Restaurant Reviews

Kick the Bottle

Page 4 of 5

While the main impetus for the move was environmental, Lalo also lauds it for providing patrons with value. "In a lot of restaurants, immediately when the customer sits down at the table, the first thing they get asked is: 'Do you want sparkling or flat?' If you ask for water, instead of bringing you a glass, they bring a $16 bottle of water. And it's just for the purpose of selling — and selling you more."

Customer reaction has been wholly positive. "We get about a dozen comments a week but have not heard one single complaint. I feel good about it, and I'm glad that people are appreciative." Durazo has paid a price for his principled stand, though. "We're losing maybe $1,500 a month on money we were making selling bottles."

Jonathan Eismann is also sacrificing a steady stream of revenue at his new Design District establishment. "We were selling over 10,000 bottles a year," he says, referring to Pacific Time on Lincoln Road, before it closed last year. "The profit was more than three bucks a bottle, so you're looking at $30,000 or $40,000."

Like Lalo, Eismann uses the Natura system, and to equally unanimous approval among his guests. He isn't surprised. "First of all, we're not importing a product. I mean, 10,000 bottles a year from Pacific Time has gotta be a 747-load of water — or half a freighter, whatever. That's just one restaurant. And on top of that, there is the waste."

Last year, Americans disposed of 22 billion plastic water bottles, roughly 85 percent of which ended up in landfills — and probably a higher rate in Miami-Dade, where, as Eismann says, "the recycling program is fairly lame."

As a chef who has been ahead of others in terms of eco-consciousness, Michael Schwartz, namesake chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in South Beach, would appear to be a natural proponent of the turn-on-the-tap movement. Philosophically, at least, he is. "I'm willing to eat the profits [on water]. I mean, when you think about it, it's ridiculous. We spend all that energy and money to package the water and fly it from Italy. I'm almost embarrassed by it." Yet while he is ready to dive into the boycott of bottled water, one thing has stopped him from taking the plunge. "We looked at that Natura system and loved everything about it," he says, "except it irradiates the water. What's that all about?"

UV technology is an increasingly popular replacement for chlorine as a primary water disinfectant, believed to be especially effective in eliminating E. coli and coliform bacteria. But irradiation, much like fluoridation, carries controversial connotations. Schwartz doesn't feign to know the specific side effects of zapping tap but maintains that "when they irradiate produce, it kills a lot of the beneficial enzymes." Eismann glows with indignation at the idea. "That's bullcrap," he opines. "I've done a lot of research, and there is absolutely no negative impact from drinking water that's been filtered with UV. All municipal water is purified with UV light."

Not quite. There are public waterworks around the nation that have instituted irradiation treatments, but Terrero says Miami-Dade has not; Taylor "Bud" Calhoun, water treatment plant manager at the Hollywood facility, says neither has Broward. And although some bottled water, such as Aquafina, goes through UV filtering, bottled-water industry spokesperson Harbin insists Dasani does not.

"Stop the nuking and I'm all in," Schwartz says.

5. The Empire Strikes Back

Bottlemania ain't dead yet. Three out of four Americans drink bottled water, with 20 percent preferring it exclusively over tap.

We consume more plastic-bound H2O per capita than any other nation in the world. Last year, this unbridled swilling translated to more than 70 million bottles per day, at a cost of nearly $11 billion. To funnel it down more: Dasani, with sales of $1.6 billion, was America's best-selling brand, while PepsiCo's Aquafina sopped up $1.47 billion for second spot; these two labels, along with Nestlé's three top sellers, composed 60 percent of the U.S. market. Not bad for the big boys of the beverage world, especially considering how slow on the sip they were: Pepsi didn't roll out Aquafina until 1994, and Coke took an ice age of five additional years to answer with Dasani.

But since the cap has been popped off the industry by consumers, activists, and a limping economy, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million daily bottles, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola cut its outlook for the current quarter, blaming a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single-serving sizes.

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Lee Klein