water – should it be free for cafe customers?

free water bottles

I spend a lot of time thinking about the small details that make a cafe experience great. One of these details is water. When people come to a cafe to have a cup of coffee (or tea, chai, hot chocolate, or a cold drink), they often want to have a glass of water too.

How this water is made available is the difference between being a welcomed guest, and being gouged for every possible cent. Maybe you have your own, custom-branded line of bottled water and you want to be selling that. Maybe you’re looking to sell bottled water and don’t want to provide people with an option to have water for free.

Better in terms of making your customers feel more like guests is to make water available for free. But how do you do this? Some places will keep the glasses and the water bottles in a fridge that customers can access. Others will have a water station – somewhere the customer can go to find jugs of water and cups. The regular customers know where it is, but a new customer will have to ask to be able to find it. If you have something like this in your cafe, how are you going at keeping the water jugs filled up?

I’m very much of the opinion that if a customer asks for water, a staff member should bring it to them. The response “the water station is over there” is perfectly fine and sensible from a profit perspective, but to create the kind of experience where people want to keep returning, and bring their friends, you want to go the extra mile.

The most welcoming cafes will bring each customer a glass of water as they sit down, and leave a bottle for refills. The best experience I had with water at a cafe was at Lemon Twist Cafe in Surry Hills. A waitress brought me water with a slice of lemon in it, for free, before I’d ordered anything. This costs very little, but creates a lasting impression with your customers as to the kind of cafe that they’re in. The proof? This happened back in 2006, and I still remember which cafe it was.

When you do bring water to a customer, presentation is important. A re-usable glass bottle, preferably chilled, and preferably with some kind of character to it. There’s something to be said for making the bottles re-sealable (to minimise spillage) but make sure you don’t go too far – do you have customers who have limited use of their hands for whatever reason (age, disability, constantly on the phone or laptop)?

How big are your water glasses? Are you using actual glasses, or are you giving them disposable plastic cups? All of these choices will send a subtle message to your customers. If this message is noteworthy, people will be talking about you, and this will tend towards repeat business.

You know your customers best, but the law of reciprocity suggests that if you start the customer relationship with a gift (like well-presented water), this will drive up your average sales.

Agree? Disagree? Have a great cafe-water story? I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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  1. I remember the ones that do and also remember the ones that don’t.
    The ones that do make a good impession.

  2. You could also mention the diuretic effect of coffee (if I’ve spelled that correctly) – drinking coffee makes you feel dehydrated, particularly if it’s a short black or ristretto.

    I’ve never had anyone try to charge me for water with coffee. Is that common in Sydney? For me, the two acceptable approaches are either a) bring you water without asking or b) having water available in an obvious place.

    One of my favourite cafes, where the coffee is excellent, does neither of these. They give free water but you have to ask for it, which is annoying when you forget until they’ve walked away and you have to try and crane your neck and get someone’s attention – not easy if they’re busy or you’re in an obscure corner of a large cafe.

    Nice post. Good to see someone more of a nerd on this question than I am. 🙂

  3. C4 in Christchurch NZ has the best and most original water fountain i have seen. You place your glass under the body of a sewing machine and turn the wheel on the end like you would to make the needle move but instead water comes out! its somewhat a rite of passage to figure it out and i guarantee you will refill more than you expect…

  4. woops
    that should be C1, C4 is the free to air music channel (just one more awesome thing about Chch.

  5. I stand to corrected, but I’m almost certain that there is a requirement that any food service estblishment MUST be able and willing to serve at least tapwater at no charge to a customer.

    We have a cafe as part of our bookshop and the provision of the free water has been an issue for us. We recently installed a filtered water station right at the front door. We’re happy to bring it to a table if someone asks once they are seated – usually we direct patrons to the station, purely because we’re focussed on getting the coffee to the patron once they’ve ordered.

    It is a dilemma for cafe owners, having patrons sit on a glass of water well after they’ve finished their coffee is an issue in profitability. At the same time, you don’t want to rush the patron out the door. Being a smaller town, we rely on a much smaller customer base, and their memory of a good experience is valuable – a bad experience can be deadly.

    Good thought provoking topic

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