"Sparkling or still?"
Remember when that question, asked with a certain downward gaze, would make you feel like a tactless tightwad for requesting tap? Did you try to lessen the shame with a smile and a clever nickname, like "I'll have 'New York's Finest'"?
Restaurants and hotels across the country are blurring the lines between these choices, as they stop serving bottled water due to a perception that it is environmentally unfriendly. Critics object to the waste left behind by the plastic and glass bottles, as well as the fuel and other natural resources used to manufacture and ship the bottles all over the world.
"In the world of trying to live in a more green, sustainable environment, I think water is the most obvious, simple thing that we can do," said Joseph Bastianich, a business partner of Mario Batali and co-owner of restaurants including Babbo, Lupa, Esca and Del Posto.
Bastianich told Reuters he is in the process of phasing out water across all his restaurants, following in the footsteps of other environmentally-conscious restaurants like Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
In its place, Bastianich is installing filters made by Natura Water, which purify a restaurant's tap water and allow users to get still, sparkling or room temperature tap water. The restaurants can adjust the amount of carbonation, allowing them to tout the water as made in-house.
The Natura system, which comes with reusable water bottles for serving, can be rented for about $400 a month.
Company founder Marco De Plano, whose customers also include L.A.'s Ciudad, San Francisco's Foreign Cinema and certain Four Seasons hotels, said that with prices of high-end bottled water bubbling as high as $10, high-traffic locations can recoup their losses quickly.
"When we started this a year ago, everybody was talking about the green aspect," De Plano said.
Bastianich says a liter of Natura water costs him about 50 cents and sells for about $4. That profit margin is slimmer than before, when he would pay about 80 cents for a liter of premium bottled mineral water and sell it for up to $9.
"We think the loss of margin is an investment that's very worthwhile making," Bastianich said.
The sacrifice to margins would lessen as sales of house-made water increase.
As the backlash against bottled water heats up across the country a host of local governments have cut bottled water out of their budgets. Virginia, Illinois and New York are among the states that have banned buying bottled water with state funds.
(Photos: Reuters\Eric Thayer)