Are Restaurants Required To Provide Water?

Glass of Ice WaterNo, 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.

  1. Brenda Loucel

    lastnight I was a customer at Burger King , and noticed a paying customer was upset about the cashiers attitude, putting that aside his older father asked for a courtesy cup of water with his meal..they refused him..jand said they would have to charge him. I could see the son angered the personnel and due to that they were refusing water even after a large order purchase for the uninvolved father. I tried to tell them its not legal to refuse water for a customer if they need it, but apparently it seems now you can. I was told , having worked & help run restaurants most of my life, you had to give a glass or cup of water to anyone asking because they could have a medical need for it???? pills or dehydration. but from what I read Its okay to say no , now?

  2. Jules

    In the UK, since 2010 it has been law that a licensed premises (restaurant which sells alcohol) must provide water free of charge if requested. Be sure to ask for tap water. If asked whether you want still or sparkling, reiterate tap water, otherwise you are likely to end up with bottled water.

  3. tammy

    I am a small Greek Taverna and my seating capacity is approx 40 seats.

    We are not making a profit and are struggling.

    The government introduced free water to be served in licensed premises in the UK.

    In my view this should only be available for a person that has purchased alcohol in your establishment.

    I am not being mean, there is a reason behind my belief

    I shopis in a student area. The average cost to come and eat in my place is between £4 and £4.50.

    I have one waitress, myself and one cook.

    When I have groups of 8 – 10 students coming in to eat, they take up a large space and then all ask for free tap water.

    That mean my waitress then has to carry and deliver glasses of tap water to the table. in between serving my other customers she is continuously running back and for filling up the free glasses of tap water.

    The glasses then have to be cleared away, washed and dried.

    Her time is not free to me. It costs me money. The water I have on metre that costs me money. It then cost me money to wash the glasses. etc etc.

    Although I do understand the Governments idea to curb the drinking problem surely there must be a way that protect small businesses like mine. For example free water available if alcohol is purchased or can I charge a service charge for providing the water, after all it is a service I am supplying. And I am paying staff to provide. Or maybe our government should subsidised the cost of providing free water which will help with the costs.

    I look forward to hearing peoples views.

    • Terry Kate

      I honestly would stop eating at your establishment. Give them a small cup and set up a dispenser that they need to walk to. Size of cup discourages the staying and the dispenser takes care of the waitress issue. Don’t offer it and you lose my business and run the risk of getting a bad review too. I am about to give one to a restaurant over this very issue.

  4. fragglemickey

    I totally agree….. we are a restaurant and offer deals like two courses for £10.00, the customers then sit there with a jug of water. As has been mentioned I have to pay for that water and related costs serving it why should people get it for free just because they are tight? and having been a restaurateur for 16 years that is normally what it boils down to. I have no problem serving water if they have bought other drinks soft or alcoholic but I totally disagree with serving free water to tight people.

  5. joe smarts

    How can you not give someone sick, or in need of medication a glass of tap water? disgraceful, and if I pay for a meal you bet your A$$ i am getting free tap water or else your business gets a screw job on yelp and google. Do good by me, I do good by you, screw with me you pay the piper.

    • Restaurant Owner

      This is a terrible mindset to have. “Give me something free or you get a bad review on yelp.” It’s a terrible sense of entitlemental. You are not owed something just because you made a purchase. It’s like saying “I paid for a meal so I’m entitled to a free soda.”

      • Terry Kate

        Fair or not it is the mindset you deal with. Find a way to minimize the cost to you. I have been places that give very small free water glasses and they can be inconvenient to get up and refill at which point many people will purchase a drink. Or take your chances that clients don’t feel entitled. I think after being in the business we all know how well that will go. Right or wrong.

  6. Terry Kate

    I commented on a few others but I do want to put a positive example. By me I drive an extra few miles and always drag my friends to one specific frozen yogurt place because they have a free water dispenser out in the open and put fruit in the water. They have made hundreds and hundreds of dollars off me and friends by that feature.

  7. Mike

    “some, like Subway, only make bottled water available” = woman are you daft? every Subway restaurant I’ve ever been to has tap water! customers get it from a fountain lever marked “water” right next to the ones for Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, etc. at the fountain machine

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