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Time Is Running Out for Thousands of Bay Area Bartenders and Servers Required to Take This New Statewide Training

Here’s why industry spokespeople say the deadline needs to be pushed out — again

A bartender pouring a cocktail Albert Law
Lauren Saria is the editor of Eater SF and has been writing about food, drinks, and restaurants for more than a decade.

Hundreds of thousands of bartenders, servers, and service industry managers around California are hurtling toward a deadline to complete a new mandatory statewide training program.

On July 1, Assembly Bill 1221, or the Responsible Beverage Service Training Act goes into effect, requiring that anyone who serves alcohol or makes drinks — or even checks IDs — must complete a three- to four-hour training program and pass a two-hour open book test. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million California service industry workers will have 60 days, or until August 31, to actually get that certification, which the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) says aims to reduce the number of drunk driving accidents and deaths in the state.

But San Francisco’s bar and restaurant lobbies the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and San Francisco Bar Owners Alliance say the fast-approaching deadline must be pushed out for a myriad of reasons — including most significantly that the training is currently only available in English and Spanish. On Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also passed a resolution asking the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to delay the law’s implementation, which was originally supposed to happen in July 2021 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

In a press release, the co-founder of Sam Wo Restaurant and Lion’s Den Lounge in Chinatown Steve Lee said the lack of training materials in additional languages could put further stress on an industry that’s already struggling with staffing shortages. “This tight timeline is unfair to small restaurants who employ servers who are limited English proficient — more time and resources are needed to even the playing field,” Lee’s statement reads in part.

Ben Bleiman, founder of the San Francisco Bar Owners Alliance and a prominent advocate for bar owners in the city, estimated that as many as 90 percent of San Francisco businesses haven’t yet gotten their staff certified. It’s an unnecessarily complicated process, he says, in part because the training is administered through a relatively small number of third-party companies that must be approved by the state. Before workers can sign up for the course, however, they must also register with the ABC in order to receive a 9-digit ID, which costs $3. That’s on top of fees for the training, which can run from $6-40 per person, depending on the company and whether it’s completed in person or online. Bleiman also points out some workers may be hesitant to join a statewide registry if they’re living in the country without the appropriate legal paperwork.

A spokesperson for the ABC tells the Los Angeles Times the department will focus on “outreach rather than immediately penalizing businesses that fail to comply.” But Bleiman says assurances that business owners won’t immediately be held responsible for making sure their staff have done the training isn’t enough. “There’s not a lot of trust between permit holders and licensees and the ABC,” Bleiman says. Plus, he says bar and restaurant owners will still bear the burden of additional legal liability as soon as the law goes into effect, whether or not the department is actively enforcing it. “Just to add this into the fray, it’s just kind of offensively annoying,” Bleiman says.

John Park, owner and operator of KAIYŌ and Managing Partner of Brick x Brick Hospitality Group (KAIYŌ, Whitechapel and Novela), is a part of the SF Bar Owners Alliance and says he’s already started getting his bars staff certified — but agrees that the rollout of the new program has been problematic. “[The] training has been on my radar for little while now, however the state and ABC have done little to make it widely known across the industry, and more importantly, to effectively communicate the resources needed to become compliant,” Park says via email. Not only should there be more time for workers to complete the certification, he says, but it should also be free.

Ilya Romanov, owner of Bar Iris on Polk Street, is one of the many Bay Area bartenders and servers who will have to take the training but have yet to do so. He says he hasn’t heard much about the deadline from industry friends probably because many bar owners and workers are focusing on other pressing issues, like keeping their staff healthy and safe despite the most recent COVID surge and figuring out how to keep their doors open after the past two years of struggles. “There are definitely other priorities,” he says simply.

Still, Romanov says he’s planning to get his certification online in the next few days — before he starts encouraging his staff to do the same. Romanov, a longtime San Francisco bar industry vet, says he supports the idea of providing more training about how to safely serve alcohol, especially for those new to the industry. But also points out that the existing TIPS training, which is free, already covers that information. “Why would you want to spend time and additional money to do basically a certification that’s very similar to something you’ve already done?”