No, restaurants are not required to provide customers with water. Though most restaurants do choose to provide customers free tap water upon request, some, like Subway, only make bottled water available. Additionally, a growing number are tacking a water surcharge onto meals.
In Europe, it is not uncommon for water laws to be passed requiring businesses to provide water to customers. In England, any business that serves alcohol must also provide complementary water. Similarly, in France, restaurants cannot refuse complementary tap water to consumers, upon request. Unfortunately, there is no such legislation in the United States.
There are some local ordinances to that effect in place in America, but these laws are both inconsistently passed and sporadically enforced. If you own or run a restaurant, you should become familiar with local ordinances to ensure that you are fully compliant.
Why do most restaurants offer water free of charge?
Most restaurants offer water free of charge because it is cheap, and breeds good will among customers. Tap water comes at the cost of about a penny per gallon, and charging for it does not sit well among consumers.
Customers have been known to cancel entire orders and refuse to eat at establishments solely because they felt the water charges were unreasonable, given the total charge for the meal.
The Clean Water law requires all restaurants to have clean water for sanitation and meal preparation purposes. Therefore, restaurants have good water on tap, and can use it as an inexpensive way to add value to a meal without really adding any cost to the business’s bottom line.
Customers sometimes elect to drink water because it is a cheaper alternative to overpriced, up-charged sodas and alcoholic beverages, but other customers order it because they genuinely prefer water. It is a healthy alternative to most other beverages, free of empty calories, sugars, and other diet-killing substances.
How do restaurants justify water-related surcharges?
Restaurants charge anywhere from five cents to a dollar for a glass of water, and generally use one of two justifications for the charge: supply cost or filtration charges. These charges are added to the final bill, and can significantly increase the total cost of a meal, depending on how the costs are accrued.
Low-end restaurants, which serve water in to-go cups, explain that the charge covers the cost of the cup, lid, straw, and ice. This charge is common not only to fast-food restaurant chains, but small delicatessens and convenience stores as well. This is typically a one-time charge, and all refills are free.
High-end locations, which give customers the choice between “still or sparkling” water, often have a surcharge for water filtration. These restaurants have an expensive, inline filtration system that cleans and improves standard tap water, including optional CO2 infusion.
The problem comes when these surcharges are added without the consumer’s knowledge. One restaurant in New York City charges each customer for improved water, whether they ask for water or not. Water is brought to the table and the surcharge added to the bill, unless the consumer specifically asks for water not to be brought to the table. The water is served in glass bottles, and the system is touted to be a “more green” source of water, with the same quality as favored bottled brands.
Consumer should ask, when ordering water, if there are charges associated with the request. Some restaurants do not offer tap water at all and will charge for bottled water when it is the selected beverage. Horror stories exist of people who went into a restaurant and unwittingly ordered water, only to consume multiple bottles and suffer from a water bill at the end of the meal that was more expensive than their main course.
Are there laws that prohibit restaurants from giving away free water?
Yes, in the heat of summer, it is not uncommon for large cities, suffering a water shortage, to ban restaurants from providing free water. Specifically, these bans may require the restaurant not to automatically deliver complementary water to the table. Instead, restaurant wait staff employees are expected to wait until a customer asks for water before serving it.
These laws are not ongoing. They are only enacted during extreme drought or heat waves, when water use becomes a concern. They go into effect at the same time as laws that limit lawn watering, and other water waste. Businesses that fail to adhere to these ordinances can incur serious fines.
Even when water conservation ordinances are in place, restaurants can serve water according to their normal policies at a guest’s request. This means that a restaurant that serves free water on a regular basis can and will still provide it at no cost, but must wait for a customer to ask for it before it can be served.