Restaurants that fail to provide filtered tap water are putting a thirst for profits before customer satisfaction, industry experts said.
Diners have long bemoaned being asked to pay Dh20 ($5.45) to Dh40 ($9) for imported bottled water, with just a handful of venues offering free or low cost water.
In Dubai, an edict planned for 2020 mandated hotels and restaurants to offer local alternatives to bottled drinking water. The regulations were to be set out in a food code published by Dubai Municipality, but are yet to be put into effect.
Local water produced in the Emirates is typically sold in shops for Dh1 ($0.27), with imported bottles between Dh3 and Dh6. The gulf in prices shows the profits that restaurants make.
Haider Madani, founder and co-owner of Dubai restaurant Cassette, says that a failure to provide filtered local water options was short-sighted.
His restaurant has offered free bottles of filtered tap water to customers for the past four years. He sells mineral water bottles for Dh12 ($3.20)
“I get that restaurants want to make money but focusing on customer experience and providing the options they want is the best strategy,” said Mr Madani.
“That will draw in more clientele and, as a result of that, make you more money.
“It’s just really a matter of education and changing the established way of thinking.
“I come from an English background and we always had tap water available to drink in restaurants free of charge.
“That’s the way it should be everywhere.”
Mr Madani said the reason why many restaurants in Dubai have not adopted the policy was an obvious one.
“The profit margins are much higher when you are selling someone a bottle of imported mineral water for more than Dh35, in some cases,” he said.
“In the long run, your customers will start to drift away and go elsewhere.”
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The issue of drinking water being freely available in restaurants is not just isolated to Dubai or the GCC region.
Licensed premises, that serve alcohol, in England, Scotland and Wales are obliged to provide free drinking water upon request.
However, with many customers unaware of their rights this has not always proven to be the case.
The Telegraph in the UK reported last year how customers were being charged up to £4 (Dh18.2) for what were clearly jugs of tap water in one London restaurant.
Another major issue is the environmental impact of importing bottled water into a country.
A recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) said plastic bottles were a major issue when it came to climate change.
Plastic bottles represented almost 12 per cent of the waste items that end up in the world’s oceans, only plastic bags, at just over 14 per cent, were a bigger problem.
Another restaurant owner said many businesses in Dubai had taken advantage of the fact the proposed changes had “gone by the wayside”.
“A lot of restaurants are taking advantage and it’s common to be asked do you want still or sparkling water as soon as you sit down and haven’t even seen a menu,” said Naim Maadad, owner of popular Dubai restaurants Reform Social & Grill, Folly and Bistro des Arts.
“You’re being asked to make an uneducated decision based on a question that’s being thrown at you — the margins are very healthy on that.
“People are happy to take advantage of that but it’s short-term thinking as people will analyse what they spend afterwards.”
Mr Maadad said most customers were clued-in and would only return to a restaurant if they felt it was offering them decent value.
Customers at his restaurants are able to order bottles of house water for Dh22, which can then be refilled as many times as they like.
The subject of Dubai restaurants offering filtered water to customers, in addition to more expensive options, has been a hot topic on social media this week.
Emirati entrepreneur Ahmed Bin Mohamed Zakaria sparked debate when he broached the subject on Twitter.
“There are times when I go to a restaurant with my family and the cost of water is almost 30 per cent of the total bill,” he said.
“Some places can charge up to Dh40 for a bottle of water and it is just ridiculous.
“I often ask for local water and am told ‘sir, we don’t serve local water’.
“Something needs to change. Restaurants should be offering both local and imported water to give people the choice.”
The National contacted Dubai Municipality for an update on the rules around serving water in restaurants.