Ryan Forsythe did what he thought was impossible when he wrangled roughly 20 leading bartenders and managers on their day off to discuss the need for a better communication tool. To break the ice, Forsythe compared it to calling together the heads of the crime families in The Godfather. However, it sparked the birth of something new: The Syndicate.
“A couple of instances when I was working downtown, I’d see someone that would be too drunk come in or was just outlandish, I wouldn’t serve them, kicked them out, then [I would] watch them stumble into Matador or [whatever bar] was around,” Forsythe said.
Now in its seventh year, The Syndicate is a group chat with around 250 members, all service industry workers. The idea came from the countless calls he would make to other bars if a rowdy person or party was headed their way. After calling time and time again, he thought of a more efficient way to let the bar staff know if anything was coming. In a way, The Syndicate amounts to Boise’s “86 List,” or the list of people who are no longer allowed back into the bar.
“After about the third time of me when I wasn’t getting rocked, I would call Matador and was like, ‘Hey, this is the description, this is what the guy looks like,’ they’d be like ‘thank you,’ you know, and hang up. But other than that, half the other times it’s just, unfortunately, I had to pass on some bad juju to another bar,” he said.
Forsythe, who works the bar at Chandler’s, is what’s referred to in the service industry as a “lifer.” He has made his career cutting cocktails at bars and restaurants all over the City of Trees, and has no plans of leaving. He wanted to craft a better working relationship between the bars of downtown Boise. There wasn’t animosity between establishments, but there wasn’t cooperation, either, and there was no organized means of communication between industry workers. The solution to the problem was simple: A group chat that includes all of the bartenders, bouncers and bar backs around town.
The Syndicate has since become a tool that has become essential for Boise’s bars, though it’s not always easy to manage, Forsythe said. With hundreds of members, the general chatter can get too loud, potentially drowning out important messages.
“There has also been an instance where we were really busy and my phone was blowing up with The Syndicate, but I couldn’t look. Then all night we got a really unruly guest, we had a little scene... had to escort him out,” he said. “I look on The Syndicate and someone showed a picture of him on Eighth Street two hours ago.”
Forsythe doesn’t try to police every interaction, and he doesn’t want to. If bartenders want to drop in a funny customer story, or even a motivational “go make some money” post, that’s perfectly fine—he just doesn’t want the chat to get too casual.
“It’s not a library, it’s just when it gets out of hand,” he said.
He has banked a few amusing, recent stories from the group chat. A bartender at The Balcony filmed a man dancing on top of a cop car outside of the bar on Eighth Street. Shortly thereafter, she sent a video of the man being arrested. Ultimately, the chat’s efficacy comes down to user judgement, he said. All the members of the group have different standards as to what rises to the level of posting there.
“I think every bartender [knows] when someone goes over the line,” he said. “I haven’t seen too many things on The Syndicate where people haven’t used it the right way.”
In a way, the group chat allows the bartenders of Boise to be omnipresent across downtown, and even the Boise Police Department has taken notice, and has expressed interest in joining the list, hoping to warn bartenders of people who have active warrants or any other potential dangers. Forsythe said the members of the group have almost unanimously shut that idea down, insisting their informal system remain between them, though bars do work closely with Boise Police in other areas.
“People are always on their phones, they’re always looking,” Forsythe said. “We have all of this technology, why not use it?”
At times, he does have to play referee and remind the people in the group why they have the tool and using it appropriately is key to making sure it is effective. User discretion is key to making sure the group chat operates in an orderly fashion. To that end, every bar and every bartender has different standards for what deserves a post in The Syndicate. When the bar staff at Amsterdam shares something, it’s usually big, like counterfeit bills, Forsythe said, but those posts are few and far between.
Amsterdam, along with other watering holes owned by Boise nightlife guru Ted Challenger, have the most comprehensive 86 list in town. He isn’t a part of The Syndicate, but members of his staff are. Like many downtown bars, Challenger’s spots—Strangelove, Dirty Little Roddys and Amsterdam—keep their 86 lists in-house. He recently started using an app to track patrons who perpetuate violence or racism in his businesses, then they’re flagged by the app. The next time the person tries to scan their ID to get into one of his clubs, it notifies the bouncer that they’re not to be admitted. Despite having this technology for a few months, Challenger’s 86 list already hovers around 260 people.
“Any violence whatsoever: automatically eighty-sixed,” Challenger said. “It’s been really helpful with cameras, too. … We follow them back to the door and see when they scanned.”
