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Know your H2O

All bottled water is not created equal. Don’t be fooled by a pretty label showing the Rocky Mountains or a pristine lake; that bottle may just as likely contain city tap water. However, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulates bottled water and classifies it according to its source. Artesian well water comes from a well that taps an aquifer—layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water—which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay.

All bottled water is not created equal. Don’t be fooled by a pretty label showing the Rocky Mountains or a pristine lake; that bottle may just as likely contain city tap water. However, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulates bottled water and classifies it according to its source.

Artesian well water comes from a well that taps an aquifer—layers of porous rock, sand and earth that contain water—which is under pressure from surrounding upper layers of rock or clay. When tapped, artesian pressure pushes the water above the level of the aquifer. According to the EPA, there is no guarantee that artesian waters are any cleaner than ground water from an unconfined aquifer.

Mineral water is from an underground source that contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids. Minerals and trace elements must come from the source of the underground water—they cannot be added later.

Spring water originates in an underground formation from which it flows naturally to the earth’s surface. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the formation feeding the spring.

Purified water is plain bottled water that comes from municipal sources. It’s usually treated before bottling by distillation, filtration, reverse osmosis or ozonation to remove microbes, off-tastes and odors.

Pack it in

Water comes in all sorts of packaging, from single-serve, 8-oz. plastic “cups” with a peel-off top and standard bottles of all sizes, to pop-top cans, aseptic bag-in-boxes and multi-gallon carboys that fit on water coolers. For restaurant service, however, the most common sizes are smaller bottles, 8 to 16 oz. for bar and lounge use, and larger, 20 oz., 1 liter and 2 liter sizes that can easily serve groups in the dining room. The trend these days is towards smaller sizes.

Bottles come in PET plastic or glass. Plastic bottles are easier to handle and unbreakable. Glass is heavier but more elegant on the table. Water is usually shipped in 24-count shrink-wrapped cases. Store in a cool, dark place, and rotate stock—bottled water has a shelf life of about two years, after that it may taste stale.

Packaging designers have put a great deal of thought and ingenuity into water bottle design. Bottles come in all shapes: classic, squat flask, tubular, spherical, corrugated (for a better grip), hourglass and irregular (to give the illusion of an ice formation). In the past few years, sports-type bottles with nipple tops have become popular, but they generally aren’t suitable for sit-down restaurants.

Table service bottles have screw top closures or a crimp cap—the latter requires a tool to open but can add a service flourish in the dining room. One recent innovation is a bottle top that injects flavoring into the water as it pours out. The manufacturer claims the design increases water consumption.

Tapping in

“Would you like bottled water or tap?” is often the first question patrons hear when they’re seated. Sure, you know bottled water can be very profitable, but too hard a sell can alienate customers. Try these low-key tactics.

Price to sell. Nobody likes to be gouged and everybody knows how much bottled water costs. By keeping markups reasonable you’ll sell more bottles.

Have a few different sizes available. Bottles holding 8 to 16 oz. are just right for single servings. Bigger 1 or 2 liter bottles fit the bill for large-party tables.

Feature bottled waters prominently on the menu. Include prices and maybe even a logo, if it’s a well-known brand. Display them right alongside beer, wine, cocktails and soft drinks.

Consider the brand. Offer known names that are familiar to guests (49 percent of consumers say brand is the No. 1 factor when selecting bottled water, according to FRC Research Group). Or, to be different, cash in on the cachet of a more obscure variety. You can even create your own brand; many suppliers bottle custom labels.

Match your menu. It’s obvious, sure, but if your cuisine’s Italian, why are you serving a French sparkling water?

Offer a few types of water. Include a minimum of one still and one sparkling. Taste before you serve; bottled waters vary subtly in saltiness, bitterness, sourness and mouthfeel. Sparkling waters can be lightly effervescent or very bubbly. Sip along with signature dishes to create pairings, as you would with wine.

Serve it right. Invest in quality stemmed glassware. Be sure the bottle is chilled—don’t use ice cubes to dilute the water. Don’t serve bottled waters with citrus or another garnish, unless requested—it muddles the taste.

Think beyond the tabletop. Brew your java with bottled water—and promote that fact. At the bar, feature cocktails made with bottled water or offer a branded water “back” or chaser.

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