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Restaurant diners prefer tap water

Despite having a multitude of beverages to choose from when dining out, an increasing number of American restaurant-goers are ordering just water.

By Giselle Smith Mar 8, 2012 6:08PM

Faced with a list of possible beverages at restaurants, more diners these days are choosing water. That's not sparkling water, flavored water or even bottled water: It's just plain water.


Over the past five years, tap water has been one of the fastest growing beverages in American restaurants, representing 10% of the 50 billion beverage servings ordered, according to NPD Group, a market research company. Restaurant traffic is down 1%, but total beverage servings -- excluding water -- are down 6%, NPD reported.


In the last two years, tap water orders have increased 3.2%, and those for sodas, coffee and other beverages have dropped 3.6%, the Orlando Sentinel reported.


Orders of alcoholic beverages are also down, according to a separate NPD report. Only 36% of consumers ordered alcohol in casual and fine dining restaurants in the past three months, and alcoholic beverage sales in restaurants were down 1% for the year ending in November.


Why choose water?

The appeal for diners is obvious: Water is free and contains zero calories and no additives. Wise Bread blogger Paul Michael calculated that ordering tap water instead of soda at every restaurant meal could save the average family $977 annually. (Post continues below.)

The poor economy factors into the trend, but beverages such as soft drinks were already declining in popularity before the recession hit, NPD industry analyst Bonnie Riggs said in press release. "A key learning from this report is that much of the declines in beverage servings is tied to the price/value relationship the consumer perceives." 


Like soda, bottled water has also declined in popularity -- though that's due as much to environmental concerns as to cost. Many restaurants have stopped serving bottled water, and the plastic bottles have been banned in government offices by many cities.


More than 90 college campuses, including Harvard and the University of Vermont, are banning or restricting the sales of bottled water, Bloomberg reports. And last month the National Park Service announced it was banning the sale of water in plastic bottles inside Grand Canyon National Park, USA Today said.


Restaurants fighting back

The tap water trend may be good for customers' wallets and waistlines, but it's not good news for restaurants' bottom lines.


"Drinks are incredibly profitable, especially once you get into specialty beverages with garnishes, blends and anything fancy," restaurant consultant Robert Welcher told The Columbus Dispatch. "Restaurants can charge a lot for them and only pay 20% of the price in costs."


Working on the theory that customers might be tempted to order more non-free beverages if they have more options, a number of restaurants are installing beverage dispensers such as the Coca-Cola Freestyle, which offers more than 125 different choice of Coke products. In some restaurants, diners can use the push-button dispenser to program their own flavor mixes.


Or they can save their money and just ask for tap water.


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