Once upon a time, requesting water in a restaurant meant tap water. But in recent years bottled water has represented one of the most profitable items a restaurant can sell. Concerns about the environment and sustainability have led to an increased focus on water and the options available to restaurants. With more and more bottled water being certified as carbon neutral, restaurants face a myriad of options—bottled or filtered, and how to charge for it or not charge at all?
Atera, a two-star Michelin restaurant in NYC, offers their customers still or sparkling filtered water. They rely on the Natura filtration system, which is available for rent or sale. According to General Manager Matthew Abbick, the cost is a few hundred dollars every six months for filter changes and maintenance and they run through about $60 of CO2 a week for sparkling water. He adds that they do keep San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna bottled water on hand for when someone insists on bottled water or in case the taste of the filtered water doesn’t suit them.
For Atera, offering filtered water is a luxury that is a step up from tap water, and since it’s “a basic need” they prefer not to charge for it. Their prices do include a service charge, however, which can help support the extra service.
The Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, which runs an eclectic group of restaurants including Babbo and Del Posto, serves sparkling and still Vero Water from reusable glass bottles. According to Elizabeth Meltz, Director of Environmental Health for the restaurant group, they wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping lots of heavy glass overseas. She says that not having tons of glass bottles to store is a huge plus, and not having to recycle all those bottles is also incredible for the bottom line and the environment. Likewise, San Francisco’s Waterbar and Epic Steak also provide Vero Water. Managing Partner Pete Sittnick echoes the same concerns, adding that doing so eliminates the hassle of storing bottled water. At his restaurants the costs are considered overhead and are not passed off to the guests.
While some restaurateurs choose not to charge for filtered water, still or sparkling, others do—and Vero Water in particular has created a premium brand that supports the cost. According to Vero co-founder David Deshe, the brand offers more profitability over high-margin bottled waters with a minimal per-customer charge for unlimited refills. The price charged per guest varies and is recommended by Vero Water based on the style of restaurant.
According to Deshe, “The reasonable cost and continuous refills offer a value for guests and an opportunity to ‘trade up’ tap water consumers.” At a price as low as $1 Deshe says the customer opt-in is as much as 98-99%, while it can drop to as low as 30% for a charge of $8.
Considered one of the top experts in bottled water, Martin Riese is the Patina Restaurant Group Water Sommelier. He developed a water menu that includes 20 different glacial, spring, and mineral waters from 10 different countries. At the signature Michelin one-star restaurant Patina, only bottled water is served. Each bottle gets two pages on the menu, where they display a photo of each bottle, a background story, sourcing details, and what makes it interesting. Then they show the mineral composition divided by TDS (total dissolved solids), Magnesium, Calcium and Sodium and a taste profile chart of every water—fruity to salty and smooth to complex.
Says Riese, the key of the success of a water menu is the staff’s ability to recommend waters to the guests. Without the proper training, he says, a water menu would be useless. They train staff through water tastings and give them a deep understanding of how water can be paired like wine and even has an impact on other beverages and food.
Like so many other issues in the restaurant industry, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to water service: it’s a delicate balance between sustainability, profitability, and hospitality.