The Big Bottled Water Thirst

The Big Bottled Water Thirst

Nancy Backas

The fastest growing beverage category keeps going and going

Who knew twenty years ago that one of the best ways to make money in the restaurant business was going to be offering premium bottled water? Sure, the very high end restaurants always served imported bottled water, but then there was an intimidation factor attached to it, a sort of snooty side of dining that made one feel cheap if one didn’t order the bottled water instead of tap.

But that’s no longer the case. Now bottled water is something people carry around like their cell phones, and one is just as likely to find premium brands in cafeterias as at a white tablecloth restaurant. Even quick-serve chain Burger King sells Perrier’s regional bottled water brands.

According to the Beverage Marketing Association, per capita consumption of bottled water went from 9 gallons per person in 1990 to more than twice that much (18.2 gallons per person) in 2000. Today, bottled water ranks as the fifth most consumed beverage, behind soft drinks, beer, coffee and milk. It’s also the fastest growing beverage with a 7.1 percent increase in consumption from 1999 to 2000. The projection is that per capita consumption of water will reach 23.8 gallons by 2004.

Take a look at the people who drink bottled water. They tend to be more health conscious. They also are slightly more likely to be women than men (58 percent vs 42 percent) and fall into the age categories 25-34 and 35-44. People over 55 are least likely to drink bottled water.

One survey (conducted by Yankelovich partners for The Rockefeller University and the International Bottled Water Association of 2,818 American adults surveyed between February 1 and 20, 2000 in 14 major metropolitan markets) found that residents of Los Angeles (3.2 servings) and San Diego (3.2) drink the most bottled water in an average day. Detroit drinks the least (1.3).

Other cities where there was high combined tap and bottled water consumption included Dallas and New York. And in Seattle where coffee still reigns, bottled water is rarely offered at restaurants. Restaurateurs in lagging markets take note: there’s money to be made.


There is a whole movement toward water,” says John Coletta of Caliterra, Chicago. “It appears people are looking for that bit of luxury that is affordable and approachable. It isn’t intimidating and is at the same time renewing and refreshing.” Clearly bottled mineral water adds a certain cachet to dining, and it’s a great revenue source. But there is a fine line between offering it as an alternative and giving patrons the feeling that there’s something wrong if they don’t order bottled water.

“You have to be careful not to give water a huge markup. Restaurant goers go to supermarkets, they know how much bottled water costs. If they go to a restaurant and the price is doubled, they see it as price gouging,” Coletta adds. “I’d rather sell one bottle to four people and have them come back than sell four bottles and never see them again.”

Cicada in downtown Los Angeles has been serving bottled water since it opened in 1987. “We haven’t seen a huge increase in mineral water consumption since we began serving it, but here in L.A. it’s part of the experience of dining in a high quality establishment. Water is all part of that quality. People want to enjoy themselves to the fullest when they dine here,” says Adelmo Zarif, owner.

In New York, drinking bottled water is part of everyday life. “People drink it at home, they carry it in their bag. Yes, we sell a lot of water. But it’s part of the dining experience. It’s the norm, not the exception,” explains Terrence Brennan, owner of Picholine and the recently opened Artisanal.


Restaurants differ on how many brands to offer, but most serve at least one still and one sparkling water. At the Essex House in New York, a half-dozen different mineral waters are available. At Caliterra, two still (Evian and Panna) and two sparkling (San Pellegrino and Perrier) are offered. “The number one driving force is to offer branded waters. People have to be familiar with the waters offered. I wouldn’t want to offer an unfamiliar water to begin with, but I may add a less known water later,” says Coletta.

Zarif looked for Italian brands to complement his restaurant’s cuisine. He has just two brands: San Pellegrino and another Italian brand, Laurantana, for the still water. Brennan serves Panna and San Pellegrino, and Fiji as a third option at Picholine. At Artisanal, Vittel will also grace tables.

At Nacional 27 in Chicago, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, they opened three years ago without bottled water on the menu. “We figured the water in Chicago is pretty good as opposed to some cities where you really don’t want to drink the water. But we kept getting requests for it, so we decided we had better offer it” says Randy Zwieban, executive chef. Panna and San Pellegrino are available in liter bottles for the table, but they also have available smaller bottles which have become very popular on Friday and Saturday nights when the restaurant features salsa dancing and dancers want something to quench their thirst after some energetic hoofing.

“I think bottled water can enhance the dining experience too, because it’s served cold, but not iced. It complements food better,” Zwieban adds.

The future may not be far off for restaurants to offer a lengthy list of bottled waters. Whether it’s for health reasons, or because there is a something hip about drinking bottled water, there are a number of different kinds of water in addition to a number of different brands. There is artesian or artesian well water (water from a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand); mineral water (water that contains mineral and trace elements); purified water (water that has been distilled or produced through reverse osmosis or deionization); sparkling bottled water (water that contains carbon dioxide); spring water and well water, according to the International Bottled Water Association. In addition, unlike tap water, bottled water is defined and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Bottled water, especially sparkling water, also makes a good mixer for fruit juice-based beverages, both with and without alcohol. Add a flavored syrup to a sparkling water and you have Italian soda, basically a signature soda that has more appeal and a higher price.


A recent Chicago Tribune article lamented the selling of bottled water and the disappearing glass of free tap water, the author Judy Hevridefs recounting the dreaded moment when the waiter inquires whether or not the table will be having bottled water. Most restaurateurs agree that hard sell of bottled water can backfire, but is just asking patrons whether or not they want water a hard sell? Perhaps it’s all in the attitude. But overselling anything usually doesn’t make for repeat customers.

