Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What'll You Have?

Friday afternoon, I asked the following question on twitter: 

Ethics question: Is it okay to only order water w/ your meal at a restaurant? Restaurants barely make $$ on food alone.

I got back many answers all defending water, and water only, as the beverage of choice to have with a meal. I only had one other person - a long-time friend - tell me that he too orders a drink with his meal. And by "drink" I don't mean a highball, I just mean something you pay for (e.g. bottled water, iced tea, soda, beer, coffee, Harvey Wallbanger, etc.). It wasn't my intent to ruffle any feathers, but by the replies, it seemed as though I had.

I've always felt an obligation to order a drink with my meal, but I have an example that I would like to set forth. This example is what spawned me to ask the question.

I met my wife for lunch at The National (http://www.nationaleats.com/) at 9th Street and National Avenue. It's a great place. If you haven't been there, please give it a try. They offer food good for the soul and it's a very cool, small place. It's the kind of place people lament that there aren't enough of and I'd feel a lot better about the world if there were more Nationals in it. 

I ordered a bowl of pea soup with ham. This was a 16-ounces of pure deliciousness. And for only $5. What a steal with a side of fresh-baked bread! If you examine what it took to get this bowl of soup to my table: the ingredients, the labor, the service, the rent, the utilities - if they made 50 cents on it I'd be surprised. Let's be conservative and say they made $2 on it, it's still a helluva way to make a few bucks.

Now here comes the quandary. I love this place. I want it to be around for a while. I want the owners to make a living and continue following their passion. Do I order water? Or do I show appreciation for their efforts and order a drink? If I buy a can a Coke from them for $1.50 that they paid $0.50 for, they clear $1. Granted it may seem like an easy dollar, but for their overall operation, they still are working their tails off for that measly buck. If everyone ordered only water, I'd bet you see a lot fewer restaurants in this world. It's a tough business.

I've seen colleagues eat at the Philly Way and order only water. And then, on the way back to their office stop at McDonald's and get a 32-ounce Coke for $1 because they got more sweetened, carbonated sugar water for their dollar. Lame. Really lame. 

And what about the service? If you drink water, your lunch bill may be $8; with a drink, it's $10. Respectively tipped at 20% it's $1.60 and $2.00. The waiter or waitress made just as many trips I'm sure, but they got stiffed, or do you tip 25% when you order only water?

I know it's your right and prerogative to order only water and I completely understand it. Heck, after air, it's the single most important thing required for our survival, but the next time you're in a place as independent and cool as The National, maybe give this post a little thought and help some hard-working brothers and sisters out.


  1. Gee Mike,
    I "get" where you're coming from. But I wouldn't micromanage a restaurant's business model. They might have to raise food prices if they can't use drinks as their "profit center". The fact that you tout a specific restaurant in your blog should help that business more than buying a drink. The percentage of customers who just order water is predictable. Personally i enjoy Agua con Gas with my meals.

  2. Where does it end, though? Do you also feel obligated to order an appetizer, the more expensive steak vs. chicken and a dessert?

    I see table turnover as more of an issue at a place like The National (for those unfamiliar, it's cozy). Go ahead and order just $5 soup, but don't hog a precious table for a whole hour.

  3. I'm glad to hear that there is someone else who feels tortured by these dilemmas. You like the place, you want them to stay in business, and you want the waitstaff to get a decent tip...but what you really want is water. Or the cheap meal. I tend to overtip to compensate.