Not a drop to drink

Restaurant operators in California are learning how to cope with the water shortage. Here’s what you can learn from them.
water drops

In January, California’s two- year-old drought went from inconvenience to official state of emergency. Water conservation now is a matter of law, with Governor Jerry Brown issuing a mandatory 25 percent cutback on usage. New mandates such as Brown’s “Water upon request only” rule mean that initiatives impact operations not only in the kitchen, but in the service they offer, too.

For some restaurateurs, the mandate has been easy to implement. “We started doing this on our own about a year ago,” says Stacy Jed, who co-owns Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco. “We place cards on each table that say, ‘We are happy to serve water, just ask.’” While Jed feels that the restaurant’s other operational conservation practices (allocating the staff only five towels per shift and cutting  back on side plates to reduce dish washing, for example) save more water, the “upon request” signs raise awareness. “It starts to sink in that this is not just a dry spell, it’s an out-and-out drought emergency,” says Jed. “And when that message is communicated properly and effectively, people understand.”

Operators also may soon be following the model of the sustainably minded LYFE Kitchen, which has 16 locations in six states, including drought-laden California and Nevada. From the time the first unit opened in Palo Alto, Calif., four years ago, the fast casual implemented self-serve water towers with spigots for still and sparkling. This, plus initiatives such as using frozen fruits and vegetables instead of ice in smoothies, “have put us in the sweet spot for the current situation in California,” says Larry Taylor, LYFE’s chief restaurant officer.

For other concepts, retraining staff has become a side effect of the new law. “A main service point is to automatically greet people with water when they sit,” says Ross Wheatley, director of food and beverage at Lucy Restaurant and Bar in Yountville, Calif. “From a service point of view, you want to make sure that people feel taken care of. But you also want to adhere to state regulations. It’s a bit of a tightrope.” Wheatley says training the staff to explain the request-only policy effectively is crucial for the comfort of diners. “If  people have any questions why someone next to them got water and they didn’t, we have trained the staff to gently explain the policy. If there is any friction after that, we will grab a manager to elaborate.”

Chef Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar, which has branches in California and Nevada, has gone back to offering bottled water for purchase. “In California [over the last few years], it became a really hot thing to filter your own still or sparkling water and serve it for free,” Keller says. “But that is not valuable anymore, if you look at what is happening. We now carry full and half bottles of water and all different sizes so diners aren’t forced to buy a big bottle.” Keller believes that restaurants like his, which do 850 to 1,200 covers a day, can effectively conserve by following the mandate. “When not everyone automatically gets a 16-ounce glass of water, that can be significant,” he says.

It will be a while before the impact of these efforts can be determined. Either way, the inspiration—and potential fallout—from the California mandate is worth watching, particularly as a lesson in how to adapt a business to a changing environment. 

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