Asked about the Madison Responsible Retailing Forum, Hawk Schenkel at first draws a blank: "I've never heard of it." Blame it on the group's name, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
In fact, once the concept is explained, Schenkel, the owner of Hawk's Bar and Grill on State Street, realizes he has been participating for months. To his mind, it's the "Miller" program, funded by Miller Beer (actually MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch InBev and local alcohol distributors).
Now the program to monitor alcohol-sale compliance is about to expand, both geographically and in terms of its mission, according to Madison Responsible Retailing Forum chair Justin Frank of Frank Liquor Co., a local distributor.
Currently the forum has been embraced by 40 alcohol retailers - liquor stores, restaurants and bars - most in downtown Madison. Participating outlets receive materials, training and visits from "secret shoppers" who look as though they might be underage. (They are, in fact, legal adults, so no laws are actually broken even if they're served.)
But in the next several weeks, invitations to join will be sent to every store in Madison that sells alcohol - some 80 additional businesses, says Frank. And the secret shopper program will soon branch out to include actors posing as intoxicated persons. (They will, in fact, be sober.)
"Out-of-town people will be coming in to train [additional shoppers]," says Frank. He adds that the program's Boston-based coordinator "has feelers out to some local actors." Even Bobby De Niro had to start somewhere.
The testers provide instant feedback, giving green cards to servers who ask for IDs (or refuse to serve roaring drunks) and red cards to those who don't. These are followed with letters to the establishment.
Frank says owners "like having someone check their employees" to make sure they're doing the right thing. Schenkel agrees: "It's a good program. I think it's good to keep bar owners honest."
Schenkel likes that bar owners get feedback without anybody being fined. He says his bar has gotten about 10 green cards and one red one - involving a new bartender. How did he handle it? "I said, 'You've got to card people. What's wrong with you?'"
Preliminary numbers for Madison were not available, but Frank says compliance nationally is "much higher than what is perceived by the public."