Water pressure: F&B outlets face pushback from customers as more charge for drinking water

CHEN LIN Today Online 22 Jun 18;

SINGAPORE — Dine at an eatery here these days and there could be a chance that you will have to pay for a glass of water to go along with the meal.

Citing rising business costs, some food-and-beverage (F&B) outlets are charging diners as high as S$1 for a glass of plain water.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, the Restaurant Association of Singapore noted that serving free water “used to be the norm several years ago”, but practices may have changed due to the rising cost of operations. It added that typically, the price for a glass of water ranges from 50 to 80 cents.

A random check by TODAY at 13 eateries in VivoCity mall found that eight of them charged between 30 cents and S$1 for a glass of tap water, while one of them sells bottled water at S$1.50 and does not provide drinking water for free.


Among the eight who charge for drinking water, six offer refills, while two do not.

At Ion Orchard, Bugis Junction and Plaza Singapura, there was also a mix of F&B establishments which offer free flow of drinking water and those who charged between 50 to 80 cents for it. One eatery, for instance, provides complimentary water with a minimum spending of S$10 per diner, while others do not serve tap water but sell bottled water at S$1.50 to S$1.90 each.

Recently, a customer at Kim Gary Restaurant in VivoCity took to social media to air his grievances about having to pay S$1 for a glass of water.

When contacted by TODAY, businessman Wilson Wong, 49, said that Kim Gary’s service crew told him the price went up because of the water tariff hike.

“To be fair, the staff would usually mention the price when the customer orders a glass of water. Usual price is $0.60,” he said. “I have always been paying that when I dine there, but due to the noisy environment that day, I did not pay attention to the waitress. I thought it was the same old price, until the bill came.”

Mr Wong then tried to argue with the crew that the price increase was excessive in relation to the tariff hike, but he was told that “it was the reason passed down by the management”.

In response to TODAY’s queries, a spokesperson from Kim Gary clarified that the restaurant’s decision to raise the price of drinking water is “certainly” not related to the water tariff hike, even though the price increase was introduced in March 2017 — just a month after the Government’s announcement of the hike during Budget last year.

“The cost of a cup of water is very complicated,” the spokesperson said. “It involves the filter maintenance, manpower, rental, electricity cost, and many more.”

From next month, water prices in Singapore will be raised again, completing a 30 per cent hike that was carried out in two phases. The first round of increase was in July last year.

The Government had warned businesses against profiteering from the move, but eateries interviewed by TODAY insisted that their decision to charge customers for tap water had nothing to do with the tariff increase, and is a matter of business overheads.

Bali Thai restaurant manager Jairus Parreno said that all its outlets serve complimentary water to diners, except the branch at Sentosa, which charges 30 cents due to the high rental cost there.

An owner of an Indonesian eatery in the eastern part of Singapore, who did not want to be named, said that instead of serving complimentary tap water, he started charging S$1.30 for bottled water a month after he took over the business, because he noticed that customers tend to ask for more than what they need, and there is cost to cleaning the cups as well.

“Charging for water has got nothing to do with the water tariff hike… customers have the tendency to abuse that privilege and that's costing manpower and resources,” he added.


When diners have to pay for tap water, some said that they find it hard to put money down for something so basic and may choose to order other beverages instead, and this would usually be soft drinks.

With the Government driving a campaign to battle the public health problem of diabetes among the population, consumers are pointing the finger at businesses, saying they have a part to play — or at least not discourage customers from drinking water by charging for it.

Mr Koh Liang Lin, 23, student, said: “If water is chargeable at the restaurant, it will push me to top up a dollar more to get a canned drink.”

Similarly, student Mohammad Taha Irfan, 24, said: “I would rather buy sweet drinks than plain water. It’s not worth it to get plain water if the price of plain water and a sweet drink is about the same.”

He added that most food outlets he patronises sell bottled water instead of serving free water, and each bottle is usually just 20 cents cheaper than canned drinks.

For diabetes sufferer Lee Chon Poh, 68, a human resource manager, he has no choice but to pay for plain water at restaurants even though it is “super not worth it”, he said.

Apart from the water tariff hike, he believes that restaurants are raising the price of drinking water because “they want people to order other drinks” which is “more lucrative” for their earnings.

Mr Lee’s daughter, student Lee Mei Ying, 21, is one of those who would like F&B businesses to join the nationwide effort to fight diabetes.

“For diabetic patients like my dad, it would be a lot more convenient and appreciated if complimentary water is being served at restaurants, especially for those who need to take medication straight after their meals.”

She added: “Providing free water can be a good step to get people to drink more water — at least it’s better than charging a high price for it, which is a turn-off.”

Art teacher Goh Yi Xuan, 22, suggested that more restaurants can have self-service water dispensers on their premises as some have done, to save time and effort.

On this, the Restaurant Association of Singapore acknowledged that businesses have a role to play, and it encourages F&B establishments to “consider making some adjustments” such as lowering sugar content in desserts, and making non-sugary drinks the default beverage at catering events. It reiterated that it “does not encourage (or) discourage” charging for tap water as this is down to the business decisions of each eatery.

Despite the concerns over rising costs, some F&B businesses such as Eighteen Chefs, Swensen’s and Ola Beach Club have no plans to put a price tag on drinking water.

Swensen’s spokesperson said: “We are offering free water because this is what our customers want. Our objective is always to make our customers’ dining experience an enjoyable one.”

At Cedele cafe, a regular patron, who did not want to be identified, noticed that its outlets at Raffles City and Novena Square have stopped providing complimentary water to customers in recent months. A waiter then told her that she would have to buy bottled water sold at the eatery.

When TODAY contacted Cedele, its manager Janice Yong said that it was a “miscommunication” and the waiter got the instructions wrong. Cedele provides bottled water because there are many customers “who prefer bottled water over tap (water)”, she said.

“Should guests decide not to purchase the bottled water, all our stores still offer complimentary water in cups,” Ms Yong added.

Ms Neeta Lachmandas, executive director of the Institute of Service Excellence at Singapore Management University, said that restaurant operators need to be aware that while some customers may not mind paying for water, there may be some who feel that offering complimentary water is “basic hospitality”, especially if this is offered by other restaurants they have visited.

Ms Lachmandas, who has experience in leading service improvement strategies and initiatives, also pointed to the Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore last year and its third-quarter study on the F&B sector.

She noted that the “ability to accommodate to (customers’) needs” was identified as an important driver of customer loyalty for the restaurants sub-sector.

“In light of this, restaurant operators may wish to assess if offering complimentary water would help them better connect with their customers’ need, thereby building customer loyalty in a competitive F&B landscape.”