I frequently do consumption bar when I host events (surprise birthdays, retirements, graduations, etc.). However, I usually only have about 75 people max and my family are not drinkers. They will maybe have one drink max with dinner and on a very rare occasion may have a second drink (I’m the drinker of the family). My friends and I are moderate drinkers who primarily drink at happy hour or special/family occasions like weddings or family BBQs. My last consumption bar for a group of 55 came to about $200 before tip to give any indication of just how light of drinkers they are (soda was already included in my catering package). If my SO’s family is in the mix, the tab is higher, but still worth doing consumption.
However, I used to bartend at a venue. I’ve seen bar tabs for a crowd of 150 reach over $5000 on a 3 – 3.5 hour cruise when the flat rate would have only cost them about $3300. I’ve seen people pay way more with consumption bar than it would have been at the bar’s flat fee open bar rate.
So I would ask yourself a lot of questions before committing to consumption bar:
1. What kind of drinkers are my crowd? If half of your crowd abstains from alcohol for personal/religious reasons, maybe it’s worth it. Likewise, will you have kids at your wedding? Kids obviously aren’t hitting the schnapps and parents who bring their kids are likely to have one or both parents drinking very lightly compared to parents leaving their kids at home.
Also, remember that just because you’ve never witnessed your family or friends drink heavily doesn’t mean they’ll act the same at a wedding. Except for a happy hour gathering about once every month or two, I rarely drink at home and will maybe have one drink out to dinner (and usually only when I’m on vacation). But at a celebration? I will knock them back. And even my family of non-drinkers will have one or two at a celebration.
2. What are the bar prices per drink at your venue? If you’re at a VFW charging rock bottom prices, consumption might be smart. If you’re at a hotel ballroom and they are charging higher prices, it might not be.
3. What kind of drinks does your crowd prefer? Are they primarily beer drinkers (usually cheaper) or are they cocktail drinkers (usually more expensive)? My crowd loves their bourbon, whiskey, and rum with only a few prefering beer or wine.
Do the math. The average drinker will have two drinks the first hour (cocktail hour usually) and one additional drink for every hour of the reception thereafter. So at a five hour reception the average person will knock back six drinks. Some may drink less, some may drink more – this is what it averages out to. If you know the whole crowd leans toward light or toward heavy drinking, you can adjust upward or downward. So is the flat rate divided by the projected number of drinks per person cheaper or more expensive than you multiplying the number of drinks by the price per drink at the consumption rate? Make sure when doing the math you’re multiplying by the more expensive of the options, particularly if you know your crowd likes hard liquor rather than beer.
Finally, I would ask your venue if you have the option of switching from one to the other. In other words, if it looks like people are drinking a lot and you’ll exceed the flat rate cost, would they be willing to switch you to flat rate half way through the night when it’s time to settle the tab?