Taking their inspiration from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, restaurants across the country are trading in their bottled water service for filtered systems that reduce waste without comprising quality. With these new systems, some owners and managers are charging for water while others are covering the costs and offering it as value added for their customers. Some are even coming up with unique uses for their green alternative to bottled water.
“It’s all part of the dining experience—the music, lighting and water,” says Dan Sachs, owner of Bin 36 Restaurant Group in Chicago, which runs the Bin 36, Bin Wine Café and A Mano restaurants. A Mano, an Italian restaurant, was the first in the group to have a filtration system when it opened two and half years ago and the restaurant and wine bar Bin 36 upgraded this year.
“This was mostly done as an environmental thing,” says Sachs. “The water tastes great and it doesn’t cost much to do it.” He notes that it costs about $10 a day to run the system.
But customers are happy. “Our consumers are savvy enough to realize the importance,” he explains. “People love the product and feel great about it. We are essentially giving them something for nothing. “Sachs doesn’t charge for still or sparkling water at his restaurants.
Jody Williams agrees. Inspired by time spent living in Rome, where good water flows freely, Williams, chef and owner of Gottino Italian restaurant in New York City, says offering a good glass water is integral to the dining experience. “There is something fundamental to walking in and getting a nice glass water,” she says. In fact, when making the decisions to offer filtered water when opening Gottino, Williams fashioned a filtration system herself from used parts.
When the rigged up version needed replacing, Williams purchased the Natura system, which features reverse osmosis technology and has become something of an industry standard. The system offers service of both chilled still and sparkling water. “Gottino means ‘little glass’ in Italian so we play off that by offering a little glass of water,” she adds.
Customers are not charged for the water at Gottino—still or sparkling. “There are a some things that should be free,” explains Williams. “You shouldn’t have to pay for water or TV.”
Taking this feeling to heart, Gottino is part of the New York-based TapIt Water project, which works to reduce bottled water waste in cities across the country by partnering with local restaurants and bars. As part of the program, anyone with a water bottle can come into the restaurant and refill their bottle.
At The Majestic in Alexandria, Virginia, they installed the Natura system nearly two years ago to reduce the waste they created from selling bottled water, but have expanded to so much more. Not only is it the only water served in the dining room, but the American classics-restaurant also offers some 20 sodas priced at $3 and made using the sparkling water from the system. “It is all part of an effort to get rid of the corn syrups and commercial sodas. We make our own syrups with only fruits, vegetables and spices,” says Melissa Horst, beverage director, who notes that the still water is free, but they do charge $4.50 per table for unlimited sparkling water.
Current soda flavors include Kumquat Vanilla, Spicy Ginger (the house-made ginger ale) and Citrus and are served in an old-fashioned milk shake glass. “We’ve eliminated purchasing lemon-lime soda completely,” notes Horst. “We only have commercial ginger ale for people who specifically ask for it.”
Horst even creates seasonal cocktails using the specialty sodas. The menu currently features the Ginger Grant cocktail which is priced at $9.75 and made with local Bowman Brothers small batch Bourbon and the house-made spicy ginger soda.
At American restaurant Perennial in Chicago, which is part of the Boka Restaurant Group, the decision to switch to filtered water was purely for the environment. “For us it was a philosophical decision to change—a green solution to high quality water,” says Brandon Wise, mixologist. “We are able to offer the highest quality of water, while still staying true to the environment.” Perennial charges $6 for a bottle of still or sparkling water with unlimited refills. The water system replaces bottled water, but doesn’t replace the tap service that each customer receives.
The filtered water is also used to make specialty ice cubes used at the bar in specific cocktails. For example, they use irregular ice chards in their Old Fashioned for $12, which is made with Templeton Rye, Demerara syrup, house bitters and kirsch cherries. They use large Japanese ice orbs made with the filtered watered infused with orange flower water in the top selling Devil’s Handshake, menued at $12, which mixes El Dorado 5 Year Old Demerara rum, St. Martin’s allspice dram, lime and cinnamon-cachaça foam. Wise notes that they also have plans to expand to specialty sodas this summer.
Most managers agree that the filtered systems do not generate much revenue, but are worth the cost incurred for the experience, flavor and eco-friendliness of the water. And most would agree with Sachs in saying, “It’s the right thing to do.”