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Restaurant Lost Running Water & Stayed Open

Fellow Hounds, I just came back from brunch at a slightly upscale restaurant. It's a destination place for most locals, located in a purely residential area about 20 minutes "out of town". In other words, there was one available public sink & toilet for customers and staff.

One of my party returned to the table perplexed that she couldn't get the faucets to work in the bathroom. Once asked, our server looked mortified and reluctantly admitted that the water had just stopped working and that staff was out back working on it.

The restaurant kept seating people. I sat there uncomfortably. Between needing to use the ladies and the thought of unwashed hands...

By the end of our very leisurely meal - just under 2 hours later - I went to investigate again. The bathroom was still labelled out of order but another patron was in there experimentally flushing the toilet. The two (!) servers at the counter both couldn't tell me if the water was back on and had to ask other staff. It had just come back on.

I'm tempted to write the restaurant and just give them some feedback about how this was handled. How they handled this really undermined my confidence about the hygiene standards of the place. My town is already hurting for decent restaurants. I do want them to stick around.

What do you think?

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  1. Doubt I'd return. I'd also call the Health Dept.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Leonardo

      +1. I certainly would not want those servers handling my food!!!

      1. re: Leonardo

        I think the time to call the Health Dept was when you first learned of the water issue. At this point, after the fact, what are they going to do?

        If I cared about the restaurant, I'd contact the manager, let her/him know of your concern, and listen for a plausible explanation/back up plan.

      2. As long as they can heat water via a stove or microwave, the staff can wash their hands

        2 Replies
        1. re: treb

          Yes, but did they do that? And what about customers' hands?

          1. re: Leonardo

            Oops- this is a reply to treb:

            They lost water. Full stop. Did they have two hours worth of clean water tucked away in the kitchen for hand and dish washing? Unlikely. And nobody, staff nor customs, could use the bathroom.

        2. I've always been a believer in the notion that people are overly germ-o-phobic these days; however I also think that not having any form of running water for sanitation for staff when food is being prepared is a BIG no no.

          If you really love this place and don't want to see them go, perhaps a letter or a personal visit to let them see the egregiousness of that situation will put the message across- better they get it from you than the health inspectors if they want to stay in business! Restaurants should be aware of the fact that customers aren't blind to this sort of thing.

          1. I would not be overly fussed about the toilet being out of action (although, at my age, the availablity of toilets is more of a priority than when I was younger, if you get my drift).

            I would, however, be fussed that the kitchen had no running water for staff hygiene purposes. I guess the restaurant made its decision about whether closing for the evening and pissing off diners was worse for their business reputation than staying open. I thought they probably made the wrong call.

            1. That is disgusting. Definitely would let the health department know.

              1. You knew about the situation and stayed for two hours anyway?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Samalicious

                  I wasn't the person in the group with the car keys and the food was already out. I wasn't thrilled, I assure you.

                2. I understand your concern, but I wouldn't be so quick to damn them. Perhaps someone was sent to buy carboys of water from the store? I would imagine this isn't the first time a restaurant has lost water, so it's possible a system exists for them to keep things sanitary. I'd write/call management so your concerns would be addressed.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: pollymerase

                    I was thinking along the same lines. Bottles of water from the store to wash hands, boil pasta, and steam veggies, etc. If they had sufficient advance warning that the water was going to be turned off, they could have filled empty bottles with tap water for hand washing, using fresh bottles of water for food.

                    1. re: KailuaGirl

                      I wasn't clear enough - this was a surprise to the staff. Not a planned outage. And the store is 20 minutes away.

                      1. re: Vetter

                        I understood that, but you'd be surprised at the things that go on behind the scenes. Obviously that goes both ways--good and bad. I'm just pointing out there are possibilities and not all restaurants are run by people trying to skirt the health code. It's possible they had substantial fresh water for the kitchen. It's possible they didn't. We don't know. Ask if it is making you that uncomfortable.

                  2. I doubt they had a backup for operating properly without running water. My guess is that they thought it would be a quick fix, and nobody would notice. They shouldn't have let new customers in during the outage.

                    1. I'd write to ask. They might have an answer that would satisfy you, eg a backup system that worked for the kitchen, or maybe only the water to the bathroom was out. We can guess all we want about what happened but it's better to try to get the full story. This is hindsight and I probably wouldn't have thought of of it at the time but you could have asked the server what the kitchen was doing for water.

                      1. I don't know the health codes in your area, but in the Los Angeles area, a lack of potable water is a reason for an immediate shutdown by the health department. But it can open the moment it has potable water restored.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: raytamsgv

                          Same in Oregon. No safe water, no operating rest rooms = immediate shutdown.

                          1. I'm going to cut them some slack and here's why:

                            First assumption is that they suddenly lost water - I can't imagine a situation where the water stops for an instant and management yells "empty the restaurant! Stop service!" (Sirens and flashing strobe lights going off). The initial reaction would be to find out what's happening and try to fix it. If they're waiting for a utility or something, then trying to find out how long the outage might be.

