Heads above water

Bottled water helps you sell wine for less.

Bottled water helps you sell wine for less.

Think bottled water is over-priced and environmentally unfriendly? The reality isn’t that simple

Seeking to maintain the highest possible professional standards, I unfailingly take luncheon at new restaurants with Phil, I mean, with a fellow hospitality and lifestyle industry professional. It is part of our thirstless quest for hospitality industry knowledge. Recently at a newly fitted-out Asian-fusion-tapas gastro pub (why on earth anyone would want to eat somewhere self-identified by the word ‘gastro’ I will temporarily overlook), we were offered sparkling or still mineral water three times in as many minutes. We’d barely sat down. Three different waiters. Three identical offers: “Good afternoon gentlemen; would you like some sparkling or still mineral water for the table?” Had we been shy, naïve, or not English language speakers, we could have ended up with 1.5 litres of water at a total cost of $25.50. And knowing us, at the end of lunch, not drunk any of it.

Bottled water is every restaurant-going boulevardier’s current gripe. It is what we nowadays whinge about, given we’ve all become desensitised to the quasi-illegality of BYO. Restaurateurs are criticised for shamelessly taking high profits on bottled water, and customers now also have the added ammunition of the environmental debate and air or sea miles and carbon footprints to throw at the argument.

So how does a hospitality owner/operator keep their heads above water?

To begin with, there is no point trying to counter the environmental-come-moral outrage of some customers towards bottled water. On the one hand we have the World Wide Fund for Nature telling us that 1.5 million tons of plastic is used to bottle 90 billion litres of water per year. On the other hand we have the Australian Bottled Water Institute (an industry body) pointing out that PET plastic bottles account for less than 0.3 per cent of Australia’s total landfill. There are lots of claims and counter-claims in this argument, as a quick visit to www.bottledwater.org.au and its nemesis www.gotap.com.au will demonstrate. It is perhaps more fruitful to consider some comments from a restaurateur who also happens to import his own water, and from a bottler keen on creating the best and most sought-after water he can—the Grange of bottled water, if you like.

David Mackintosh is a founding partner of Melbourne’s tapas phenomenon, MoVida. He also runs the business’s growing Spanish foods import arm, Alimentaria Australia, which brings in Solares Sparkling Water (24 x 330ml $33LUC). Mackintosh makes a very direct, fiscal opening gambit about bottled water.

“Bottled water helps restaurants sell wine for less money than they would otherwise. Quality restaurants need an overall beverage cost of 35 per cent cost of goods. You can’t mark wine up by 300 per cent to get 35 per cent cost of goods, so you need things like bottled water, spirits and beer to assist in making the overall business work.”

That sort of business practicality might assuage some customers, but not all of them. You can’t put a cost on the health of the environment, they would say. Mackintosh thinks this angle in the bottled water debate is more about comparisons: “In essence, our water is delivered in a 40-foot sea container, 1200 cases to the container, in glass that is recyclable in Australia. I have been told that my water would have a smaller carbon foot print than a beer brewed in, say, Perth that is trucked to Sydney.”

Not too many environmental warriors have issues with packaged and transported beer. As Mackintosh wryly adds: “Of course the beer industry is just glamorous water recycling…”

According to Simon Woolley, a director of Antipodes Water in New Zealand (24 x 500ml $51.95LUC), the alleged environmental backlash against bottled water belies the sales figures. “This (the environmental angle) has been more a media frenzy and there has seen no real effect—bottled water is still the fastest growing packaged beverage globally. Water is following the food trend—where the health, wellness and the experience of ‘drinking water from a great source wherever you choose’ far outweighs drinking processed water that has been heavily treated. Most people understand the issues with packaging can be resolved by recycling.”

“We look for a water that is mild and clean in flavour and gently carbonated so it does not mousse heavily in the mouth.” David Mackintosh, MoVida, Melbourne

Woolley is obviously keen to move beyond the environmental argument and consider bottled water’s—as he sees it—rightful place on the restaurant table. It is about quality, and it is also about a stratification of quality in the bottled water market. Both Woolley and Mackintosh think that there’s a long way to go before issues of water quality are as widely understood by customers, such as they are with regard to food and wine quality.

Mackintosh also sees the Australian perception of bottled water to be very different to the European one. “A lot of customers in Australia enjoy carbonated water as a way to refresh their palate during dinner and to enjoy the food and wine experience. In Europe, people have never considered drinking water with gas as their tap water is so shocking, they need bottled ‘still’ water and have no culture of sparkling. Lucky for sparkling water bottlers countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the USA have great tap water and therefore consider sparkling water to be special.”

But water quality? Is there such a thing anyway? Mackintosh thinks so. “San Pellegrino might be everywhere but for my palate, it is too salty and aggressively carbonated. We look for (and indeed import) a water that is, well, like water—mild and clean in flavour and gently carbonated so it does not mousse heavily in the mouth. For me this is the criticism of many Australian waters, alongside the fact that our bottled waters taste too clearly of earth.”

In this sense Simon Woolley thinks that bottled water should be understood more like wine. Unfortunately water is still well behind the quality curve: “Water and coffee are way behind—they are still selected on price or brand rather than flavour-profile, terroir, or provenance. We still need to hand-sell our product. But maybe that’s not a bad thing!”

Woolley’s further comments do suggest that water is following wine’s ‘affordable luxury’ dicta: “With all brands all the components that make up the product are important; in our case the source, the design, the taste profile—no one part is more important than the other. Most people are happy to pay for quality, as long as there is value and affordability.”

It’s a mercantile spin, but if there’s a whiff of pretentious mark-up in the air, I’m not going to tell anyone running a restaurant how to do their sums. If customers complain about the cost of water, they might well overlook a few other things.

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