My firm works with a large number of bars, restaurants and other hospitality providers. Being a team player—and as a way to check up on them—I try to follow all my clients on Facebook and Twitter.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook last month and saw a new photo posted by a client of the client’s bar, in which flames were spewing from a bartender’s mouth. The caption, of course, proudly boasted “WE’RE ON FIRE TONIGHT!”
A quick search on YouTube for “flaming bar,” “flaming shot,” or “flaming Dr. Pepper” brings up thousands of videos, the vast majority of which are shot in bars and restaurants. It is still shocking that bars continue to engage in this practice even in our modern era of litigation and insurance premiums.
The foolishness can take many forms. Bartenders wipe down the bar with high-proof spirits and set them ablaze. They spew a shot of high-proof spirits into the air and set it alight like dragon’s breath. They remove the flame arrester from a bottle of high-proof spirits and set the stream on fire.
And they set up a rack of shots to light and ceremoniously dump into a row of beers—often, for maximum showmanship, spewing burning alcohol across the rack of shots to light everything up in a blaze of stupidity .
Yes, these pyrotechnic displays look cool, and yes, they can get a crowd fired up. But occasionally tragedy strikes, and when it does people can be very seriously injured. The Journal of Burn Care and Research in 2006 reviewed the medical records of 25 patients admitted to one hospital in a 30-month period for face burns caused by flaming drinks.
The same year, the Journal of the International Society for Burn Injuries published a case report titled “Burns Due to Flaming Alcoholic Beverages in the UK: A miniseries and experimental study.” The report reviewed multiple cases, including one in which a guest suffered 25% burns to her arm, leg, chest and abdomen after the bartender “poured a flammable drink onto the bar and set it alight as part of a show.”
A famous case of flaming drink-related injury involved a venue in New York that allegedly lit its bar on fire with 151-proof alcohol while “Great Balls of Fire” played over the sound system. The bartender allegedly removed the flame arrester from the bottle, and the flame lept up the stream of booze, igniting the contents of the bottle, which then shot out of the mouth of the bottle like a flamethrower.
One guest was engulfed in flames, seriously injured and subsequently spent three weeks in a hospital burn unit. As might be expected, she filed suit against both the bar and the spirits manufacturer. Had the bar not played with fire in the first place, the customer would never have left in an ambulance.
A Chilling tale
Not only is serving flaming drinks a bad idea, but serving drinks that are colder than -320 degrees Fahrenheit is, too. Popularized by celebrity chefs, liquid nitrogen has been increasingly used in recent years in the preparation of drinks. Although typically used to chill glasses, it’s now a part of the molecular gastronomy trend that includes fancy cocktails producing smoky, “dry-ice like” special effects.
An incident in the U.K. this past October illustrates the danger. A girl celebrating her 18th birthday at a local bar had a near-death experience after downing two “Nitro Jagermeister” cocktails. The drinks, alleged to have contained liquid nitrogen, caused such serious cold burns to her stomach that doctors had to remove the organ in a life-saving procedure.
Although the bar involved in that incident has (smartly) stopped serving its liquid nitrogen cocktails, a major legal battle is undoubtedly on the horizon.
Admittedly, some flaming-alcohol injuries are caused by guests who ignite their own drinks, or by drinkers who set themselves on fire at home. But you control the actions of your bartenders, and may do so with the intent of preventing injuries—and subsequent lawsuits.
Set and enforce policies
So train bartenders to excite and engage guests with their witty banter and dazzling personalities, not cheap carnival tricks. More important, initiate zero-tolerance policies against flaming drinks—as well as flaming food, especially anything flambéed tableside, where an errant sleeve or the bump of a chair can have disastrous consequences.
And once you have the policies in place, enforce them. There is perhaps nothing so dangerous in a plaintiff’s arsenal as a defendant’s policy that recognizes danger but is not enforced.
Exercise common sense when entertaining your guests, and they will come back to you willingly. Engage in dangerous foolishness, and they—or their next of kin—will likely come back with a lawsuit.