’s head bartender Michael Pangborn said patron safety is a “constant thing” on his mind. According to Pangborn, Charley’s staff — including bouncers, bartenders and managers — may cut off about 30 intoxicated patrons on a busy night.
“We don’t want to have people here that are too drunk in here,” Pangborn said. “It’s just bad business.”
Katie MacDonald, a bartender at The Brown Jug on South University Avenue, said that balancing business and safety is an issue.
“You don’t want to lose a customer, but you don’t want someone to get sick,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said she and the rest of the bartending staff at The Brown Jug are certified by Training for Intervention Procedures — another state-approved program that provides alcohol service education. MacDonald said staff usually have to cut off about one patron each weekend.
“It’s South U., so you’re going to have a lot of drunk college kids,” MacDonald said.
Chris Hesse, Rick’s American Café bar manager, said Rick’s takes a different approach when it comes to intoxicated patrons. Hesse said the staff is certified by ServSafe — another alcohol service program approved by the state — and is told to keep intoxicated people from entering Rick’s.
“The biggest thing for us is stopping those people before they get in the bar,” Hesse said.
Engineering graduate student Chris Schoeps, who was at The Brown Jug Friday night and was dressed as a penguin for Halloween, said the bar is one of his favorites in Ann Arbor. Schoeps said the South University Avenue area is “dominated by undergrads.”
Rackham graduate student Erik Ventura was dressed as a caveman and sat next to Schoeps at the bar.
“I could arguably say that the South U. area is a little bit more rowdy than for instance Main Street,” Ventura said.
He said he thinks some patrons aren’t cut off when they should be, but that it happens “everywhere.”