Friday, June 29, 2012

A little bit of water can go a long way

Most restaurants in California will serve a customer a glass of water upon request. And some will even pour you water automatically the minute you sit down at the table. Occasionally the waiter will stop by to check if you need a refill. He will even leave you his water jar if you ask for it. Not so in Israel. If you ask for water, the waiter has to place your order with the bar and will bring over one glass at a time. Refills aren't automatic: your waiter has to order another glass from the bar, which takes time and requires a few friendly reminders.

TOPSEA: beautiful place, ugly policies
I get that water is a scarce resource in Israel, and that you can’t just “waste” water on every casual diner. But somehow I get the nagging feeling that part of the reason for the “convoluted water process” has to do with profits, not just the scarcity of water. The restaurant doesn’t make money on tap water. They do however make money on other drinks. Lots of money.

Generally speaking, most restaurants I visit here will serve tap water upon request. And if you properly plan your water consumption, you can always ask for another glass when you current one is 2/3 empty. That will ensure that your water supply is never interrupted (well that’s just “process engineering” chatter… ). The point is that once you understand the “system” you can get along just fine.

Accept if you visit certain restaurants that believe that serving you water is a waste of time and profits.
I recently visited such restaurant. It’s called “TOPSEA” (טופסי) and it is located on the beach right below the Tel-Aviv Hilton hotel. It has a great beach front location, and the view of the sea is breath taking. You can sit on chairs placed on the sand, or at an indoors table, or on sofas under white canopies. They definitely succeeded in creating the right atmosphere for beach goers who seek more than casual dining. Unless you ask for water.

Our charming waitress was of European origin, and didn’t speak Hebrew. It was her first week on the job and she was trying really hard. We were a party of four and we placed a sizeable order of food, coffee and tea. She wrote it all down and asked “anything else?” “Yes” I replied, “we would love to get 4 glasses of cold tap water”. There was a pause. “I am afraid the restaurant policy is not to serve tap water” she replied. “Are you sure” I asked. “Yes, that’s what I was told during my training”.

I was sure it was some misunderstanding. How can that be? We are sitting on the beach on a hot summer day. We ordered plenty of food and drinks, and I have never been denied water in a restaurant before.  I asked if I could please speak to the manager.

The shift manager showed up promptly. “Yes, your waitress was right” he said, “we don’t serve tap water here. But you can order other cold drinks if you please”. I asked him whose idea was it, and he replied that the restaurant owner sets the policies.

Typically in cases like that, I simply get up and leave the establishment. But it was a hot summer day, the seating was very convenient and there were four of us who wanted to simply enjoy ourselves. So we decided to stay and “put up” with the restaurant’s extortion tactics.  And no, I didn’t order any other cold drink.

Time went by and another waiter, Israeli this time, came by to check on us. “Is everything fine with your order?” he asked. “Yes” we replied, “except for the water”. “What’s wrong with the water?” he asked. “Nothing’s wrong with the water – we simply didn’t get any”. He immediately took off and came back with four glasses of cold tap water. “Isn’t there a policy not to serve tap water?” I asked. “Yes there is” he said, “but I think it’s dumb, so I serve water to my clients”.

A few minutes later our first waitress came by. Once she saw the water glasses she commented: “I guess not everyone is following the policy”. “No they don’t” I said, “It is Israel after all”.  We tipped both waiters – the European girl because she tried hard, plus it wasn’t really her fault. And the Israeli guy because he saved the day for us.

So what did we have here? A nice restaurant located on a beautiful beach. A greedy owner who sets policies designed to extort his own customers. European girl that “just follows the rules” and an Israeli guy that simply did the right thing.

Honestly I don’t know if I should be happy that young Israelis understand the value of customer service and choose to ignore stupid policies. Or should I be angry that some business owners think they have a right to extort their customers and believe they can get away with it.

One thing I do know: There are dozens of places along the Tel Aviv beach. On my next visit I will choose any place but TOPSEA. I hope you do too.

If you know someone who works at TOPSEA please let them know how "anti-customer" their water policy is...


  1. This is a gentle and rightful protest. Thank you! Aya

  2. Baruch, are you sure you are not Indian? This was very Gandhian style.