1001 water-wise ways: How one Cape Town restaurant is responding

One of the famous pies from a beloved local deli. The roast tomato and rocket salad is my handiwork.

One of the famous pies from a beloved local deli. The roast tomato and rocket salad is my handiwork.

Thinking about being water-wise in the kitchen reminded me that a local chef and business owner sent out an email with some very good tips on what steps she's taking to save water in her small restaurant. With her permission, I'll post most of her advice here, but first some thoughts on keeping hospitality businesses -- significant providers of jobs -- open in the face of the threat of no running water.

I believe it's important to continue supporting local businesses, especially coffee-shops, pubs, restaurants, at the same time as not sponging (H2O pun of the day out the way) water off them. For this to work and to keep staving off Day Zero, they and we need to adapt our habits and expectations a little. I tend to hang out and work in local coffee-shops where everyone is very chilled (this is Noordhoek, after all; it's no longer hippy central, but incense still lingers in the air) and the yellow has been mellowing in our public toilets for at least a year now.

So I've been surprised to hear some Cape Town restaurants don't have hand sanitisers and "mellow yellow" notices in their bathrooms. Clearly living behind the tie-dye curtain has made me a bit naive. The other issue that keeps coming up has been the matter of serving tap water in restaurants, with some now refusing to do so, and giving the water crisis as their reason. If ever there was a Middle-class Problem, this is it, but it seems really contentious. On the one hand, I have waitrons telling me that their current pet hate is patrons asking for tap water with ice and then not drinking it. On the other, it seems that some establishments are using the water shortage as a reason to strong-arm their customers into ordering bottled water -- an expensive habit that doesn't even save water in the long run.

So here's an NB tip for restaurants, pubs and coffee-shops: your clientele are feeling scratchy, and they've all just put rain-tanks on their overdrafts and credit cards. So DO NOT GOUGE or appear to be exploiting a genuine emergency in order to gouge (this goes for all industries). If you genuinely no longer want to serve tap water, tell folk they're welcome to bring their own.

I solve the problem with my Red Riding Hood basket: I arrive smiling sweetly and say "Hello! To help you out, I've brought my own boiled well water, and look, here's the thermos with my ice, and I've brought my own napkin and compostable cup, and here's the travel mug for my coffee. You don't mind, do you?" So far, so very good, although I admit I still have to try this at a super-posh place.

Restaurant survival kit. (I leave the herbs and teapot behind.) The bottle of non-potable water is for use in the restaurant toilet.

Restaurant survival kit. (I leave the herbs and teapot behind.) The bottle of non-potable water is for use in the restaurant toilet.

Now for Anita's tips. As we went to primary school together (even though we met for the first time in over 40 years only months ago!), I won't name her restaurant except to say it's in Simonstown.

"With the all-consuming thoughts on everyone's minds on how to exist on 50 litres per person per day and how we can avoid Day Zero, we have done some real head-scratching on how XXX Restaurant can contribute to saving water.

"We have decided to reduce our water usage by serving our meals on biodegradable, compostable plates, made from sugarcane fibres. They are water and oil-resistant, hygienic and completely compostable within four weeks, so they will be taken home each evening, to be dug into the garden, thus assisting with mulching and enriching the soil. 

"This is not compulsory -- we will offer our patrons the choice -- traditional plates or disposable! If this step is supported by our community, we will bring in compostable cups for coffee and cold drinks.

"We will not be offering municipal water at tables, but have reduced the price of our bottled water. We take care to ensure that our water is not bottled in drought-stricken areas -- our favourite coming all the way from KwaZulu-Natal, where water is abundant.

"We will also restrict the usage of ice, which we make ourselves from bottled water. All our drinks are refrigerated and ice will only be served if requested. We have invested in wine skins to replace ice buckets, or we offer to keep your wine in our fridges and top up your glasses as required.

"We will also put buckets of grey water in the toilets, which can be used for flushing. We are testing  and supply a hygienic, waterless 'handwash'.

"We ask patrons to assist us in saving water by using these alternatives, but point out that this is purely a request -- not compulsory at this stage."

That all sounds most sensible, and fairly easily adoptable by other restaurants. I'd add, ditch  tablecloths unless they're the wipe-clean kind.

How is your small business or restaurant coping with water restrictions? Are you finding tensions between hygiene requirements stipulated by law and keeping water use to a minimum? Let me know.

Helen Moffett