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Troubled Waters

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The most valuable natural resource is crucial to foodservice. Whether due to necessity or desire, the country is finally getting smart about its use of water.

By Barney Wolf October 2014 Sustainability

The importance of water as a natural resource can’t be understated. Wars and lesser skirmishes have been fought over water, and it’s been at the heart of numerous public utility projects and significant legislation at all levels of government.

In addition to being the world’s most popular beverage, clean water is crucial to restaurants, whether it’s used in the front or back of the house or even outside the facility.

The importance of H2O became particularly clear this year due to several major developments in different parts of the United States. As the ongoing drought in the West and Southwest takes its toll, land and crops—which are also impacted by the quality of water—are starving to death, leading to higher food prices and, ultimately, less food. Between the lack of rain and other disasters, such as the chemical spill that shut down the capital of West Virginia in January 2013, restaurants and municipalities are looking to conserve, filter, and even reuse water.

“All utilities are very important for us, but none is as essential as good water,” says Christian Fischer, executive chef and vice president of culinary innovations for Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, based in Rye, New York. He says water is equitable to treasure at many of the 260 academic institutions for which the company manages foodservice operations. “Some of them refer to water as liquid gold.”

Drought woes

Extreme drought conditions hit central and northern California and western Nevada, and continue to impact many regions already suffering, like northern Texas and Oklahoma.

This has impacted crop production and cattle ranching, pushing food prices higher. The West has been in drought conditions for the past several years, but “the intensity is particularly great this year in California and the Southwest into Texas and Oklahoma,” says Liz Purchia, spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Parts of California depend on melting winter snowpack for water, but that has been lower than average in recent years, producing only 20-30 percent of the usual amount. As a result, state and local officials have been forced to make tough water allocation choices among agriculture, industry, and cities. The troubled area includes the Central Valley, which supplies a big chunk of the nation’s produce. The two major government projects supplying irrigation water to the region are providing little, if any, water for agriculture.

“A lot of growers who traditionally rely on this state or federal water have turned to ground water, so our ground water levels have dropped significantly,” says Peter Brostrom, chief of the Water Use Efficiency Section at the California Department of Water Resources. Deeper wells run the risk tapping into water with higher mineral levels, which require more soap when washing dishes and can create issues for equipment that handles water, such as boilers.

And water quality matters in preparing and growing food, just as terroir does with grapes for wine, says Christopher Simons, assistant professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University in Columbus. “With tomatoes, for instance, the soil quality and water have an effect.”

Many California municipalities asked restaurants to serve water only upon request, one of the most visible step operators can take. “Customers see that the restaurant is doing what it can,” says Angelica Pappas, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.

In Santa Cruz, where the shortage is extreme, serving water by request is mandatory. Water and sewer rates for businesses jumped 12 percent around Santa Cruz now that municipal water districts are receiving less money from residents. Local residents, meanwhile, must cut their water usage by upwards of a third.

If restaurants were required to do the same, many would face shorter business hours, says Ted Burke, co-owner of the area’s Shadowbrook and The Crow’s Nest restaurants. Shadowbrook drilled a well to provide non-potable water for toilets and irrigation after the water and sewer rate increase.

The shortage also has led to “creative marketing,” Pappas says, with some restaurants pointing diners to imported bottled water or alcoholic beverages instead of regular water. The biggest impact on chefs is still to come, she notes, as some produce may be scarce in 2015.

Contamination Spills Over

Meanwhile, 2,200 miles away, West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, was left without safe municipal drinking water in January 2014 as the result of a chemical spill into a tributary to the area’s main water source. That shut down many restaurants for days and left up to 300,000 residents in nine counties without access to potable water.

“The situation was pretty grave,” says Keith Jackson, a manager at 5 Corners Café in Charleston. “We finally opened up again with bottled water after four days.”

The Chick-fil-A at Charleston Town Center Mall remained closed for a similar period. “There are water boil warnings here all the time, but we discovered this was much more than just a boil,” recalls Alan Smith, the store’s operator.

Boil warnings occur when there is a lesser form of contamination, and water can be boiled to make it safe. More severe fouling, such as nitrate runoff from agricultural land, can necessitate additional water treatment that goes beyond mere boiling for municipal systems or deeper wells for those using groundwater.

Smith says his Chick-fil-A doesn’t use a lot of water, but the store does use it to make biscuits, the wash for the chicken, and fountain drinks. The Chick-fil-A reopened with bottled water for food preparation, sweet tea, and lemonade, but no fountain drinks were served until city water was finally restored and beverage supplier Coca-Cola changed the filters in the dispenser.

Despite the spill occurring in January, the demand for bottled water didn’t slack off until March, and “we still have people who used to drink tea but now drink only bottled water,” Smith notes.