                            Once everything is prepped out back - stocks and sauces made, etc. there is probably not much immediate need for water. Dishwashing can wait if you have enough dishes. Employees washing hands after using a restroom, well, they can't use the restroom so that might not be an immediate issue either. Bottled water can go a long way. Most places have a lot of bottled water on hand anyway as in "would you like tap or bottled water? (for $4.95 per bottle)". This can be used for tables, cooking and even washing hands for staff - the health department does not care if patrons wash or not.

                            Not having a toilet would be bad for me (a man of a certain age) but once again my guess is that they probably thought they would have the water back "any minute now".

                            I've been to restaurants when the health department had a boil water order in effect (often city wide) because of possible contamination and they got by. Pain in the ass but they dealt with it. I've been in restaurants during power outages - my bet is that the coolers might not have been totally at the right temperature. Stuff happens and we cope for awhile.

                            To sum up, I'm sure they thought it would be a minimal amount of time before the water returned to service. It probably lasted longer than they first expected. They probably did their best to keep to all the health codes as best they could - most restaurants have violations with everything always working. I'm also sure they have had a debrief of "lessons learned" so they can better cope the next time. We're kinda making it out to be akin to that Carnival cruise ship with human waste slopping around the corridors. An inconvenience? Yes. Could they have done things better? Probably. Panic? Shut down immediately? I think that might have been overkill. Send an email to the restaurant to help insure they review their procedures should this happen again. I think we have to keep things in perspective.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: bobbert

                              I guess it all depends on where you are. Like Leonardo and Ray above, where we are: no water = no customers. Kick everyone out and lock the doors until the water is back. No options, no discretion, no negotiation, even though common sense may dictate otherwise. In fact, this applies to *hot* water, even if the cold is fine. Your water heater goes out, you're shut down. Period.

                              1. re: acgold7

                                They may even do that the next time after they review what took place. I still can not imagine shutting down without at least finding out what's going on. "Clogged toilet! Shut down!"?? I don't think so. "We lost power. What should we do?" Shut down immediately? Before checking to see if a breaker tripped? Before calling the power company to see what's up? I don't think so. So you lose water. I can't imagine shutting down immediately without first trying to find out what happened. Breaker might have tripped on the well pump. Who knows? Shutting down and then finding out that the utility was just conducting a routine 5 minute maintenance switchover would be a bit overkill.
                                I agree that, once they found out (if they found out) that this could last for "awhile", different story. Otherwise, you should do a little trouble shooting first and then make your decision based on what information you have. I don't think they should have waited endlessly hoping for the best but I also don't believe that a knee jerk response without knowing what's happening is necessarily the way to go either. I think they have probably learned a thing or two for the experience and will do better next time. That they may have made what in hindsight might have not been the best decision is not, IMO, reason enough to "Doubt I'd return" as some suggest. The email with one's concern and management’s response might dictate my future with the restaurant.

                                1. re: bobbert

                                  I've sent my email. I am not calling the health department. I am pretty sure that the situation what similar to what Bobbert described. I do really want to know that the restaurant will learn from this, though. The takeaway that day was really "they are flaky or just don't care" and that bothers me. Still waiting for a response from ownership...who may be reading this thread, for all I know.

                              2. re: bobbert

                                Very well said.

                                It takes a little while to figure out what is happening, especially if the issue occurs during the midst of a dinner rush.

                              3. There are a couple things that I can add to this that I haven't really seen discussed yet. Regarding the lack of water for staff to wash their hands.....many restaurants have hand sanitizer for servers. In NJ this is allowable for service staff, not kitchen staff.

                                I have to tell you this as well....even under the most ideal circumstances if you think waiters and waitresses are routinely washing their hands during their shift you are sadly mistaken. If they use the bathroom it is naturally assumed all employees will wash their hands before returning to work, however if the only bathroom isn't working then that isn't a concern.

                                I think notifying the health department is a bit harsh. I've been involved in the business all of my 42 years of life....if most of you knew what goes on behind the scenes in places this would be very small potato's to worry about.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: jrvedivici

                                  Hand sanitizers are not as effective as soap and water. While the sanitizers can kill most bacteria, they are not always effective against viruses--especially Hepatitis A, which is sometimes spread through restaurants. Also, hand sanitizers cannot remove dirt, grime, or feces from your hands. Bacteria can grow underneath these things and may eventually end up in your food.

                                  Having said that, contamination of this sort is only a small possibility, but the consumer should be aware of these things. And as you mentioned, just because there is a working restroom doesn't necessarily mean the staff members are washing their hands correctly.

                                2. Given the reactions of some posters, you probably would not have gone out in NYC below 34th St after Sandy hit. Restaurants were opening without power or water. They improvised to stay open. Generators, candles, bottled water.

                                  I wouldn't have been too worried about it. As others said, it was an outage of some sort. Not like the place was planning to operate for the future without water.