Would you feel like a valued customer, or a marked pigeon,
at these New York City restaurants?
What other things would they do, to shave an extra buck
Waiters Reveal Tricks of the Trade o Raise the Bottled-Water Pressure (WALL STREET JOURNAL)
One trick is the table plant, where alluring bottles are placed on the table in advance to encourage a "visual sell." Then there's the fast-pour, which borrows from an old sommelier's ruse of replenishing glasses sip by sip in order to turn more bottles.
In the quest to sell diners expensive designer water, waiters have moved well beyond the simple query, "regular or bottled?" Now they are honing their water rituals down to a ruthlessly manipulative science.
Consider this carefully choreographed maneuver from waiter Todd Goodrich, who worked until recently at Manhattan's Town restaurant. Mr. Goodrich says he'd bring two bottles of water for a table of four, filling all of the glasses before casually drawing the empty bottle behind his back. Then he'd place the second, open bottle discreetly on the table. "They don't realize I've done it ... As I walk away, I have the empty bottle in front of me so the customers never see it," says Mr. Goodrich, who now works at another New York City restaurant, 71 Clinton.
In a slow economy, restaurants are looking everywhere they can to squeeze out extra revenue. Some charge as much as $14 for a one-liter bottle of Badoit or Alpenrose water. While the typical markup on wine is about 300%, the bottled-water markup is anywhere from five to ten times wholesale cost. At the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain's big-city properties, for instance, bottled water accounted for about 5% of beverage sales in 1999. That figure is now close to 15%, and the chain hopes to see it rise to 20%.
Waiters are getting a piece of the action. A new CD-ROM training manual from Nestle SA's Perrier called "Pour on the Tips," declares: "You can earn an extra hundred bucks a month or more simply by offering bottled water instead of tap." This can be achieved, the disc advises, with extra tips gotten "by converting just 20 guests per shift from tap to bottled water."
Meanwhile, high-end alcohol sales have suffered in this downturn. "If you can't sell booze or beer, I say push water," says Ian Maksik, a Ft. Lauderdale consultant who has trained waiters at such restaurants as Sardi's in New York and the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo.
"When you serve dessert, you bring it in low through the room so everyone can see this luscious dish," he says. "It's the same with water. I come out with this gorgeous silver bucket and all the tables to the right and front and back are watching. You approach right foot in, like a ballet move, and pour the water as if it were a fine wine. Others see this, and that tempts them to buy it because they want the same protocol." Mr. Maksik also suggests that bottled waters be poured into special crystal goblets, further differentiating who has taste and who has tap.
Bob Brown, a former Washington, D.C.-area waiter who is now a restaurant consultant in northern Virginia, has a technique he calls "By the Way." After rattling off various cocktail and entree options, he says, " 'By the way, we also have San Pellegrino or Panna.' I find it's best to mention it last, and not to offer it as an open-ended question."
Mr. Brown's script doesn't end there. "You must watch carefully. Every time a glass is half empty you should refill to two-thirds or three-quarters -- more than you would wine. The goal is of course to sell more water." To that end, he snuggles up to the person he has identified as "the lead" buyer at the table. "I say 'Would you like to have a couple more bottles chilled down?' Most of the time they say yes. It feeds their ego."
Waiters point out that once the bottled water spigot opens, customers are unlikely to trade down. "It's easy to go from tap to bottled, but to go from bottled to tap is like going from a $90 bottle of wine to a $15 bottle of wine," says David Welch, a waiter at the Wildwood Restaurant & Bar in Portland.
And some pros confess to savoring customers' water angst. "I get great pleasure out of making each of those ladies who are trying to impress their friends ... repeat the word 'tap' back to me," says a server who goes by the name "Dollfinn" at the Waiter's Revenge Internet message board.
Restaurants rarely list or mention the price of bottled water. At Town, part of Mr. Goodrich's sales pitch was to describe an obscure brand called Hildon. "It comes from England and one of the owners is from the same region and thinks its the best," he'd say. "People are like, 'Oh it must be good, then' -- until they get the check and see that three bottles cost $27."
"By now, everybody knows the price of San Pellegrino," says Barry Wine, a former New York restaurant owner. "But if you know that some of these waters aren't on store shelves, you can justify the price -- maybe."
When it debuted in Boston last year, a new French-Indian restaurant called Mantra wanted to grab customer attention with a bottled-water import called Voss, which is available primarily in hotels and restaurants. Tall and sleek like a perfume decanter, each 800 ml bottle of Voss goes for $8. Mantra chose the Norwegian brand in part for its distinctive look but also because of its anonymity. "Customers cannot compare the retail price with our prices" says beverage director Christian Vassiliev. "So yes, of course that was a factor in our choosing it. But I'm not supposed to tell you that."
Publicist Mariana Field Hoppin recently had dinner at Mantra with celebrated chef Julia Child and didn't appreciate the water pressure. "You turn around and your glass is full again," she says. "It's the only time I can think of that they can get you like that. They have to ask if you want another bourbon or another chardonnay."
Even family-style restaurants are paying attention to water sales. At Albalonetti's Seafood Trattoria in Monterey, Calif., "We make a point of not saying 'tap,' " says manager Stuart Babcock. "It just doesn't sound very professional." Until recently Mr. Babcock wasn't selling much of the bottled water that took up space in his storage rooms. "I needed to figure out a way to make it move," he says.
So a few months ago he instructed his staff to place green bottles of San Pellegrino and Panna on the tables as props to complement the restaurant's sea-foam decor. "It's easy to say 'no' to something, but when you're looking at it, your mind tells you, 'go for it.' " The suggestive sales tactic, he says, has at least doubled his bottled water sales.
Sometimes, customers find it hard to say no. At a business lunch in midtown Manhattan, David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief of Men's Health magazine, recently tried to dodge the Hobson's Choice -- "still or sparkling?" -- by asking for "regular" water. When the waiter returned with an open, chilled bottle of still water instead, "I just had to swallow it," says Mr. Zinczenko, who declines to name the restaurant. "There's all this schmooze going on at a business lunch, so you've got to be careful about making a big deal over something that seems so insignificant."
Write to Shelly Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated March 8, 2002
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