Reuse and Recycle

Restaurants should consider water conservation all the time, not just when there are crises, says Michael Oshman, founder and chief executive of the Green Restaurant Association, adding that the practice also saves money.

Energy Star dishwashers and ice machines conserve water in the back of the house, as do low-flow, pre-rinse spray valves and automatic on-and-off faucets. In the bathrooms, aerators on faucets, low-water toilets, and no-water urinals can save water.

These steps are “low-hanging fruit,” Oshman notes, adding that other forms of conservation, such as using waste water, or greywater, is tougher. Still, some restaurants are actually recapturing some water.

At Atlanta’s Lure seafood restaurant, owner Fifth Group Restaurants constructed a system that not only harvests rainwater from the eatery’s roof and patio, but also melts water from icemakers and water condensation from air conditioning. The system stores up to 3,000 gallons of filtered water that is used for the bathrooms and to irrigate plants around the building.

“We’ve captured about 100,000 gallons each of the past two years, and haven’t had to use municipal water for flushing toilets or for irrigation,” says Steve Simon, one of Fifth Group’s partners. The main reason for making the expensive investment in the water recapturing system was environmental, but it has saved the restaurant thousands of dollars by not purchasing Atlanta municipal water, which Simon calls one of the most expensive water options in the nation.

Fifth Group uses a smaller system at another Atlanta restaurant, European concept Ecco, and the water from that irrigates a rooftop garden that grows a variety of produce and herbs for the restaurant.

Bell Book & Candle restaurant in New York’s West Village employs city municipal tap water for its rooftop garden that includes 60 aeroponic towers to provide its co-owner and chef, John Mooney, with herbs and produce nearly all year long. “We introduce nutrients to the water, but nothing else,” he says. “With this type of system, we need only 10 percent of the water you would normally need for growing, and we grow herbs, chile peppers, melons, strawberries, zucchini, pretty much everything.”

One menu item has zucchini flowers stuffed with mushrooms and goat cheese, and another, the lobster tacos, include the garden’s tomatillos, cilantro, and serrano peppers. Herbs are also used in beverages.

Atlanta’s three-unit 5 Seasons Brewing Company harvested and filtered rainwater to make its beer until regulators, deeming it impermissible, ordered they stop. “As a brewer, I look for soft water,” says Crawford Moran, brewmaster at the restaurant and brewery. “Rain water is as soft as you are going to get. There are basically no dissolved minerals in there. It’s pure,” and better than municipal water, he explains.

When it comes to cooking, water’s properties also influence the taste of the food, and that is why a number of chefs work only with filtered water.

“It isn’t crucial when you’re braising a piece of meat, but it’s very important in baking and in delicate soups and sauces,” says Fischer, Chartwells’ executive chef. “If you have water with a strong chlorine taste, for instance, it will affect the final product. Other chemicals and metals can influence the flavor, too.”

Filter and refine

Water filtration is key in creating cold beverages and most fountain drinks, along with many iced teas and other libations that require operators to have filtered aqua.

“From a filtration standpoint, we take incoming water from a municipality and get it to recipe-quality water,” says Dave Allen, a product group manager for Xylem Inc., a global water technology company.

Water is refined for its specific application. “We filter out any sediment, and through our carbon block technology, remove any taste and odor left by chlorine,” he says.

The biggest uses of water in quick-service restaurants are for beverages and ice. Both Coca-Cola and PespsiCo want operators to use filtration systems for their fountain drinks so that the final products have a consistent taste. Coca-Cola requires filtration for its Freestyle machines, which incorporate the Dasani water brand. The company makes available to operators a list of filtration devices that meet the parameters of its specifications.

PepsiCo’s fountain equipment, including the Pepsi Spire dispenser, has built-in water treatment that ensures high-quality beverages. As a result, customers who get plain water from soda fountains receive filtered water. Several tea varieties, including Numi Tea, recommend operators use carbon-filtered tap water with a pH level close to neutral.

A study in 2013 by The NPD Group found that 37 percent of restaurant customers choose water or no beverage with their meals. And bottled water is the choice of many guests, with 38 percent of restaurants offering it, according to Datassential MenuTrends.

But aqua is often taken for granted by customers, and the cost of water is rising. According to a study by Circle of Blue, a group of scientists and journalists concerned with natural resources, the average price of municipal water is up 6.2 percent in big American cities this year, and has jumped 33 percent since 2010.

Water grows the country’s crops, keeps the farms in the farm-to-table movement solvent, filters America’s beloved soft drinks, is critical for food prep, and cleans restaurants, keeping them functional. How restaurants and society treat water now will impact the world’s most precious resource for generations to come.