Water Service at NJ Restaurants is Surprisingly Complicated

Whether it's tap or bottled, water is typically taken for granted by the dining public. But for restaurateurs, it's a labor cost—and a potential profit point.

An illustration of various water containers and glasses.
Illustration by Donna Grethen

People go out to eat for many reasons: to try new cuisines, meet with friends, celebrate anniversaries, or just skip the fuss of cooking. But rarely does anyone cite a glass of water as motivation. Water is “a transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid,” declares Dictionary.com, and even though some people claim the ability to discern its subtle qualities, it’s hardly a dining-out draw.

But like other things one takes for granted at a restaurant—chairs and tableware, for example—water doesn’t just appear magically. And in this second year of the pandemic, when customers remain germ wary, help is exceedingly hard to come by, and the supply chain is notoriously unreliable, some restaurants have had to rethink their water service.

Pre-pandemic, says Anthony Dagostino, owner of Mama Dag’s Seafood & Pizza House (formerly Patsy’s) in West Orange, each table was set with unfilled water glasses, and as soon as the party sat, the glasses were filled. But last spring, after winter’s Covid-19 surge, when vaccines started rolling out and customers began returning to indoor dining, Dagostino’s staff reported that customers were sending back those yet-to-be-filled glasses and requesting new ones.

“At first, I thought maybe the glass was dirty,” Dagostino says. But watching customers scanning the interior of the restaurant as if they’d never dined out before, he reconsidered. “People were leery.” The one thing they could do to make themselves feel safer, he concluded, was ask for a fresh glass. (Some people actually asked for boiling water, he says, and hand-washed their utensils.)

After a few days of glasses being sent back, Dagostino set up a new protocol: Each glass would be filled with ice and water by the bartender and brought by a busser to the table, along with bread. “It’s created a lot of work,” he says, especially with staffing levels at about 75 percent of normal. On the other hand, providing water and bread helps mask the slower service caused by reduced staff. “You’re buying some time.”

At Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown (one of our 30 Best Restaurants), owner Chris Cannon has a different approach. With staffing down to 65 percent of normal, he says, “we’re not bringing water, no matter what.” Waitstaff instead asks that increasingly ubiquitous question: “Tap, sparkling or flat?” Bottled water, sparkling or flat, is “of course a profit center,” with a 75 percent margin, like most other drinks, Cannon says.

Some restaurants have installed systems that provide multiple levels of water filtration and allow restaurants to serve house-bottled flat and sparkling water. One vendor, Waterlogic, offers an installation that includes a carbon filter (the most common kind, removing chemicals), but adds a micro-filter (to remove rust sediment) and UV light (to kill bacteria). Along with the filters, the system, branded as Purezza, cools the water, adds bubbles if requested by the customer, and comes with machine-washable bottles. “Within an hour or so, you’re a producer of sparkling on demand,” says New Jersey rep Nick Peloso. Purezza installation is free, but customers rent the setup for $129 to $229 a month, depending on bells and whistles.

Cafe Amici in Wyckoff sells Purezza sparkling for $4 a bottle, but since most customers still ask for tap, “it’s not like we’re making a profit on it,” says chef/owner Arthur Toufayan. Purezza’s main advantage, he says, is saving the space that would be taken up by cartons of Pellegrino.

Another vendor, Vineland Syrup, provides a similar service in South Jersey, but charges a one-time installation fee instead of a monthly charge. Dominic Piperno, owner of Hearthside restaurant in Collingswood, has the system and buys his own refillable bottles on Amazon. Initially, he charged $3 for unlimited house-bottled water, still or sparkling. But after a while, he says, “I felt wrong about charging people for water” and decided to offer it for free.

Though his waiters offer customers “complimentary still or sparkling water,” he says, many reply, “No, just tap.” The waiter then repeats that it’s free. Finally, the message sinks in. “I think it’s a nice touch,” creating good will, Piperno says.

Can water be a reason for being? In Montclair, the Thought in Motion Waterbar is making a case for its ”crystal-charged water,” along with tea, coffee and light bites. Thought in Motion says it runs its water through nine levels of filtration that include crystals and a black mineral called shungite, primarily found in Russia, which has been used as a water purifier from the time of Peter the Great. Today, at Thought in Motion and elsewhere, it’s touted for its purported ability to neutralize the magnetic fields created by electronics.

At the restaurant, water is dispensed from lion-head fountains, and $20 flights of infused water, corresponding to the body’s seven chakras, are served. The heart-chakra water, for example, is infused with mint, cucumbers and chlorophyll. Like the other chakra-linked infusions, it can be ordered separately for $5.95.

Customers can fill jugs in an unlimited refill program for $15 to $45 a month, depending on jug size. At the “experience bar,” co-owner and founder Jaye Regincos dispenses help with “thought energy” amid accoutrements that include a magic wand, a bust of Einstein, and a “one-way” sign with arrows pointing both left and right.

“Good water is really important,” she says. “You should heal the body from the inside out.”

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