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New Brunswick restaurants go green by carbonating water themselves

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left restaurants in New Brunswick, sits next to the rows of bottles he

Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left restaurants in New Brunswick, sits next to the rows of bottles he's saved in a month by making their own seltzer water in-house. (JODY SOMERS/Staff photographer)

Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi are very different restaurants. The former offers upscale, contemporary American dishes; the latter, Italian-American entrees.

But they also share similarities.

Take their owners, for instance: Lou Riveiro, Francis Schott and Mark Pascal (the latter two are known on the radio and the Web as "The Restaurant Guys"). Both are located side by side on Livingston Avenue in the heart of New Brunswick. And most recently, both have adopted an environmentally friendly practice: making bottled water.

"We really believe in putting our money where our mouth is," Schott says.

Until just last month, the restaurants were happily offering patrons a choice of tap or bottled water.

"We were using Pellegrino," Schott explains. "We were (also) using a water called Lurisia for years."

Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left restaurants in New Brunswick, sits next to the rows of bottles he

John Kafarski, sommelier at Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants in New Brunswick, demonstrates how the restaurants make their own sparkling water to save money. (JODY SOMERS/Staff photographer)

Until a crisis arose, that is.

After getting caught in a bind when a shipment of water from Italy was held up in customs, Schott gave another water a try. But he quickly decided its plastic bottles didn't fit in with the ambience and decor of his upscale restaurants.

"People are spending $400 for dinner for two and they're drinking water out of a plastic bottle," Schott recalls. "I said, "You know what? This isn't acceptable.' "

That prompted him to scrutinize his restaurants' water usage, which didn't fit in with their already-employed philosophy of buying ingredients locally — such as the strawberries that come from Monroe's Indyk Farms and the pheasant that hail from Griggstown Quail Farm.

"Do I need to bring my water from Italy?" Schott recalls asking himself. The answer was "no," and he started researching options closer to home, including West Orange's Rock Spring Water. Ultimately, though, he settled on a spring water shipped in 5-gallon containers from Tupelhocken, Pa., and the restaurants began bottling it in-house.

Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left restaurants in New Brunswick, sits next to the rows of bottles he

A water vapor cloud is left inside a bottle shortly after the pressure was released following the carbonation process at Stage Left restaurant in New Brunswick. (JODY SOMERS/Staff photographer)

That way, the restaurants could "keep all the bottles from going into the landfill, and keep from shipping water halfway across the earth and provide our customers with a great alternative," he says.

There was just one question Schott had: What's the best way to carbonate spring water?

"I called soda companies, I called beer companies," he says. "I actually bought some beer equipment that was supposed to work, and none of it gave an acceptable product. . . . It doesn't have that sharp bite that a well-carbonated water has."

Schott then stumbled across the Soda-Club, a home soda maker which uses carbonators filled with carbon dioxide gas and water bottles, both of which are reusable. Each bottle takes about one minute to carbonate, a process accomplished without batteries or electricity. He purchased one machine and was pleased with the results.

"We got it and we really liked it," he says.

In June, Schott invested in six machines and 250 bottles. Because of the carbonation process, the bottles cannot be filled to the top, and customers get about 75 milliliters less water per bottle than before. As a result, the restaurants' price of water has dropped to $4.95 per bottle.

"We now use local spring water — either flat or carbonated — in the restaurants," he says. "Everything is in a reusable bottle. Nothing comes from further away than Pennsylvania. The water's delicious, and the customer response has been phenomenal."

Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left restaurants in New Brunswick, sits next to the rows of bottles he

John Kafarski, sommelier at Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants in New Brunswick, shows the final step in the sparkling water process — bottling. (JODY SOMERS/Staff photographer)

Still, regularly reusing bottles — Schott estimates each bottle can be used about 200 times —requires more manpower than using bottles just once each.

"It is quite a bit of work," he admits, explaining that the cleaning process includes wiping each bottle down, washing them in a dishwasher and drying them off. "You have to have a lot of racking to run them through the dish machine and make sure they don't get broken."

As a result of that extra work, Schott does not think the changeover will result in either restaurant saving money.

"There's more labor involved," he points out, "and the bottles — when they do break — are more expensive (to replace). . . . But it's a better choice for the environment, it's a better choice for our customers and it's more consistent with our philosophy."

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