Do you know it's actually illegal for licensed restaurants to refuse customers free water?
There is no more reliable way for a restaurant to raise the ire of patrons than by saying that it does not serve tap water. Public forums, blogs, and Facebook groups are filled with vitriol directed at Cape Town restaurants which have refused to serve tap water to customers. In response, restaurant owners will outline the extensive list of expenses that every restaurant has, from rent to the breakages, and ask why they should be expected to provide tap water for free.
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Restaurant-goers will highlight the huge amounts of money they pay for their wine or other drinks, in addition to their meal, and remain indignant that they are forced to pay for bottled water at a premium as well. If providing tap water really is so expensive, surely it can be built into the menu prices along with everything else?
But it’s not all about money.
The real core of this issue is that bottled water is a massive disaster for the environment and consumption of it increases every year. The processing and transport of bottled water are problematic, but the enormous number of single-use plastic bottles is the real issue (read more about the environmental impact of bottled water).
The more responsible restaurants have opted to install special water filter machines which allow them to sell still or sparkling water, in reusable glass bottles, which has been filtered and chilled but has come from the tap. The debate rages on, but legally speaking, restaurants that have a liquor license are obliged to provide patrons with free tap water. This is according to the liquor act norms and standards (the relevant section is 4.7). In fact, any patrons that are refused tap water for any reason can lodge a complaint with the Western Cape Liquor Authority and an inspector will pay a visit to the restaurant to check that they are meeting their obligations in terms of the liquor act.
Bear in mind, this is an obligation imposed by the liquor act, so restaurants that do not serve alcohol do not have an obligation to provide complimentary tap water. Although most do because it’s just not good for business to upset patrons over such a minor thing.
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In many countries around the world, it’s standard practice to provide a bottle or jug of tap water to patrons as they are seated. Similar to the way complimentary bread might be provided. This simple act encourages reciprocity, which is something that benefits the restaurateur. The Wikipedia article on reciprocity (in the context of social psychology) states that:
“reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much nastier and even brutal.”
These small gestures of complimentary bread or tap water subconsciously put customers in a more generous mood which has a positive impact on the whole dining experience. We’ve seen that brutal side of people come out when they are told they can’t have a glass of tap water. Why any restaurant would want to antagonise their patrons in that way remains a mystery.
Western Cape water restrictions
Having said all of that, and notwithstanding the legal obligations, in the context of the water situation in Cape Town, should restaurants be serving complimentary tap water?
Restaurateurs have commented that many patrons ask for a glass of water then have one sip and leave the rest. Considering the increased cost of tap water and restrictions on usage, is it fair to expect restaurants to provide hundreds of glasses of tap water a day to patrons who might or might not drink it?
Some restaurants have already stopped providing tap water to their patrons, but cynical diners have accused them of using the drought as an excuse to force guests to pay for over-priced bottled water. Other restaurants such as La Tête and Knead have taken a different approach and now offer bottled water to customers at cost price, which seems to be a good compromise.
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If restaurants feel justified in not offering tap water, should they then allow patrons to bring their own water? If it’s all about the restaurant’s water usage, then they should be open to this.
It’s difficult to answer any of these questions without first understanding exactly how much complimentary glasses of tap water contribute to the overall water consumption of the restaurant and can glasses of unfinished water be used for something else? The numbers do add up quickly. If a typical glass of water is 250 ml, it takes just four glasses make a litre. If 1000 people over the course of a day ask for a glass of water, the restaurant will be using 250 Litres of water a day just providing free tap water.
The current water restrictions require us to use less than 50 Litres of water per person per day, so 250 ml per day is not an insignificant amount of water. That water could probably be put to better use in the kitchen for cooking or hygiene, both things any restaurant patron would not like to see compromised.
One thing is certain, restaurants will have to choose their course of action carefully if they wish to avoid the inevitable, brutal backlash.
What do you think?
Are restaurants justified in not serving complimentary tap water when water restrictions are so strict? What could they do to make up for not providing free tap water? Allow you to bring your own? Sell bottled water at cost price? Would these options appeal to you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or email us!
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Dax Villanueva (Relax with Dax) is one of Cape Town's oldest and most respected food and restaurant bloggers. Follow him on Twitter | Instagram | Facebook