Monday, February 28, 2011

Should restaurants charge for tap water?

Today I walked away from buying a $8.75 sandwich. I was stunned because when I asked for a cup of water, I was told I'd have to buy a "compostable cup" for $1.

Granted, I was at the most pretentious food hall in northern California, the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco. Boccalone's $8.75 Muffuletta sandwich, even with a $1 water charge, is one of the cheaper meals available there.* I probably would have paid $9.75 for it without complaining.

* (In the only time I'll ever eat at Boulette's Larder, I ordered scrambled egg(s) with squash blossoms for $16. When it arrived and was small enough that I'm not sure whether or not "egg" was plural, I asked about toast and was told it would cost an additional $6.)

But still, $1 for tap water? Or, to use Boccalone's vocabulary, $1 for a paper cup? (There's also an option -- I'm not kidding -- to pay $20 for a Boccalone metal water bottle, with which you get unlimited free refills. Of tap water. Which means you probably don't get refills if you only buy the cup, but there's always the restroom sink.)

Is this a profit center that restaurants need to survive?

It seems to me that any restaurant that provides seating for immediate consumption (not to mention meals based around salty preserved meats) should provide water as a service to its clients.

As I walked away to dine more happily at King of Thai Noodle, where a bottomless glass of water is free -- but where I had to pay a "San Francisco health care charge" of 3% -- I couldn't stop thinking about the $1 cup of water.

Will this become something we can expect to see more from cash-strapped restaurateurs? Has Boccalone crossed a line that food stands in less smarmy environments would be economically punished for? (I walked away, but nobody behind me in line blinked.)

Is it a greedy greenwash grab, based on the idea that $1 for a "compostable cup" is better for the environment than $3 for a plastic bottle of Dasani?

I grant you that I'd rather drink San Francisco's high-quality tap water than pay for Dasani, which is also essentially tap water. And who knows, maybe Boccalone is filtering its water or adding vitamins or getting a priest to bless it.

But if somebody can forward this post to Boccalone's proprietors, including local star chef Chris Cosentino, I'd love for them to explain themselves. Are you guys on the forefront of a new way of thinking about beverages? Do you recommend that every restaurant charge $1 for each cup of water? Or have you confused San Francisco with "Dune"?


King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

B, in Dune it's "he who controls the spice controls the universe." and spice is more valuable then, well, anything. Poor comparison.

Is there another place that serves a more interesting breakfast in SF than Boulette's Larder? (I don't recall the portions being small - perhaps you're comparing them to the oversized breakfast portions that are served at at least 90% of restaurants in the US today?)

Finally, to the subject at hand: You whine about a $1 compostable cup of water...I think you need to go live in Europe for awhile where that would be $3 for industrial mineral water not of your choice.

And is a $1/cup fair for the time it takes to order cups from the supplier, check inventory of them to not run out, restock, time for employee to remove from box, time to fill cup, and time to haul garbage away? Perhaps they should raise their price - how can they profit on that?

Summation: Never give the Cola-cola company (Dasani) any of your hard earned coins of the realm no matter where in the world you might be.

W. Blake Gray said...

King: It has been awhile since I read "Dune," but I remember water as on the desert planet being a precious commodity, albeit not the most precious. Thus I think it's a fair analogy: the water costs $1, so the sandwich is 8.75 times as valuable.

For SF places that serve interesting and delicious breakfasts without the pretension and sticker shock of Boulette's Larder, check out Dottie's True Blue Cafe or Ton Kiang. I'm more tolerant of preciousness after breakfast; I'd rather have my first meal of the day at Boogaloo's.

But whatever your argument, I'm afraid you lose credibility by claiming that it costs $1 per cup to restock cups.

mclark said...

I don't really mind paying a little, say 50 cents, for tap water, but I mind very much using disposable dishes as a matter of course -- even when I am sitting down right there to eat. It's the McDonald's effect (order, eat, stand up and throw away a full bag of paper trash) spreading even to really good restaurants with interesting menus. Recycling or not, if you use all-disposable dinnerware, you're still throwing a whole lot of material away (and paying for it). Of course, using "real" dishes requires the complication of dishwashing facilities -- but if we are so sophisticated can't we at least eat off a plate and drink out of a glass? I miss the sensuous pleasures of ceramic plates and metal spoons!

RexArt said...

Tap water should be FREE in SF.
What this place trying to do is rip off tourists, I think.

Wine Harlots said...

I'm with you, tap water in the USA should be free. I also think parking should be free too, so maybe I'm not the best person to ask.

W. Blake Gray said...

Wine Harlots: Michael Apstein once made a very convincing argument to me that all parking spaces should cost money because of the costs to society of automobile transportation. It's an interesting one, but I confess I'm a self-interested cheapskate when it comes to parking; I'll park 15 blocks away if it's free.

Tap water, though, is different. It would cost San Francisco money and resources if I left my faucet running all day, but if I paid the true cost of a single cup of tap water, including all the environmental and engineering costs, it's hard for me to see how it would exceed 5 cents.

Sam said...

Charging for tap water is wrong in my opinion. I get what they're trying to do, which is discourage you from buying a cup in order to cut down on waste, but $1 seems pretty heavy-handed. I know that Washington, DC instituted a policy to cut down on plastic bag usage where they charged people 5 cents per plastic bag. It's not much money at all, but plastic bag usage in the city dropped by half. Seems like the Ferry Building could do something similar with disposable cups. Alternatively, they could let you bring your own water bottle, rather than charging for $20 for one of theirs. Their current policy smacks of a money grab.

As to the above commenter who mentioned water in Europe, it's simply false to assert that you have to pay for water during meals. Unlike in American restaurants, you have to ask for tap water, as they will not automatically bring it to the table. However, having lived in Europe for several months, I never once had to pay for water during a meal (unless I asked for a bottle of mineral water, of course).

Green said...

You could go to Golden Gate Meat Co., also in the Ferry Building, and pay a $1 but get a full bottle of water. Worse for the environment, but I bet the amount of water you'd get is more.

Thomas Venney said...