Right now the technology is approximately 90% effective, as the computer servers that maintain the list can gum up during high-volume times. However, Challenger said he’s working with the company that designed the new technology to make sure it’s completely effective in the near future.
Challenger’s old club, China Blue, was known as a bastion of bad behavior in the Boise nightlife scene. There was even a murder that took place on the dance floor a couple of years prior. Challenger rebranded China Blue as Strangelove earlier this year, and its problem with violent customers is almost completely gone.
“Strangelove is very non-violent now; we eliminated the people that were causing the violence,” he said.
While many bars in town will offer a temporary ban to people who may have had a bad night, Challenger is not so generous. At any of his bars, a one-time ban is a lifetime ban, and there are no exceptions.
Challenger has taken some other steps to eliminate threatening activity in his bars outside of using technology to track the bad actors. He implemented a light dress code that prohibits sports jerseys and overly baggy or tattered clothing. The combination of the two, he said, has been an effective stop to the problems that previously plagued his bars.
While Challenger isn’t directly a member of The Syndicate, he thinks it’s a great tool for his staff to use. It can go from catching sting operations set up by Boise Police to warning other bars about people walking out on their tabs. Boise’s nightlife is better off for it, he said.
“I think it’s great that the bartenders communicate,” he said. “The internet has been one of the best things for bar owners.”
Making use of the technology available to create a safer space was exactly Forsythe’s idea when he started The Syndicate.
Violence isn’t the only kind of threatening behavior that can get patrons shown the door. The other immediate ban at Challenger’s bars, as well as other Boise bars, is racism. He said he recently had a couple of customers who harassed one of his bouncers for his Muslim faith. Both men immediately got the boot, he said.
While instances of racism are fewer in number than incidents of customers getting a bit too rowdy, it does happen with some frequency. Those instances are often dealt with in-house, and are typically broadcast to the group if a bartender believes that customer may go somewhere else and behave the same way.
When bar patrons do begin to dabble in racist or otherwise unsavory behavior, it’s almost always under the guise of something less harmful. In the case of Grace Lovera, who pours beers at Woodland Empire, it came in the form of a question.
Lovera was behind the pine one night when two men entered and sat down at the bar, chatting among themselves before Lovera took their orders, asking how their days were going. She found out they were from out of town. When she asked where they were from, they responded with the same question to her. This cascaded into questioning why her father would want to bring his family to the U.S. and what his thoughts were at the time. Lovera, who was born in Peru, has lived in America for most of her life. To her mind, where she was born is nobody’s business but hers.
“The second I told them I was born in Peru I noticed a shift,” she said. “I finally caught on to how they were being, like shitty and racist. … I realized that was happening, and they would kind of make jokes and laugh to themselves.”
Negative customer interactions are uncommon there, and for the most part, Lovera enjoys the customers who come in and the conversation that comes from that. Additionally, she has complete control over who she serves. At Woodland Empire, the management trusts the staff when they decide to remove a customer from the bar.
However, she didn’t share that on the group chat. It was an unsavory interaction, but she didn’t feel that these two were planning to make a night of it at bars around Boise.
“We try really hard to signal here that this is not a space for that sort of thing,” Woodland Empire Taproom Manager Christian Atley said.
There are a number of signs and flags, including the Pride Flag and Trans Pride Flag, that not only seek to craft a more inclusive space, but also show would-be bad actors that bigotry won’t be tolerated there.
“The second that they say something racist, the second they do something like that, they’re gone,” Atley said.
Still, as with his cohort, instances of racism or bigotry often start with the patrons testing the waters and seeing what they can get away with. Those customers, Atley said, often drop a quip or a turn of phrase to see if casual racism will be tolerated.
There are, however, instances when that isn’t the case. Recently, a woman and her friend were having drinks at the taphouse one evening, Atley said. After a couple of drinks, one woman became irritated with another customer and shouted, “Do you hate me because you’re Mexican?”
The other customer she accosted was not, in fact, Mexican, but for the staff of Woodland Empire, her conduct crossed the line, and she was banned from Woodland Empire for life.
“Sometimes you have to be really firm with people,” Atley said.
Whether that comes in the form of letting someone know they’re not welcome to discuss racist, misogynist or otherwise bigoted views, or kicking them out for their conduct, drawing a line is crucial, he said.
That line begins and ends with the comfort level of the staff, all of whom are authorized to toss a customer out for bad behavior, no questions asked. For Atley, if a customer uses a racial slur or is otherwise threatening to staff or other customers, they’re automatically out. It’s when people engage in covert racism that things become slightly more complicated.
