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Taps for bottled H2O?

Many restaurants ditching prepackaged water for conservation reasons

BERKELEY, Calif. – Bye-bye bottled water. Hello eau de tap. A new trend is in the pipeline, with some upscale restaurants ditching packaged H2O in the name of conservation.

The bottled water backlash, which recently spread to the venerable Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, is spurred by environmental concerns over the energy used in transportation as well as the disposal of all those containers.

“We just decided this was something we had to do,” said Mike Kossa-Rienzi, general manager of Chez Panisse, where owner Alice Waters has pioneered the eat local, eat fresh concept. “It just makes sense to us to not have to use all the energy and resources to bottle water in Italy and then truck it to our restaurant and then after that deal with the recycling of it.”

Chez Panisse stopped serving bottled nonsparkling water last year and expects to stop serving bottled carbonated water in a few weeks, just as soon as the restaurant’s new carbonator is installed, said Kossa-Rienzi, who visited a San Francisco restaurant, Incanto, to see how it made the switch some years ago.

Across the San Francisco Bay at Poggio in Sausalito, Larry Mindel has been serving filtered tap water – he has a machine that filters and carbonates – since the restaurant opened in 2003.

Environmental concerns are one factor. Another is price. Even though he could charge diners double or triple what he pays for water, he said it gives him a “stab” to pay so much – or charge others – for something that falls from the sky.

“Haven’t you gone to a restaurant and they just expect you to order two or three bottles of water and it’s $27 by the time you’re done?” he said. “I just thought that from a consumer’s point of view that they were getting shortchanged.”

While lots of restaurants serve tap water, the trend of upscale places going exclusively to tap appears to be new, said Gigi Kellett, associate campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based group that is campaigning against bottled water as privatizing a public resource.

Not surprisingly, the notion of giving up the bottle fizzled with the International Bottled Water Association, based in Alexandria, Va. Spokesman Stephen Kay argued the switch wouldn’t have that big of a conservation impact and restricts customer choices.

On the other hand, Susan Leal, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said the switch will let city water shine.

“They’re taking a step against the, I believe, deception that’s going on out there, which is that somehow bottled water is superior to tap water,” Leal said.

Switching to municipal water can put a damper on profits since there’s a healthy markup on bottled water – no sommelier savvy required.

Back when he banned the bottle, Mindel recalls other restaurateurs raised their eyebrows and asked if he knew what he was doing. In fact, said Mindel, he did.

“It’s not like we’ve got bad water here. Our water’s terrific,” Mindel said. “I don’t think we’ve had one single person that’s said, ‘Oh, can’t you bring me Perrier.’ ”

Customer Joan Nitis certainly endorsed the no-bottle approach Wednesday as she lunched at Poggio with Anita Pira.

“I love that,” she said. “Usually I don’t have water in a restaurant, but here I do. It’s just refreshing.”

Pira appreciated not having to pay extra for water.

“We can buy more wine,” she said with a smile.

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