Should Water Be Free?

Several restaurants in America recently decided they’re going to stop serving bottled water for ecological reasons, in spite of fact that sales of pricey bottled water are perhaps a significant source of revenue, which helps them stay in business.

Some argue that water should be free of charge and shouldn’t be ‘commoditized’ while there’s an opposing arguement that water is a precious resource and is often wasted because the price we pay is too low and doesn’t reflect the actual cost.

In Italy, carafes of still or sparkling water are commonly offered to diners gratis. However it’s standard practice to often add a coperto (cover charge) to the restaurant check, around 1€-2€, presumably to cover the cost of extras, like water and bread.

(The city of Paris started a campaign trying to wean Parisians off bottled water, offering fancy carafes as incentive. I don’t think the carafes have been quite the grand success since I’ve never seen one in use—although sales of bottled water in France are indeed dropping.)

  • Do you think restaurants should charge a dollar or so to offset the significant loss from dropping the sale of bottled water?

  • Would you pay an extra dollar to support a restaurant that, for ecological reasons, offered filtered tap water?

  • Or do you think restaurants should not charge at all, since they’re saving money on storage space and refrigeration?



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    29 comments

    • Water is not free anywhere. Potable water is becoming more costly than oil in some ways. I am by law forbidden to use it to water my garden or wash my car.
      Should it be charged for? It will be, whether it becomes a % of overall price or coperto or a 50 centesimo charge for clean carafe and glasses. Perhaps in the US where there is profligate use of potable water you can make a case for no charge, but in the rest of the world water can be very precious.

    • I have no idea how to answer these questions. I just know I LOVE those water carafes they put on the table!
      So pretty, so paintable..they add to the generally glossiness of a Paris table top.
      The Laduree crackly carafes are to die for…
      Hmmm…on another note, I got an email asking me to go buy a bottle of water and send in an analysis. It seems that bottled water in the US is not regulated as tap water is, and can be full of all sorts of stuff!
      PS David..I only have expresso cups-no coffee

    • I don’t see any problem getting charged for it, but I think it should be rolled into the ‘linen fee’ that restaurants already have. If they need to make up for the bottom line, just build it into the price so it takes the sting out of it a little :)

    • A baker who specializes in doughnuts recently opened up by my house. He has a horrible location, and is admittedly struggling. His pastries are out of this world, well, in comparison to the chain and grocery store offerings. His biggest complaint is that he knows he cannot compete with Dunkin Donut’s coffee. DD is in the business of selling coffee, not donuts. They invest heavily in water filtration systems to clean the water in order to extract the coffee(which I learned even more about on this site this week). I’d pay a little extra for his coffee if he would buy a better filtration system, so I suppose the water question would roll into all beverages made on site.

      FWIW, a friend of mine sells expensive home filtration systems, and he is an advocate of Aquafina as a clean still water.

    • I would pay an extra dollar for ecological reasons.

      I live in NYC and our tap water is some of the finest in the world. It all comes from the Adirondacks. It is very clean and pure – almost sweet tasting.

      My only thing is that I prefer my water sparkling. I have a Soda Club carbonator for that purpose and use a Brita as the building I live in will be 100 this year and who knows how old the pipes are! I love it.

      In restaurants I usually order seltzer and ask them not to bring me flat tap. Most restaurants have fountain/bar carbonators and it’s just carbonated tap water anyway. I get frustrated at “high end” restaurants that won’t bring me carbonated tap water but insist that the only carbonated water they have is San Pelligrino. Don’t get me wrong, I love my SP, but I’m trying to be ecological over here!!!

      Anyway, that’s my answer.

      I think in other places where the local water is not always potable (New Orleans, much of the south, etc.) one needs better filters than the Brita system. In some sense, one already pays.

      I guess I do think we should pay for water – but I also don’t think that we should deprive potable water to the poor. But if we are talking about restaurants, we’re not talking about the poor – are we?

      N.

    • In Brazil restaurants don’t serve tap water, just bottled and charge for it. I think they do this for health reasons, since not all tap water are drinkable around here… too bad.

    • I can see many people refusing to patronize restaurants that do this, on principle. If you need to make up the price, raise your food prices 50 centimes a dish. People expect the food prices to go up, but if you start tacking on a “we don’t offer this any more, so we have to add an extra charge” charge, you’re going to have some disgruntled customers.

      It’s not like there aren’t enough extra fees in France as it is.

    • I wouldnt pay because I usually order a diet soda. However, if I didnt order the soda and was asked if I wanted filtered water and I said yes, then I’d pay.

    • Yes, I would happily pay for water. First, water is a precious natural resource. It just makes sense to pay for it. Second, and this is specific to San Francisco, the restaurant business has been really hard hit by employee-friendly legislation recently (increase in the minimum wage, which is already well above the national average; paid sick leave; and mandatory health insurance). I’m sympathetic to the workers and believe in the measures passed to protect them, BUT the unfortunate and very real downside is that it’s getting very hard for restaurants in this city to be profitable. It’s the kind of thing that has some considering a permanent “cover charge” and others thinking of moving outside the city. For that specific reason, I definitely support paying for my water in the city — anything to help maintain our vibrant restaurant culture.

