A toast to the bar staff of Belgium

Next time you drop into your favourite drinkeria, listen out for the warm and well-meaning staff model of customer engagement, best exemplified by a cheery: “Can I get you anything else?”, or “Is everything all right for you?”

A toast to the bar staff of Belgium
Credit: Belga

If you’re raising a glass or two in your favourite drinkeria at this festive time, please toast the bar staff, not least because they are operating under extremely difficult circumstances: did you know that they’re not allowed to encourage you to consume alcohol?

It’s as if the owner of my favourite clothes shop isn’t allowed to encourage me to buy a second shirt after I’ve already bought the first one.

Instead, if I get too shirty, he’d presumably feel obliged to usher me off the premises with a warning: “Go home sir,  I think you’ve had enough shirts for one day……”

It was early autumn in a bar in Brussels when I learned about the “don’t-mention-the- booze” law.

A dozen drinkers and diners were outside at the pub’s al fresco tables and I was the only customer sitting inside, chatting to the landlord.

Every so often he had to pop out to the pavement to check  on his customers, and after returning from one visit he said:

“It’s very funny: by law I can’t directly ask them if they want more alcohol, so I just hang around for a minute or two to give them a chance to order something or not. It’s a bit like stalking them”.

It’s easier in the winter when all the customers are inside the pub and can easily wave to the bar for another round without the staff having to hover nearby while pretending they have no interest whatsoever in pulling a fresh pint or uncorking another bottle of the house red.

“Or”, says the landlord, warming to his theme, “take your situation: here you are, nursing a glass of dry white and in a minute you’re going to drain it and put the empty glass on the bar: can I, as your host, take that as a sign that you want a top-up? Can I say, in terms, ’another one for you Geoff?’

“Or do I stand here like a lemon, waiting for you to actively engage with the matter and ask me directly for another glass of wine? Or should I, once you have popped the empty glass in front of you, swiftly remove it, lest my failure to do so implies complicity in your plan to imbibe more alcohol?’”

So a tricky situation for bar staff, but very manageable, and a worthy, legally-binding, but very difficult to enforce effort towards tackling  alcoholism.

More effective, maybe, would be for the drinks industry to be obliged to follow the tobacco sector and put unpleasant pictures on bottles of wine, spirits and beer, portraying the downside of too much booze: imagine a sommelier in a posh restaurant presenting you with the label on a wine bottle showing some blotchy-faced poor wretch nursing a crippling hangover or throwing up on the carpet…..

And if bar staff aren’t allowed to encourage alcohol consumption, maybe restaurant waiters should be banned from encouraging people to take sticky toffee pudding from the dessert trolley.

Of course, not all areas of consumerism require such levels of monitoring for over-indulgence of course. Last time I bought a car, for instance, I don’t remember any member of the sales team handing me the purchase agreement to sign and then saying: “Will that be all sir, or can I get you another one…..?”

So next time you drop into your favourite drinkeria (I assure you that drinkeria is a real word, created in Italy following the resounding success of “pizzeria” at infiltrating the English language), listen out for the warm and well-meaning  staff model of customer engagement, best exemplified by a cheery: “Can I get you anything else?”, or “Is everything all right for you?”.

You’ll often hear them volunteering: “More water?” and “Another coffee”.

But alcohol, unsolicited,  never passes their lips.

Apologies if you’ve been aware of all this stuff for ages: I wasn’t, and it surprised me, and then caused fleeting concern about the long-term future of the public house.

But now I’m reconciled to having to order my own drink without being able to implicate the bar staff in my decision-making.

And anyway, when was the last time someone sitting in a pub was weak-willed enough to wait for a waiter to entice them into having an alcoholic re-fill?

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