Paying for water: Yay or Nay?

Water, water everywhere but not a drop for free.

One of my pet peeves when dining out is hearing, “We do not serve plain water.” While the cost of bottled water isn’t prohibitive, it irks me to be forced to buy something that was always a complimentary part of the restaurant or cafe experience until quite recently.

Why restaurants charge for water

Among the most common responses from business owners is that they are responding to increases in their own costs. Factors such as escalating rental prices, utilities costs, water system maintenance charges and manpower are frequently cited as the main reasons.

water - waiter serving water

Some business operators also feel that diners tend to waste water when they do not pay for it. That may be a valid point— I am sure we can all agree that we are more likely to finish a purchased carbonated drink than a complimentary glass of plain water.

Unintended consequences

The unintended consequence of the change is that diners may be motivated to opt for sugary drinks instead. That approach seems to make economic sense— why pay S$1 for water from the tap when you could just spend a little bit more and enjoy the icy cold sweetness of a soft drink?

water - soft drink

It’s something that is inevitably already contributing to the obesity epidemic and the growing diabetes crisis. In a sense, it is also unfair to those who suffer from diabetes as they are forced to purchase their only healthy option.

Making sense of it all

I try to step into the shoes of the people on both sides, rather than view things through the lens of the businesses involved.

Using that perspective, I can understand the logic behind staff fatigue. It can be frustrating, especially during peak hours, to have every table asking for water refills. Diners are likely to make do with one glass (of water or other drink) if they have to buy it.

water - cleaning a glass

As for the argument that washing the glasses must be factored into the discussion, I wonder how far that can go. Will restaurants now start to charge us for cutlery as well, since forks, knives and spoons also go through the dishwasher?

Possible alternatives

Perhaps a better approach may be to have self-service water dispensers at restaurants. That would eliminate the issue of ‘burdening’ staff with requests for water. Another option would be to allow diners to bring their own water if they wish. 

water - pouring water into a glass

Chief Foodie, Seth says he likes the idea of a “free flow of water if you order a drink from the menu”. That way, the cost and burden of providing plain water is offset by the profit to the business. It makes sense.

In the meantime, do you think a list of eateries which serve water free of cost and those which charge will be helpful for you?

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