    • I would pay for it. I pay for the bottled water now, because, where I live, they don’t filter the tap very well. But if they were going to filter it better and stop serving bottled altogether, then yes, I would pay. It’s only a dollar, after all. And I would like my restaurants to stay in business.

    • I think restaurants would get a lot of complaints in the U.S. if they suddenly started charging for tap water, but I think that, at the same time, we should all learn that water isn’t the unlimited free resource we seem to think it is.

      I grew up in water rationing conditions and I think since I’ve moved away from home I’ve forgotten a lot of the good habits I learned as a kid about rationing and reusing water.

      While I think it would go easier on restaurants if they just bundled the cost into their overall price, I also think that people could be trained to be less wasteful if they had to pay. I often see people ask for water for the table and then drink only a little of it and leave the rest sitting. If they had to pay for each glass, they might think twice about automaticall ordering water whether they really want it or not.

    • If it were filtered water then yes, I usually order lemonade because most restaruants serve tap water around here (if you don’t order bottled).

      I also agree though that most people would not, so it would just be easier to bump up the food prices 10-20 cents or so. I do not think that it is right to add it as a “cover” or “linen” charge as it is not fair to those who drink soda, wine, tea.

      Also to KT, are you saying that you have never had a server who has filled your glass without asking weather you would like more? I had one the other night bring fresh drinks after we paid our check. I couldn’t get my head around that one.

    • Call me old fashioned but I believe that access to free tap water should be a right for everyone. On the other hand I might pay a small cover charge if it were voluntary. In many restaurants in London if you order tap water they stare at you as if you are a cross between Osama Bin Laden and Jack the Ripper. A nominal charge might help in this respect.

    • I remember my shock when I first went to Europe 20 years ago and wasn’t automatically given free water. At the time my husband and I thought bottled water was an idiotic notion. On the other hand, we loved Cafe au Lait. So go figure. Who knew that bottled water would become all the rage? Anyway, what’s the big deal with bottled water. We can’t recyle the bottles? I’m confused. But, for the sake of arguement, put me in the category of payment for H2O.

    • As someone currently living in Germany, where they passed a law sometime about twenty-five years ago saying that you no longer had to provide free water in restaurants, I worry about water requirements. I often have to pay as much for a glass of water as I would for a glass of beer or soda. Having grown up in the States, this is foreign to me. One can ask in establishments for “Leitungswasser” (tap water) but while in western Germany they will more often than not unhappily comply, in eastern Germany I’ve been flat out refused, and one time even served an espresso-size cup of warm water by a very grumpy waitress.

      I think a nominal fee for filtered tap water (or tap water in general) is not a problem – it’s a natural resource we should learn to use sparingly. But it’s when the only water option is as expensive as the other drinks on the menu that I get upset. Where do we draw the line? I fear we might start off with charging 50 cents, then we’ll up it to a dollar, and then sudddenly we’re in Germany’s situation. I’m not sure how to solve the problem, but I guess we just need to be careful – with our resources and our laws.

    • as a french customer, i think i would be shocked if my favorite restaurant ask money for the tap water.
      the price of a restaurant is expensive enough, and welcoming a customer suppose to offer him/her the minimum to have a great meal : water, bread, butter, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, mustard.
      i often go to belgium where they don’t give any water or bread with the meal, and even if i know this is a matter of tradition, every time i feel not welcome in the restaurant.

      besides that, i would pay fancy bottled waters as perrier or evian or something.

      i think here in france we consider water as the minimum as the sauces are the minimum in a fastfood restaurant anywhere. “want some ketchup little pocket of sauce on your french fries? pay more” . i think anyone would think that this restaurant is really greedy :D .

    • Where I live, in the middle of the US, most restaurants ask if you would like a glass of water. If the answer is yes, it’s free. If no, they save the trouble of the glass to wash (and the water it takes to wash the glass) and the water. Getting a customer to pay for a glass of tap water would be difficult. The reaction would be, “You’re joking, right?”

    • Tap water should be free, however only supplied upon request and with a smile and quickly. Living in China I order bottled water as soon as I sit down, unless I am in a restaurant that provides “clean” water for drinking then I order the “clean” water. I will then order a different beverage to have with my meal or to end my meal. Water is something our bodies need. It quenches our thirst, cleanses our palate, and can also be a safety measure if someone is choking on something and will help wash it down.

      There are many people that take medication with meals, the best thing to wash a pill down is with water. Being a headache sufferer and living in a hot climate it is important to be able to take that pill and feel a bit refreshed while you look at the menu and wait for your juice or coffee to arrive.

      As far as paying for a fancy filtration system goes I would say the proprietor of the business would have to look at increasing the amount he charges for the food and other items on the menu and build the cost into the menu. Since the filtered water would be used for coffees,teas,lemonades, and perhaps even soups and stews.
      So don’t charge for water but do provide it if it is requested. (at least not a visible charge and be reasonable)
      Waiters/waitresses should never be snobs to the customer if they order tap water, in the end the service and politeness in which they serve the meal is the impression the customer has of the restaurant. If I were snubbed because I ordered tap water I would cross that business off my list to frequent again.
      In the end most people do not go to a restaurant just to have a glass of water.

