Still or sparkling?

10688484_xl_PPHas the moment of bottled water passed? Ben Canaider explores how restaurants can still make money from the upmarket offering.

Bottled water: at least it provides you with some relief. When you’re not being openly criticised by your customers for your wine mark-ups, then at least they can get all high and mighty with you about how much you charge for still or sparkling water, especially if it is brought to the table in a proprietary vessel. Good golly. It is as if some customers don’t realise that but for the mark-ups on wine and water, the very restaurant they are sitting in would probably not exist. Where would the customer be then? Probably drinking tap water at home as they masterchef a quinoa salad on Thermomix setting 63.

Apex liquor licensees and some sommeliers have found a way to turn the tap back on, so to speak. There are ways to make bottled water not only pay, but also add a certain immutable European allure to your operation. To begin with, work on bottled water’s strengths. And that’s the above-mentioned Euro cachet. Also, leverage bottled water’s brand power: where an Italian brand mineral water on a supermarket shelf might strike a regular restaurant-going customer as a ludicrous shopping trolley extravagance, on a wine list over a light lunch (where wine might seem inappropriate) such a recognised mineral water brand can strike the right note, as an affordable and sophisticated luxury.

That cachet-by-association also helps present your operation in a cultured and civilised light. This is why so many operators don’t serve bogan and cola RTDs [ready-to-drinks] to table. They don’t want the perception they’re a ‘Bachelors and Spinsters’ reception centre. Bottled waters on the wine list suggest the exact opposite. Use this brand association even further by marketing bottled waters’ features on your wine list. Even dedicate a page to such waters.

Badoit, for instance, is a French bottled water that is favoured by many Michelin-starred restaurants’ sommeliers. A softer and more neutral bottled water is theoretically ideal as a cleansing accompaniment to many food and wine matches. As Albert Einstein, or possibly Stephen Hawking, might say, it is the essential (but unfortunately too oft unseen) third part in the food and wine equation.

Badoit has a faint sparkle and low levels of sodium bicarbonate and fluoride, which the bottlers claim has a ‘lightening’ effect on one’s meal. Your wine list might like to mention it was the water of choice of King Louis XVI. What sommeliers like about this and similar waters is the way it does not affect the taste and therefore appreciation of fine wine. Why drink a $100 bottle of chardonnay if you are going to rehydrate with chlorinated and TCA-affected tap water in between each educated and analytical sip, they rhetorically ask.

How the water is presented is also paramount to your marketing, and therefore your sales strategy. Glassware here is key. Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino in Australia have a dedicated glassware range that they claim enhances and preserves the quality, taste and integrity of its bottled waters. Such dedicated glassware on the table can at least get the thought of bottled water into the minds of your customers. The use of sparkling wine glasses for bottled water is another neat and clever way of adding to bottled water’s allure. It notches up the luxury element.

Pricing structure is the last frontier for anyone selling bottled water on premise, however. It is the thirsty but ever miserly elephant in the dining room. There are some strategies you can experiment with if you are experiencing customer kickback against bottled water sales. One technique is to incorporate part of the price of the water into the existing wine list or menu. Of course, in the days before every customer had become an online blogging restaurant critic, things like bread rolls, butter platters and bottled water overheads were often met by
a table charge or a service or supplementary fee. Needless to say, it is only a brave or superstar restaurateur who’d try this technique with too much vigour nowadays. But incorporating part of the cost of bottled water into your other offerings can be a smarter way to achieve the same end. This works particularly well in degustation menus, wherein the customers has effectively handed over the keys to the sheep station the moment he or she has sat down.

Getting a customer to consider bottled water is the trickiest bit, though, even if you’re selling the stuff for less than LUC cost. Your most charming waiter can barely get halfway through the service enquiry of “and would you like sparkling or still …” before the amateur online blogging gourmet has, with raised hand, intoned “tap water will be fine, thanks”.

These customers are not for turning, but if they represent, say, 50 per cent of your patrons then you’ve still got some room to manoeuvre, and by marketing and embedding bottled water into your wine list, menu, mixed drinks and service strategies, then there’s still money to be made. Just don’t be too greedy on mark-ups, and, really, the days of the never-ending pour are over. Once the first bottle of water is finished, be sure your staff ask about a second; don’t let the customer find out come bill time. There’ll be no gratuity.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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