When it comes to water service in restaurants these days, there are two diverging paths: serving tap water or offering high-end bottled waters.
It’s been over a year since Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, stopped serving bottled water, citing environmental concerns. Other Bay Area restaurants joined the ban and now the trickle has become a rivulet, as operators forgo profitable bottled water sales for a greener image. Recently, 14 Twin Cities restaurants pledged to promote city tap water as part of a Think Outside the Bottle campaign; the same movement is underway in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago. Last March, 2,000 restaurants took part in UNICEF’s Tap Project, inviting customers to donate a dollar per glass of tap water to provide potable water for children around the globe.
For their part, bottlers are greening their images. Evian is packaging its Natural Spring Water in bottles made with recycled plastic (rPet), partnering with RecycleBank and launching the Evian Water Protection Institute to advance sustainability. Nestle Waters introduced its new Eco-Shape bottle, which uses 30 percent less plastic, and operates five LEED-certified bottling plants. Every new Nestle facility will be LEED-certified, too.
Of course, not all tap water is equal. And recent reports about traces of pharmaceuticals in municipal water sources have alarmed the public. Even restaurants located in areas with tasty municipal or well water often filter or otherwise treat it through water softening, reverse osmosis or UV rays. A further variant on the tap theme is to carbonate the water, either using an elaborate system or old-fashioned seltzer bottles. Many restaurants dress up tap service with fancy carafes and some even charge for it.
At the other end of the spectrum are restaurants that make bottled water a vital part of their beverage programs. “If you have 100 wines on your list, I think you should have 10 waters on your menu,” says Michael Mascha, consultant, author and publisher of finewaters.com.
One example is the Abigail Stoneman Inn in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Water Bar boasts some 20 bottles, including Speyside Glenlivet (yes, that Glenlivet), Ty Nant from Wales and VOSS from Norway. Mascha notes that the same consumers who appreciate Maldon sea salt, first cold-pressed olive oil and estate-grown cacao are likely to enjoy distinctive bottled waters.
Although bottled water consumption is still going up, growth is moderating.
U.S. bottled water market, per-capita consumption
Year: Gallons per-capita, Percent change
2003: 21.6, 7.2%
2004: 23.2, 7.5%
2005: 25.4, 9.7%
2006: 27.6, 8.4%
2007: 29.3, 6.4%
Waste not, want not
Initially, I was hesitant to go forward with the pledge. I thought customers would be upset if we didn’t offer bottled water,” says Tracy Singleton, owner of Birchwood Café in Minneapolis. “But I’ve heard nothing but positive comments.”
Birchwood Café was one of 14 Twin Cities restaurants that recently pledged to reduce the use of bottled water and promote tap water. Although the decision was inspired by environmental concerns, it will have a positive effect on the restaurant’s bottom line as well.
“It will save us some money off our trash bill,” explains operations manager Elijah Goodwell. Birchwood is moving towards zero waste status and is already composting all its organic material, he adds.
“Of course, we’re losing some sales and profits from not selling bottled water,” concedes Singleton, “and filtered tap water lacks the status that some bottled waters have.” But, she adds, “this will help people realize there is an environmentally friendly alternative.” The switch to tap was publicized in the restaurant’s newsletter as well as in newspaper ads and Birchwood’s regulars are already well aware that the café sources local, sustainable products as much as possible. Besides, filtered tap water fits into a beverage list that features many organic, fair trade and biodynamic wines. “We’re fortunate to be located in a community that shares many of our values and supports these kinds of initiatives,” says Singleton.