At Nacional 27, where they didn’t even have bottled water until people requested it, the waiters asks patrons if they will be having bottled water. A similar soft sell is used at Caliterra where bottled water is especially popular at lunch. Many patrons having business lunches opt for a non-alcohol beverage and water is is an attractive alternative to soda or iced tea.

One way to get the water out in front of customers is to place bottles on the table, a prop to get the idea of ordering bottled water on the patron’s mind, especially if it’s a brand they know. Some restaurants create attractive displays of bottled water at the entrance to the restaurant, another promotional tool that plants the idea of ordering bottled water in customers’ minds.

But some restaurants, especially very high end restaurants like Tru in Chicago and La Toque in New York, serve bottled water but do not charge for it. These restaurants consider bottled water to be covered by the cost of dining there, typically very high check averages.

However you sell it, the biggest mistake would be to not sell it at all. Even at the lowest markup there is 70% to 85% profitability. “Bottled water is a money maker no matter what, but it’s important to not go crazy,” says Zarif. “When I go out to eat and the waiters push water on me all night so that at the end of the night our table has drunk 5 bottles of water and I see a $30 bill for water, I’m going to be annoyed. I’m not going to go back to the restaurant that annoyed me.”



Sodium Calcium Magnesium Iron Chloride Potassium

SOLE 2.6 108 31.1 ND 2.9 0.43

CALISTOGA 2.8 7.0 8.0 .01 250.0 16.0

CRYSTAL GEYSER 13.0 8.1 2.8 .10 260.0 1.3

EVIAN (STILL) 5.0 78.0 24.0 0 4.5 1.0

PERRIER 13.8 145.0 3.5 ND 30.9 .39

POLAND SPRING 3.0 6.5 1.6 0.5 4.3 0.5

SAN PELLEGRINO 46.5 203.6 56.9 – 73.6 2.8

SARATOGA 21.6 69.2 9.8 0.5 66.0 77

Nitrate Sulfate Fluoride Bicarbonate PH TDS

SOLE 6.6 19.3 0.1 439.3 7.42 399.5

CALISTOGA ND 12.0 9.5 130.0 5.1 600

CRYSTAL GEYSER .01 2.6 7.0 170.0 7.2 500

EVIAN (STILL) 3.8 10 .25 357.00 7.2 309

PERRIER 4.11 51.4 ND 36.7 5.46 462

POLAND SPRING 0.5 2.05 ND 24.0 6.6 39.0

SAN PELLEGRINO 0.8 540.0 0.6 222.65 5.2 1,118

SARATOGA ND 37.0 ND 161.0 8.1 320

All figures are milligrams per liter (mg/l) except TDS, which are parts per million (ppm)

Sources: “The Good Water Guide. 1994, by Maureen & Timothy Green and/or companies’ own declared figures

“ND” = not detected

“–” not declared

“TDS’ = Total Dissolved Solids bicarbonate preferable between 250 – 500 to assist digestion PH should be 7.0 – 7.5 as perfect balance for the human body. Above is too alkali, below is too acid.

Perrier Mock Sangria

Serves sixteen This beverage should be served chilled. The frozen grapes will help keep it chilled but it is optimal to begin with chilled ingredients.

Assorted grapes such as red, green, black or moscato

One 25 oz bottle of Perrier Sparkling Mineral Water with natural lime flavor

One 25.4 oz bottle of sparkling apple cider

24 oz. of sparkling or flat, light grape juice

16 oz. pink grapefruit juice cocktail

8 oz. of cranberry juice cocktail

15-20 lime wheels

Place all the grapes in a single layer on a sheet pan and place in the freezer until frozen solid. Place the rest of the ingredients in a pitcher. Add the frozen grapes and lime wheels for garnish and serve.

Perrier Sangria

Serves six

This beverage should be sewed chilled. The frozen grapes will help but it is optimal to begin with chilled ingredients.

Assorted grapes such as red, green, black or moscato

25 oz. rose wine

3 1/2 oz. tequila

3 1/2 oz. cranberry juice

1/3 cup superfine sugar

3 1/2 oz. grapefruit juice

15-20 lime wheels

Place all the grapes in a single layer on a sheet pan and place in the freezer overnight or until frozen solid. Place the rest of the ingredients in a pitcherpunch bowl. Add the frozen grapes and lime wheels for garnish and serve.

Perrier Lemon Drop Mock Martini Serves two

One 11 ounce bottle of Perrier Sparkling with natural lemon flavor

The juice of one lemon (about one ounce)

1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar

2 lemon twists

2 lemon drop candies

2 chilled Martini glasses

superfine sugar to rim glasses

Perrier Ice

Rub a lemon rind on the rim of the glass. Dip the rim of the Martini glass in the sugar to form a sugar rim on the glass.

Place the lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar and Perrier in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker half way with ice. Stir until all ingredients are mixed and well chilled. Strain into chilled Martini glass. Garnish with lemon drop and lemon twist.

Psychedelic Squeeze Serves four

4 1/2 oz. light rum

3/4 teaspoon Cointreau

1 tablspoon superfine sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 1/2 cups guava juice or puree

6 oz. Perrier

Whisk the rum and sugar until the sugar is dissolved, add the remaining ingredients and mix. Pour over ice filled tumblers and serve with a swizzle stick.

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