At Chez Panisse, It's Time for Tap Water

The Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., has decided to drop bottled water from its menu. Robert Siegel talks with the restaurant's general manager, Mike Kossa-Rienzi.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, is known for featuring local ingredients - produce from the lush fields of Northern California farms, artisan cheese from local farms, and world famous wines from the Napa Valley and beyond. Well, now add to that list water from the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

That's right. Chez Panisse has dropped bottled water from the menu. It's tap water only. A lot of restaurants are doing likewise for a day because today is World Water Day. But the famed Berkeley restaurant made the switch several months ago.

Joining us is Mike Kossa-Rienzi, who's general manager of Chez Panisse. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MIKE KOSSA-RIENZI (General Manager, Chez Panisse): Hi. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And what's wrong with fancy, expensive bottled water at Chez Panisse?

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Well, the biggest thing is that it uses a lot of energy and natural resources just to get it to us. What we've realized is that shipping water from Italy and then trucking it to our restaurant is a pretty extravagant and somewhat wasteful thing.

SIEGEL: Now, what if somebody says I'd like some bubbly water?

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: What we're intending to do with this whole program is carbonate our own local tap water and then serve it to the guests at no charge.

SIEGEL: So you're carbonating the water?

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Yes, we have a carbonator.

SIEGEL: And how does it compare to Perrier, San Pellegrino, whatever other waters might be out there?

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Well, we were using a brand called Santo Lucia, which has -the bubbles are relatively soft, and what we've found with some of the local ones, such as, say, Calistoga, they're pretty heavily carbonated. And with this carbonator we can actually control it. They are a little more akin to what the Santa Lucia carbonation is.

SIEGEL: Well, how many people have complained about the absence of bottled water from Europe?

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: We took off the bottled still water last summer. And I only had one person complain. And he was good-natured about it and said, can't you just keep one, one case for me, so that when I come in - and I said, I tell you what, you let me know when you're coming in and I'll run across the street and buy you a bottle of flat still water and have it on your table.

SIEGEL: This man has quite a palate, obviously for…

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: …for water.

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Now, I thought one of the truisms that I learned from my brief career in food services as a hotel busboy many, many years ago was that everyone is making it on the drinks and that's where all the margins are in a restaurant.

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: It's certainly true. You know, you can go to a restaurant and be charged six, seven, eight dollars, nine dollars and upwards for a bottle of fancy water. And we've never really charged all that much. I think we charged a little bit less than five dollars for the liter bottle of water. It was also one of those things that we could pass on to our guests as a very simple gesture. So a lot of times regulars would come in and they were just given a bottle of water. So in general I think we probably gave away as much water as we sold.

SIEGEL: I guess just to belabor the water imagery, it was a wash, is what you're saying.

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: Exactly. Yes, it's a wash.

SIEGEL: The way that you have been serving water. One of the intriguing aspects of this is East Bay Municipal Utility District water, if you go by the acronym, it would be East Bay…

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: MUD. Yes, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: East Bay MUD. And…

Mr. KOSSA-RIENZI: It's a great advertising pitch. But we've been - don't worry, we've been filtering it, so you won't get the East Bay MUD.

SIEGEL: Well, that's Mike Kossa-Rienzi, who's general manager of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California.

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