Serving water and wine, how to draw a line?

Will you pay for a glass of tap water? If there is no beverage that interests me, I am happy to pay a reasonable price for it. But according to a poll done in 2015, 80 percent of the respondents said they would not pay for tap water. If this poll is accurate by any measure, wouldn’t restaurants give up charging for it by now? Wait, I am not stirring age-old tirades on free water service in restaurants and bars. It is not going to happen, but if you paid for several drinks, or ordered a wide-spread of food, why can’t a glass of water be complimentary?
Apparently, the restauranteurs reasoning goes like this. A customer waves for service and the waiter spends five seconds walking to the table. “Can I have a glass of water please?” A simple request like this takes another two seconds. Washing glassware, cleaning the pitcher and serving water from the tap, all these take time and money. So based on this assumptions, I estimate the amount of time from raising the request to having a glass of water on the table will take about 90 seconds. Multiply that by 200 requests, then that’s around five hours spent.
But let us also be practical. Are the 200 requests only asking only for one glass instead of several at a time? Besides, if an establishment is hoarded by freeloaders, then obviously something is wrong.

Responsible alcohol services include free drinking water

In Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the laws require alcohol serving premises to give free drinking water. Failure to do so can result in a severe penalty and even revocation of license. Additionally, alcohol servers in several countries are required to pass an assessment that covers the relevant legal knowledge, health impacts from alcohol consumption, and intervention techniques for intoxicated customers. This is also in line with what many consider as responsible alcohol services. Comparatively, alcohol laws in Singapore are much more relaxed.

The remaining mandatory conditions are set out in the Licensing Act 2003 (Mandatory Licensing Conditions) (Amendment) Order 2014:

  • mandatory provision of free potable (drinking) water

 Reference: Home Office, United Kingdom

Offering free water is an important part of the responsible service of alcohol as it helps patrons slow down their rate of intoxication and provide an alternative to consuming alcohol.
Licensed venues that supply alcohol for consumption on-site are required to provide free drinking water to their patrons. Failure to supply free drinking water could attract substantial fines.

Reference: The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation

Today customers are not only concern about the taste of food, or the price of a menu. They are more keen to visit establishments that genuinely take care of well-being and comfortable. A friendly, sincere, and warm gesture can often compensate for a bad messed up in the kitchen. Furthermore, at the way things are being priced today, factoring the cost of water in a bottle of wine, or a platter of food is practically transparent to customers. Would they make a fuss if the seafood platter is three dollars more expensive than the one next door?

Where do we draw the line for business sustainability and responsible alcohol services?

I visited a pizza restaurant several years ago where the ice water was listed on the menu at S$200. After ordering a bottle of wine, the proprietor was happy to offer water for free. Of course, we can assume the establishment was joking with their price tag, but from a legal standpoint, they made an offer for water at the stated price but also at their discretion to give free-flow when customers spent above a threshold. I find this a great example that demonstrates businesses can continue to remind customers that water is a cost for their business, and most people in Singapore are pragmatic enough to understand everything costs money.
Giving complimentary item is a powerful tool and likely to encourage more spending.
So please, give water when customers order a beverage. It need not be free-flow, but at least of an equal portion. And the same should apply for beer, whiskey, and non-alcoholic beverages. Hiding tens of cents or a dollar in the beverage price tag will not alarm anyone.
Also tell the customers, hydration helps prevent a hangover. They will appreciate it.

About the author

Picture of Chan Wai Xin

Chan Wai Xin

Singapore based. University lecturer, wine educator, wine writer. Systematic, analytic, and at times pedantic. Mostly irreverent.

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