Last week the LGA told restaurateurs they should ‘step up’ and give tap water to customers without them feeling the need to ask for it.
The association, which represents 370 councils with responsibility for public health, said serving tap water as a matter of course to parents and their children when eating out could help curb childhood obesity as it would stop them choosing sugary drinks.
However, research by BigHospitality has found that the practice of freely offering tap water is already ingrained in a large number of restaurant chains catering for families with tap water advertised on children’s menus, jugs of it placed on tables and staff offering it before taking drinks orders.
A survey by NPD into tap water consumption out of home also found that tap water consumption in restaurants has risen 32.7 per cent in the last five years.
“Since opening the first Jamie's Italian restaurant in 2008, we have always trained our waiting staff to offer tap water as the first option to guests - asking "Can I bring you some water - tap water, or still / sparkling?,” said a company spokesperson.
“The reason we don't just place tap water on the tables is that some customers prefer to drink bottled water so we consider it good service to give them the choice. By suggesting tap water first, the intention is to make it an easy option, not something guests ever need to feel embarrassed about asking for. Tap water is topped up throughout the meal.
“We are definitely in favour of making tap water accessible and hope that making it so will encourage customers to choose healthier options, especially when ordering drinks for their children.”
From tap to table
Independent Brighton restaurant Indian Summer and French restaurant chain Le Bistrot Pierre also place tap water on tables once guests are seated while others will give it freely if requested.
"Our restaurant policy is to give every table water. The menus and wine list should already be on the table when they arrive and the water is taken to every table once the guests are seated without them needing to ask for it. The waiting staff monitor the amount of water left on the table and replace it as many times as required. This means that sometimes customers do need to ask for more, but it is only replacing rather than asking for it in the first place, so we would hope they don’t feel awkward," said Indian Summer manager Tim Greaves.
While Mitchells & Butlers, whose business includes includes Harvester, Toby Carvery and Vintage Inns, does not place tap water on tables, it does advertise it on children's menus and has removed any mention of unlimited added-sugar refills and added-sugar drinks on them.
“Our menus offer choice and healthier options for the entire family. As a leading operator within the industry, we take our responsibilities seriously, and recently launched the ‘Kids Food and Drink Framework’, which includes healthy ‘checklists’ for all our menus, including the promotion of free tap water," it said.
While many restaurant owners say they are happy to serve and promote tap water, they also believe that customers should have the final say.
Andy Lennox, managing director of the 10-strong Koh Thai Tapas group said although tap water had been on tables ‘as a matter of course’ since 2009 and was offered first when customers requested water, even bottled, restaurants had a duty to give the customer what they want.
“We have always felt that this promotes a relaxing and 'non-pushy' environment and atmosphere for the customer straight away. Offering free water in turn also helps promote healthy living although our experience is parents will still order a coke or juice for their children. We are also currently trailing a filtered water and £1 sparkling water as part of our continual effort to give the best service and product to our customer for the best possible value."
Craig Mather, head chef at The Empire Restaurant in Ramsgate said it was ultimately about customer choice.
"We ask people if they'd like water on arrival and let them chose if it's tap or bottled, sparkling or still. We treat people as grown-ups and credit them with the intelligence to ask for what they want. We serve healthy, fresh wholesome produce - if families want the occasional carbonated drink, that's up to them. The restaurant and hotel hark back to days of Empire - and pre-date the nanny state and health fascists.”