Going With the Flow

Selling bottled water in restaurants has had its ups and downs. Used to be a bottle of water at every table was seen as the big markup savior. Then water sommeliers were the rage in fancy restaurants. Next came the bottled water backlash, when no self-respecting restaurant would be caught dead menuing ecologically disastrous spring water imported from the other side of the globe. Water from the tap reigned supreme—but of course, operators couldn’t charge for that.


Now restaurants are again quietly bumping up the bottom line with bottled water sales, although hand-selling is trickier. A few establishments are making a big splash with an array of bottle selections (see below) as a differentiator.

Bottled water consumption was up 3.5 percent in 2010—after dips in 2008 and 2009, according to the Alexandria, Virginia-based International Bottled Water Association. And water’s beverage market share also buoyed slightly, to 30 percent. The latest statistics from the Beverage Marketing Corporation put per capita consumption of bottled water at 28.3 gallons.

Of course, the economic downturn has made tap water more popular, but tap doesn’t have to be the same old plain old. Restaurants can offer premium purified water, chilled still or carbonated, from snazzy stainless steel taps—just like draft beer or tap wine. Companies like Saddle Brook, New Jersey-based Natura Water lease purification systems as a cost-effective and greener alternative to bottled.

Water companies are also greening up. Big bottler Nestle Waters, for example, bills itself as “The Healthy Hydrating Company.” The global giant recently published a report on sustainable water development, called “Creating Shared Value.” Since 2005, Nestle Waters’ showed a 20 percent reduction in its carbon footprint and reduced packaging by 10g.

Similarly, the Coca-Cola Foundation just announced $27 million in grants to fund sustainable initiatives—$12 million going to water stewardship projects. Coke also now packages its Dasani water brand in a proprietary 100 percent recyclable plant-based bottle.

 


Water works

 

“That negative publicity about bottled water five years ago when we opened actually helped sales because we got a lot of exposure for our water menu,” recalls Anastasia Karloutsos, partner at The Water Works Restaurant & Lounge in Philadelphia. She estimates 90 percent of diners order bottled water.

Housed in a historic waterworks building dating from the early 1880s, the menu of some 75 bottled waters is a natural fit.

“We are located in the first municipal water delivery system in America,” points out Karloutsos, “so we promote bottled water as part of the total experience.”

At the entrance is an impressive “water wall” of the 75 offerings. The separate water menu is presented to guests along with the food menu and service staff is ready to offer pairing suggestions.

The menu features waters from all over—Patagonia, Tasmania, Denmark and Africa—as well as familiar brands like San Pellegrino, Evian, Aqua Panna and Fiji. Tasmanian Rain ($13 for 750ml) is the restaurant’s biggest seller because of its exotic origin and soft, pure flavor. The most expensive is Bling H2O “Museum Edition” at $50 for a 750ml bottle; it’s a popular special-occasion splurge and people collect the bottles, decorated with Swarovski crystals.