“I would love for us to have really strict criteria, but I don’t know if it exists right now,” he said. “I really trust the staff. … They’ve got to have the power, they’ve got to have the tools to throw someone out.”
Atley said he and others try to be careful with what’s posted to The Syndicate—not only to eliminate the clutter of the group, but to protect customers’ privacy, too.
“With 260 of us it’s not like a secret, but we don’t really advertise it,” he said.
Atley said he didn’t send anything to The Syndicate about the woman who yelled at another customer, but if she had used a pejorative term, he likely would have. However, he did send a video to the group of a man stealing money from the tip jar, which he allegedly had done at other bars in town. In the video, a man wearing a red shirt walks into Woodland Empire and sits at the bar near the tip jar. Atley had suspected it was him, so he sat in the corner pretending to scroll on his phone. Lovera noticed Atley recording, and went in the back to leave the bar seemingly unattended. The moment she went in the back, the man at the bar reached into the tip jar, which is when Atley sprang from his seat to confront him. Atley immediately told the man he’d call the police and that he had a video.
When that video made its way to The Syndicate, many confirmed that they, too, had seen the offending patron. To his knowledge, the would-be tip thief hasn’t tried again.
Atley said that Woodland Empire has a slight advantage compared to some of the other bars around town. It doesn’t serve liquor and is only open until 11 p.m. on weekends, and 10 p.m. all other nights—a state of affairs that makes for a much less raucous customer base than other spots around town like The Balcony, which are primed for louder, wilder and oftentimes more intoxicated customers.
Will Kennedy, a bartender at The Balcony, said The Syndicate buzzes with activity on high-volume nights, but like Woodland Empire, sharing anything to the group is done with act. There have been a few instances in which it has been necessary to alert the group to some danger, but with a full bar staff, as well as a security staff of six to seven people, it’s easier to keep patrons in line.
“Largely, our community is really accepting,” he said.
For Kennedy, that’s likely because the patrons of The Balcony know they’re going into a broadly welcoming environment. The instances he has to deal with most frequently are typically in the vein of sexual harassment.
Workers and guests at The Balcony alike are often scantily clad, which is OK as long as everyone is mindful of boundaries. Recently, during one of Kennedy’s shifts, a man tried to sneak behind the bar to touch him inappropriately. He thinks the man was just trying to be playful and flirtatious, but it crossed a line for him.
“I literally had to dodge him trying to spank me,” he said, “I told him immediately, that’s not cool, get the f*** out.”
Like many bars, The Balcony has had to deal with some racism in the past. While Kennedy was tending bar on a busy night, a man approached him and asked if it was OK to remove his shirt on the dance floor. That’s a fairly typical request, so it was fine with him and other staff, Kennedy said.
However, when he took his shirt off, he revealed a portrait of Adolf Hitler tattooed on his chest before disappearing into the crowd. Admittedly, Kennedy said he and the staff didn’t know what to do in that moment, and ultimately nothing was done.
“He acted like it was nothing,” he said.
The most common occurrence is guests making other guests feel uncomfortable by unwanted flirting or attention. That usually just requires a conversation, but if the issue persists, more drastic action is taken.
“We absolutely do have instances where we have to talk to management,” he said. “If it does become an actual habit, they’re eighty-sixed.”
When things do find a way into The Syndicate, it’s often the repeat offenders who are out for a night and likely to wander into other bars after being ousted from one. Kennedy said the repeat offenders even garner a following among bartenders—a trend Forsythe confirmed.
Forsythe said that often when a person known to cause problems after a few drinks comes in, he’ll text the group to let them know. Often those people just require a careful eye, but if they have had a few drinks before they enter the bar, bartenders will simply ask them to leave and say “not tonight.”
“In my head, no one should have to put up with that,” Forsythe said. “You can try 10 Barrel, it’s not going to happen, you can try Matador, it’s not going to happen. You’re going to have to go to Meridian, pretty much.”
This helps to keep not only the bar staff prepared, but also helps them collectively create a better experience for the customers. The group chat is not always used to warn other bars about bad customers, either. Sometimes it’s used to gather the troops for an “industry night” or even to let the bartenders know about customers who could use a warm welcome.
“We had four pilots from the Navy staying in our hotel, and you know, they ate dinner with us and I sent a picture on the group [saying], ‘I sent them down Sixth and Main,’ and hopefully they had a good time,” Forsythe said. “Wherever they went, they were recognized.”
Editor's note: Wording in this story was changed to better reflect the context in which it was spoken.