Restaurants Introduce Tap Water Surcharges

December 7th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

From D.C. to Vegas, diners are charged for tap water. Is it fair?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

“Upselling” bottled water in restaurants isn’t a new concept – restaurants have been raising their profit margins this way for years. But the idea of charging diners for filtered tap water is causing a flap. The trend first surfaced among restaurants in New York and San Francisco; New York Magazine offered a guide back in 2008 to New York’s “sustainability surcharge.” But restaurants in cities like Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. are catching on to the water surcharge, and new cost hasn’t gone without notice.

Vegas Chatter recently reported on an angry tweet by a diner at Mandalay Bay’s Border Grill, who was charged 50 cents for a glass of filtered tap water without being notified in advance. According to Border Grill’s response, the restaurant charges the surcharge because it uses a special water purification system, though there isn’t room on the brunch or lunch menus to print this information. "The reusable glass bottles provide an environmentally-friendly alternative to the waste associated with the manufacture, transport, and disposal of conventional bottled water,” the restaurant’s publicist responded. “Unless you request no water, we will pour unlimited still or sparkling water for every guest at $.50 per person.”

The restaurant’s response garnered immediate attention from online customers. One commenter wrote, “They pulled that on me too […] Charged me despite the fact it was poured WITHOUT my request. I ordered pricey cocktails as well. Shame on them! It’s the DESERT, water should be FREE.” Another said, “If you want to use some special system, go ahead but I should be able to opt-out.”

But the Border Grill isn’t alone in its adoption of the tap water surcharge. New Washington, D.C. restaurant, Elisir, is charging $.29 for its filtered water. When local news and events site DCist asked the restaurant for a response, Elisir General Manager Justin Kraemer said, “The city water in D.C. is notoriously bad and in deference to our guests' health we don't want to offer ‘Chateau Potomac.’ If people insist, we will of course oblige them with tap water, but we feel that bottomless sparkling or still bottled water for $.29 is more than fair."

That response prompted Washington CityPaperto call the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which responded, "We hope, in the future, that if they are giving a justification for why they're providing filtered tap water at a cost, that they don't use the quality of the D.C. tap water as a reasoning for that, because our tap water is safe—and cheaper." The Water and Sewer Authority representative told CityPaper’s Chris Shott that District residents pay around a penny per gallon for their water at home.

Shott noted that the filters used by restaurants like Elisir typically cost around $4,000 and purify tap water into still and sparkling varieties. But is that cost a justification for the extra charge? Delish blogger Justine Sterling said the Natura system used by Border Grill is “essentially a very fancy Brita filter mixed with a soda maker. It purifies water and can also carbonate using CO2, and the Natura company provides its customers with reusable glass bottles.”

What are your thoughts on the “sustainability surcharge”? Have you ever been charged for filtered tap water?