How to sell more water in your cafe or restaurant

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It’s amazing – after soft-drinks, bottled water is the second most popular bottled drink in the world! It’s healthy, safe and pure, and doesn’t need to be kept hot or cold. It’s low cost, and as concern about obesity grows, bottled water’s calorie-free contents are more attractive than ever.

There will always be issues about why we should be paying for a basic commodity like water, so keep basic tap water free. But if there’s such a strong demand, let’s organise a marketing program to reap the potential sales.

First, set some targets. What’s your baseline figure? Real numbers give the facts – does your POS have the right categories or are all cold drinks lumped together? Use ‘strike rate’ and ‘per-head figures’ to check performance. If you served 300 people on Saturday night and sold them 30 bottles, that’s a (poorly performing) strike rate of one in ten to start with. If you sold $150 of bottles to those people, that’s 50c per head. A realistic target is two beverages for every guest – coffee at the end and a cool drink at the beginning. How close to this are you?

Offer the bottle-free mineral water option: dispenser systems are now widely available, allowing you to chill and aerate water and serve it in an attractive bottle or flask. This is usually sold with a per-person charge, plus unlimited refills. No wasted glass or plastic for customers to fret about. You could also garnish the jug with lime or lemon wedges,

Start the sales engines with a comparative tasting. For each staff member, have a glass of room-temperature tap water, and chilled glasses of glass of still and sparkling mineral water. Have them tasting and slurping to notice the difference and experience a different ‘mouth feel’.

Check the sequence of serving and recommending the first drinks. Instead of just plonking tap water and glasses down with the menus, a scripted reply will ask if the customer would like ‘a mineral water or something cool to drink?’. Would you like some plain tap water or a nice big bottle of sparkling mineral water? Compare this to the ineffective pressure tactics where you’ve hardly taken your seat and the waiter has you in a head lock asking if you want a pre-dinner drink!

Other opportune times are when the food order is taken, as the meal is delivered and as a dessert or coffee order is taken. Use the ‘share’ word for suggesting water – it’s an innocent term that appeals to the good side in all of us. ‘Would you like to share a bottle of spring water?’ ‘Would you like to share a salad with your pasta?’ ‘Would you like to share a tiramisu?’. Of course we would!

Prepare for some games and fun. Have a competition on water sales with several prizes: for most sales, most sales per table, a sale to the most difficult table, ‘most improved’ and even a booby prize for ‘biggest lost opportunity’. Make it a sport and check in through the night to see how the team is going. Have a quick debrief at the end when results can be measured. Whatever the results, it’s cause for celebration: effort always equals improvement.

Have staff equipped with answers for common objections: what’s wrong with tap water? Don’t you offer free water any more? How much is that going to cost me? Water with wine is a natural combination and it’s a courtesy to recommend it, especially with red wine. Make sure staff never say ‘would you like another drink?’ because usually the answer is ‘no’. Instead, use the smooth Las Vegas line ‘can I freshen up your drink?’ for another easy sale. It’s the chilled element rather than a specific product you’re selling – maybe it won’t be water, but a Coke or a beer.

The more staff know about a product, the more they will sell, even if they’re the shyest person in the team. Equip them with lots of price and product knowledge. Identify the best sales person at the end and ask them for some coaching tips. They can be the trainer or buddy for others less confident.

Make sure staff return to the table regularly to top up water and wine glasses. It’s almost unknown in BYO restaurants, and it’s a great opportunity to check for other requests. If you consistently refill glasses when they are one-third full, a second bottle may be needed sooner than expected. 

Finally, treat the product with love - carry glasses and bottles on a tray and pour carefully. Serve water in a nice glass with ice cubes, and keep it cold in an ice bucket. Good water should always be served with spirits – do people really want tap water with their Scotch?

Once more, you’ve taken on the role of ‘sales manager’, but this time it’s for a product that’s pure, gentle, healthy, refreshing, fat-free and harmless. How hard could that be?

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