Two teachers on their lunch break scanned a refrigerated shelf inside a Manhattan coffee shop lined with drink bottles: Naked Juice, Perrier, Smartwater, New York City tap water.
“Tap water?” said Alison Szeli, 26, picking up the clear plastic bottle with orange letters: “Tap’d NY. Purified New York City tap water.”
She studied the description: “No glaciers were harmed in making this water.” She compared prices: Smartwater cost $1.85. Tap’d NY was 35 cents less.
Szeli and her co-worker went for tap, carrying the bottles to the cash register.
“It’s cheaper,” Szeli said. “Water is all the same anyway. I just prefer to buy my own water in bottles.”
A few feet away, a scruffy-haired 29-year-old in jeans and a striped shirt delivered a shipment of Tap’d NY out of a rented Scion. Craig Zucker, founder of Tap’d NY, stopped unloading long enough to notice the two customers buying his brand. He smiled.
In the five months since he started the company, he has proved his hunch: People are willing to pay for New York City tap water, and not just in monthly utility bills.
“It doesn’t require energy or pumping,” Zucker said, “and it’s so pure and clean.”
It is, after all, one of the nation’s healthiest water supplies -- so fresh that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency said it did not need filtration. New York pizza and bagel makers have long credited local water as a special baking ingredient. It goes down soft, without hints of tart-tasting minerals or chlorine like other public water systems.
The water comes from a system of 19 reservoirs and three lakes in upstate New York -- some flowing to the city from as far as 125 miles away. Most of the supply is protected and filtered by the natural processes of upstate ecosystems. It dissolves natural minerals while traveling over land or through the ground.
Michael Saucier, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, notes that the city’s water beat 150 other municipal water systems in New York state in a taste test last summer.
But how was a New Yorker able to enjoy that fresh taste when out of the house? As Zucker explained, “There aren’t necessarily fountains or places to get clean water on every street in New York.”
The solution was simple. Especially to a man who discovered his entrepreneurial spirit at age 8, when he started a lemonade stand in Cleveland. Since then, he has always kept about 20 business ideas in a drawer.
At 16, Zucker started a business enticing people to pay $1 to take a swing at a golf ball. The prize for a hole in one from 150 yards: $1 million. He rented space from a driving range and persuaded an insurance company to allow him to pay a premium for a million-dollar policy. No one made it, but Zucker made some extra cash.
In college, at Miami University in Ohio, Zucker started a discount card company, pitching local businesses to give students bargains. He collected revenue from advertisers that paid for space on his discount cards, and from college bookstores that bought the cards and gave them as loyalty gifts to customers.
He sold the business at 22 for what he said was a “great profit,” and moved to New York, where he launched a toy and gift wholesaling company, selling a million name bracelets.
In 2006, he bought the Hampton’s Honey Co., a farm stand brand that he expanded. It was his introduction to the growing local food movement, in which consumers support farmer’s markets and neighborhood breweries, keeping money in the state. The honey became a top-selling brand in Whole Foods in the New York region.
One night in 2007, over a restaurant dinner with cold glasses of tap water, Zucker and a friend got to talking about New York water and why it’s so good. He noticed many New York restaurants had also started serving tap water.
Meanwhile, in Berkeley, Calif., a high-end restaurant, Chez Panisse, had banned bottled water, and city governments in Seattle and San Francisco ordered municipal offices to stop buying it.
That’s when it hit him. “Somebody should be bottling New York water,” he said.
Zucker sold his honey company and used the income, along with investments from friends and family, to launch Tap’d NY in October 2008.
To bottle the stuff, Zucker and his business partner, Jon Flax, 26, who was recruited from Craigslist, pump the water together from a main in a Brooklyn warehouse they rent. Their water bill costs about $2 for every 748 gallons. They fill up a 5,300-gallon leased tanker truck, hiring a driver to transport the water 12 miles across the river to New Jersey to be bottled.
Studies, including one by the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, have found that most bottled water sold in stores is essentially tap water extracted from aquifers, lakes and springs.
Like other bottled water companies, Tap’d NY treats its water through a filtration process to cut down on unnatural colors or tastes that chlorine and other substances in pipes may have left behind.
He and Flax knew that gas-guzzling trucks and planes were often used to ship bottled water across the country or from other parts of the world. They knew New York’s system is almost entirely gravity-driven, delivering water without emitting greenhouse gases.
They figured enough people are suffering from a guilty water-gulping conscience to make Tap’d NY a hit.
“We don’t believe it should travel from Fiji, from France or even the West Coast,” Zucker said.
But critics say sparing the environment from transportation pollution doesn’t go far enough. If people drink Tap’d NY, the environment can still take a hit, said Richard McIntyre, director of the water program for Food & Water Watch. According to recycling reports, water bottles make up much of the 80% of drinking bottle varieties that end up in landfills or oceans.
McIntyre suggested residents install filters on their home faucets instead.
Saucier, the city spokesman, said that the bottling of New York City tap water was flattering but it raised the question: Why pay when you can get it straight from the source?
At Irving Farm Coffee Co. in Manhattan, which sells about 100 bottles of Tap’d NY a week, manager Muffin Spencer said her store canceled its shipments of Poland Spring after a few weeks of carrying the hometown brand. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
So far, only one customer has complained that Tap’d NY doesn’t taste as good as the competition, but he begrudgingly buys it anyway out of loyalty.
Zucker and his partner spend their days delivering shipments and going door to door pitching the idea to cafes, delis and hotels.
So far, they have sold 50,000 bottles and 75 New York businesses have signed on. He expects to expand into bodegas and supermarkets by the summer, and hopes to begin beating out other water brands this year. Zucker won’t ship outside New York, although he has received requests from around the world. The idea, he said, is to stay local.
During a recent visit to Tap’d NY’s small, cluttered office in Manhattan, a table stood littered with promotional stickers that read: “Not from the top of some mountain far away” and “The anti-bottled-water bottled water.” Tacked to a wall was a handwritten list of the latest businesses to order shipments, including Urban Outfitters and the Marriott East Side Hotel.
Across the hall, workers from other companies sharing the floor were on break, filling cups at a water cooler filled with Poland Spring.
It will take a while, Zucker said, to get the message across to everyone.