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Getting big profits from water sales

Bottled water is one of the most profitable items you can sell, yet a growing number of fine-dining restaurants are dropping it from their menus. The biggest splash came recently when the Associated Press reported that Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, no longer serves bottled water, only tap. Incanto in San Francisco has also made the switch and Poggio in Sausalito has been serving just tap water since it opened in 2003. These proactive restaurateurs cite environmental and ethical concerns.

Bottled water is one of the most profitable items you can sell, yet a growing number of fine-dining restaurants are dropping it from their menus. The biggest splash came recently when the Associated Press reported that Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, no longer serves bottled water, only tap.

Incanto in San Francisco has also made the switch and Poggio in Sausalito has been serving just tap water since it opened in 2003. These proactive restaurateurs cite environmental and ethical concerns.

Bottled water is associated with hefty environmental costs. Those PET bottles are made from petroleum and only an estimated 15 percent are recycled. Shipping bottled water further enlarges its energy footprint.

The other concern is where water is sourced. Experts claim that a quarter of bottled water is repackaged tap water. Although bottled water is regulated by the FDA, bottling plants are given low priority for inspection. Municipal water supplies, on the other hand, are monitored by state health departments and the EPA.

Still, few operators can resist the huge profit potential from bottled water. Before you stock up, consider a few purchasing strategies that can impact that profitability.

•First, determine what sizes you will serve. You should offer both singles and a bottle large enough for a table to share. Bottles come in a dizzying array of volumes in both English and metric measurements—250 milliliters, 6 ounces, 8 ounces, 500 milliliters, 12 ounces, 16 ounces 1 liter, 22 ounces 1.5 liters, 28 ounces, 32 ounces and all sizes in between.

•If you have the storage space, take advantage of multi-case discount prices; bottled water keeps almost indefinitely. Glass bottles look and feel more elegant than plastic and retain a chill longer but they weigh more and cost more to ship. Cases of glass bottles are also more difficult to move around in storage and are prone to breakage. Be sure to take recycling and waste-disposal costs into account; empties stack up quickly.

•Fancy labels have cachet but may cost more. You can also contract with bottlers to have custom-labeled bottles imprinted with your logo. Depending upon the brand you’re looking for, you can purchase bottled water from broadline distributors. Or add in the order with your CSDs—the best-selling brand is Pepsi’s Aquafina, closely
followed by Coke’s Dasani. 

Check out sellbottledwater.com for additional buying and selling tactics.

Marketing the Tap

For a lot of restaurants bottled water is a way to tack a few extra dollars onto the check,” concedes Belinda Chang, corporate director of wine and spirits for the Chicago-area Cenitare restaurant group. But she thinks the complimentary filtered tap or house sparkling water offered at Chicago’s Osteria Via Stato is a nice amenity.

At the restaurant, tap service is elevated with custom-designed glass water bottles, which are automatically brought to the table. The words “naturale” or “frizzante” are printed in black, and for a one-time cost, the elegant bottles add a design element, notes Chang. Osteria Via Stato has been serving the upscaled tap water since it opened four years ago. “Traveling through Italy for research, our team saw many trattorias with special taps for house still and sparkling water,” Chang recalls. That inspired Osteria’s policy.

As a bonus, the tap water is more food and wine friendly, because it’s not as minerally as many bottled waters. Bottles of Panna or Pellegrino are still available for patrons to order, but most are happy with tap. The Chicago municipal water is filtered before service and an inexpensive carbonator produces the frizzante sparkler. “It’s a generous move on the restaurant’s part,” says Chang, “and we’re not trying to gouge guests by selling water.”

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