Age verification at bars and restaurants hasn’t always been a streamlined, or even reliable, process.
My mom told me that in the 70s, she and her other 15-year-old friends would turn their dime-store rings around and wear them like wedding bands – and this would get them into age-restricted restaurants and bars in her hometown. Back then, the legal drinking age was a state-made decision, with some setting the drinking age as low as 18. Even earlier, prior to prohibition, it was permissible in many areas of the US for minors to drink beer and wine with parental consent.
In 1984, the federal government passed a mandate that required all states to raise both the legal drinking AND alcohol purchasing age to 2021. All 50 states, plus Washington DC, finally complied by 1988, and the age verification process became more stringent – both in the interest of protecting the minor, as well as the establishment.
But modern underaged drinkers are sophisticated in their trickery, and have been known to swipe IDs from older siblings, or order convincing fakes that in some cases feature many of the built-in authenticity marks present in the real thing.
Even really poor fakes sometimes make it through, often due to lax checking processes on the part of an inattentive bartender. So the alcohol industry is seeking new and better ways to make age verification faster and more effective for bars and restaurants to perform. Let’s dive in.
What is age verification?
Bars and restaurants run the risk of losing their liquor license if they end up serving an alcoholic beverage to someone under the legal drinking age of 21. With this in mind, they are obligated to perform some procedure or other that corroborates the patron’s age. This is what we refer to as “age verification.” And checking a patron’s government-issued driver’s license, passport, or identification card is usually the best way for establishments to confirm the customer’s age.
Challenges of age verification in bars and restaurants
Unfortunately, ID-checking is not a foolproof procedure. As mentioned in the intro, fakes have become increasingly convincing and an at-a-glance check might prove inadequate. Barcodes and magnetics stripes may even be forged, and can trick your ID-scanning machines in addition to the watchful eyes of your bouncer. Fortunately, however, a thorough age verification check, whether or not it turns out to be fake, releases the restaurant or bar from liability.
Another issue is that many alcohol vendors, including grocery stores, market stalls, as well as restaurants and bars, pick and choose who they ID based on the appearance of the patron. Some shops have posted: “We ID anyone who looks under the age of 35.” But not everyone who is under 21 looks under 21, and an especially beardy teenager might just slip under the radar. It is best to have an ID-everyone policy in order to better protect your business and staff.
A final problem being posed by technology, rather than mitigated by it, is the new popularity of home alcohol delivery over apps like DoorDash and InstaCart. In these cases, the delivery drivers are obliged to check the IDs of the customer upon arrival. But if they don’t, it’s the proprietor that is held responsible, despite the third-party nature of the operation.
Age verification technology and apps
As food and bev service technology advances, so too must the way in which we protect ourselves and our community. Some age verification apps are using in-app ID verification to confirm the age and identity of their patrons: users take a picture of both sides of their ID and upload it to the application. Really sophisticated applications then perform a live face scan to check the user against the photos.
The physical age verification scanner represents an earlier solution to ID verification, however this tech may prove inadequate in the face of today’s sophisticated fakes, and will not be admissible as “due diligence” in age verification on the part of a proprietor should an underaged drinker slip through. IDs must still be examined by hand in order to release your establishment from liability.
For thorough age verification, companies like mobile food delivery solutions still prefer a manual approach to ID checking. DoorDash gives detailed instructions to their delivery drivers on how they can thoroughly examine an ID, and even tell a fake from the real thing. Some delivery apps do require the driver to photograph the ID to prove it was checked. In an age where identity theft is at an all time high, however, this is proving to be an unpopular solution.
Pros and cons of age verification tools
Pro: It allows you to expand your service radius. Digital solutions and new age verification tools do mean you don’t have to be physically present when it happens, allowing you to sell your signature cocktails to a wider audience of delivery-app users.
Con: They can easily be tricked. It becomes even more possible for fakes to be admitted without a thorough inspection from your experienced bartender. And without a face-scan, digital ID verification may be bypassed by a kid with access to mom’s wallet.
Pro: It allows you to maintain service in the event of quarantine. New age verification systems were lifesaving to bars and restaurants during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, and meant that in spite of everything they could still serve their patrons in the safety of their own homes.
Con: They cannot substitute for human examination. Nothing beats seeing, touching, and comparing ID to holder in terms of age verification. Scanners can be tricked, and digital solutions bypassed. But, as the CEO of Real Identities says, “There is no substitute for checking ID with the human eye and human touch.”
Other tech solutions for bars and restaurants
Provi is an all-in-one alcohol inventory application that lets you track orders, plan future purchases, and keep tabs on your stock all from a single point of contact. This lets you spend less time counting bottles in your back room, and gives you more to spend sweet-talking your customers (and sussing out the sketchy ID brought in by that stack of kids in a trench coat.)
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