    • Tai said it the best of all the comment. Save the best for last!

    • If restaurants here in NYC charged a dollar for a glass of tap water, my first question would be, “Do I get free refills?” It would probably be in the news and my guess is the reaction would be negative. Plus, if you propose a charge on tap water, that reduces the incentive to order tap water, and the restaurants would sell more bottled water. (That’s why they’ll get a bad rep, imo).

      If a restaurant is smart, they would offer plain tap water for free, and then maybe a dollar for the water they filter. Of course, what ends up happening is the trust factor. “Is the restaurant really filtering my water or are they just charging me an extra buck?” I know a lot of people love to talk about discerning palates, but I can’t taste the difference between plain tap and my brita water. The only reason the filter is there is for peace of mind.

      Restaurants here probably should not charge at all, although not really for the reason you just listed (storage space and refrigeration). They shouldn’t charge b/c there will be some backlash. If they want to make money off of tap water, they should follow the suggestions from above, and tie it in to the general costs of the restaurant and raise all the prices accordingly.

    • Sorry David, but the lovely carafe’s of still or bubbly water, which are now the rage instead of bottled water… you pay for, at least in Florence.

      I like it as it does help with not having all the bottles, which tend NOT to be recycled in downtown Florence. Everywhere in Tuscany you pay for this, as far as I know.

      You can always ask for Acqua dalla Rubinetta ( tap water) it is safe and will be giving to you, even at a bar!

      Sometimes here in Florence the tap water smells a little like a swimming pool.
      I always used bottled water for my coffee too, for the same reason.

    • I would still like a choice. UK water, even when filtered properly, isn’t that great, and I would probably still prefer bottled, or go without – I wouldn’t want to pay for it. What I would like to see restaurants doing is source their water on an ecological basis. So, don’t import mineral water from Fiji, use the local ones (there are several in the UK), particularly the new ones which have rapidly biodegrading bottles.

    • - places in Paris where Pierre Charpin’s “carafes” can be purchased;
      – cafes where they can be brought to your “table”:
      here.

    • 1. I think tap water should be free, and no restaurant should make you feel bad for asking for it. But I think if they’re filtering water using an expensive system, they could certainly add a small surcharge, perhaps $1 for the table, with a note to customers as to why when implimenting the system. I remember during some of the California water shortages when tap water was rationed, people understood and acted accordingly.

      The system Chez Panisse is installing only costs $400, so it’s not such a big deal. But I think if the public wants restaurants to be more ecologically and socially correct, someone’s going to have to pay for that. And contrary to popular belief, many restaurants don’t make all that much money.

      2. I also think if you asked for tap water in a restaurant, they should bring you a carafe for the table.

      That should become the standard in the US, which is it in France. That would solve the problem of customers wanting refills and would save the floor staff a lot of rushing around.

      I was in Texas last year and they kept ‘topping-off’ my enormous glass of ice water. Everytime I took a sip, the busboy (who I’m sure was ordered, “Just keep the customer’s glasses filled to the brim at all times”) made me crazy, and it was incredibly wasteful.

      I didn’t need or want all that ice, which uses tons of electricity, nor did I want someone hovering over me watching my each-and-every sip.

      Curiously, I worked at a restaurant that served very expensive bread, which cost us about $4 per loaf. It was served to everyone freely.

      But customers started asking for “More bread, please” at the end of the meal. Then coyly asking the waiters if they could “…take the rest home in a doggie bag.”

      For a brief period, we tried charging for extra bread, since it was starting to cost a significant amount of money. But there was a bit of an uproar so we ended up just raising prices a bit for everyone to support those people that couldn’t afford to buy bread for their homes.

    • I would applaud any efforts to sustainably protect natural resources which unfortunately, day by day, are quickly disappearing.

      One dollar seems a reasonable cost to contribute, as well as to bring awareness to this issue.

      Anyone interested in the monetary as well as the environmental cost of a bottle of water (FUJI was used as the example due to its current popularity) can click here.

    • Let’s try that link again .

      If not you can copy and paste this url to your browser:

      http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/askpablo-exotic-bottled-water-002401.php

      (Note from David: Links don’t seem to work.)

    • The variety of responses from all over the world is fascinating because it suggests that culture shapes our perspective on water. Is it plentiful? Is it clean?

      La Rêveuse said exactly what I intended to. Also, I see it as good customer service when water is brought without and refilled me having to ask. I don’t see it as an ecological issue even though I’m ecologically aware (or so I thought until I read this post).

      This is my big city Canadian opinion. We have great tap water here.

    • There was an excellent article a few months back in The New Yorker about water, including the true costs, which focused on India. I searched their archives and couldn’t find it, but it was pretty informative about a subject I, like most of us, take for granted.

    • I didn’t even realize you had written about this. I just did a post on the issue of free water in America, comparing it to the very non-free water in other countries.