Three years ago, when health-centric quick serve LYFE Kitchen opened in Palo Alto, California, the restaurant placed an experiment on its menu: infused water.
“The concept was to offer a low-calorie beverage with a lot of flavor,” says Jeremy Bringardner, executive chef. “We saw there was an opportunity to sell the water and make money, and also bring healthier beverages to our customers.”
Similar to food items, infused waters at LYFE Kitchen are packed with herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables—examples include ginger, mint, lime, and chia seeds—and these evolve and change based on seasonal harvests and customer preferences.
To persuade customers to purchase the flavored water—versus a free ice water—LYFE kept the initial price of its infused waters to 99 cents.
The plan worked. Soon, customers that were going for the free ice water were asking about the infused water. “It became so popular that we were able to raise the price,” says Bringardner. The price point for the infused water now runs between $1.49 and $2.99.
Infused water as a menu mainstay has all the earmarks of a trend waiting to pop. It taps directly into the healthy dining groundswell and the push to farm-to-table menuing, and sidesteps the political and nutritional concerns of soda. Clearly, adding spices, fruit, and vegetables to a glass of water can bump a free menu item to one that makes a healthy contribution to the profit margin.
In Latin American restaurants, infused water, known as aguas frescas, are already a menu mainstay. Popular in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and within U.S. restaurants serving those regions’ cuisines, aguas frescas combine fruits, flowers, and seeds that are blended with sugar and water.
Mercadito Hospitality’s quick-serve concept Mercadito Taqueria offers agua fresca, while its full-service restaurants menu agua de Jamaica and agua de frutas. The brand works with the Tippling Bros., creator of exclusive cocktails and beverages, to create its hand-crafted drinks with fruits and herbs, among other ingredients.
Outside the Latin American culinary arena, the majority of restaurants serving infused water are rooted in farm-to-table, healthier dining options.
Rotations of infused waters at LYFE Kitchen, dubbed LYFE waters, include Cucumber Mint with fresh cucumber juice, mint, lime, and agave; Hibiscus Beet, hibiscus tea infused with beet, apple, lemon, and ginger; and Ginger Mint Chia, filtered water infused with ginger, lime mint, and chia seeds.
“Infused water gives our guests something they can enjoy, that is affordable, flavorful, and good for them,” Bringardnersays. “This is an inherent part of our concept, what we believe at the core: you don’t have to sacrifice taste to get food that is good for you.”
The cost-profit percentage is on par with other menu items, explains Bringardner. “We are putting high-quality expensive ingredients in the beverage,” he says. “Chia seeds are not cheap—we aren’t just adding cucumbers to the water and leaving it that. Our customers see the value in it and are happy to pay for it.”
Not all restaurants charge for the beverage, however. Nourish in Victoria, British Columbia, offers simpler fusions of lemon balm and mint or pineapple and mint. In the winter season, rosemary is used. Nourish’s infused water is free of charge for guests.
The full-service restaurant has been serving infused water since it opened in 2010. “We are super fortunate that we are situated in a garden,” owner Hayley Rosenberg says. “We are able to basically take to the table what’s happening in the garden, so we use what’s in abundance.”
While Nourish doesn’t charge for the beverage, it does reap other benefits. “It’s a conversation piece. So many of our customers are intrigued by the water when they see it on the table,” says Rosenberg. “It tastes nice and is esthetically gorgeous. It gets people drinking more water, which is a beautiful thing.”
It also helps Nourish’s customers stay in tune with the harvest.
“For the herbs in the water, we try to connect with what’s happening in the garden, and also to what’s happening in the restaurant,” Rosenberg comments. “The herbs make the water taste and look delicious, and connect customers to the seasons.”
Rosenberg never considered charging for the infused water. “It’s something we get from garden in abundance and get people excited about that they don’t have in everyday life,” she says.
By Joann Whitcher