Marina spent her friend’s birthday fuming over the price of club soda. She’d gone out with a group to Westlight, the rooftop bar at the William Vale hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and ordered a beer and a sparkling water. When Marina went to pay her tab, she was gobsmacked by the price of a lone soda water.
“I was like, no, I can’t,” she says. “I wouldn’t shut up. I was so angry the whole night.”
The Westlight sells Boylan brand club soda in 12-ounce glass bottles for $6.99 each. Marina, on the other hand, works at a dive bar that charges $3 for a seltzer water from the soda gun. (She asked to have her last name omitted because she hadn’t cleared our interview with her boss.) She gets why establishments don’t give it away for free: This is New York City, after all, and they have New York City rents to pay. But to her, the Westlight’s pricing was beyond belief, even for a club soda that looked decidedly fancier than Canada Dry.
Marina protested the charge with the bartender, and says his response was something along the lines of: “Sorry, rooftop bar, I don’t make the rules.” Even though she knew he was just a guy doing his job, she started having revenge fantasies about what would happen if he came into her bar. Marina knew that she was reacting in a way that was not at all proportional to the offense — expensive beverages are standard at bougie outdoor bars in ultra-hip neighborhoods, anyway — but she just couldn’t let it go. Her friends, tiring of her ranting, eventually told her to cool it. But laying in bed that night, Marina couldn’t stop stewing over that club soda.
I, too, admittedly have had too-strong feelings about the price of bar seltzer — it’s that kind of righteous and overblown consumer anger feared by innocent service people everywhere. In your rapidly overheating brain, the logic is perfectly clear: In many bars, what you’re paying for is basically tap water, you think, not even Spindrift or LaCroix or any of the other trendy, delicious seltzers that we’re downing these days! It’s a fury born of surprise, because the price of plain fizzy water is one of the more unpredictable elements of the modern bar experience. You should expect to pay a certain amount for seltzer, club soda, or sparkling mineral water that comes in a bottle or can — though you still might be shocked by how much it costs — but bubbly water that comes out of a soda gun? Why does that cost $2, $4, or even $6?
At the Wren, a chic cocktail spot in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, bar director Keith Lowerre charges $2 for a seltzer water from the soda gun. To hear him tell it, that’s relatively low for a bar in New York, and the price rarely elicits blowback from customers. “It’s carbonated water, you know? All it’s really getting is a pump of CO2 from our tanks downstairs, and it’s filtered water,” Lowerre says. “I don’t see the need to charge any more than that.”
Seltzer does indeed cost very little for a bar to produce: “Almost, almost, almost nothing,” says Ron Starman, the owner of Autotap, a 119-year-old company in Brooklyn that provides soda syrups, dispensing systems, and canisters of carbon dioxide to restaurants and bars in the city. Autotap charges in the “mid-$20s” for a CO2 tank, plus a roughly $7 delivery fee and a refundable security deposit for the tank itself. Depending on how heavily it’s being used, a tank usually lasts somewhere between 10 days and two weeks.
From a bar owner’s perspective, Starman says, soda water is pure profit. For bars that charge $2 and up, that money is going toward the establishment’s real expenses, which can also be said for markups on wine, spirits, and food. “You’re really paying for the rent. The overhead is astronomical,” Starman says. That’s particularly true in an expensive city like New York, though pricey seltzer is a national trend: Friends and acquaintances I solicited for seltzer stories said they’d also paid more than they thought fair in places like New Orleans, New Haven, and Washington, D.C.
Some bar and restaurant owners think it’s worth it to forgo the charge on seltzer completely as a low-cost way to endear themselves to customers, especially those who aren’t drinking alcohol. Lowerre, for example, charges for the first seltzer, which he garnishes with a slice of lime, and will then pour refills for free so that customers of the Wren feel taken care of.
At the bar at Auburn, a sleek new tasting menu restaurant in Los Angeles, still and sparkling water is free — a move designed to “remove guests’ consideration of cost of water when choosing how to curate the experience,” according to chef and owner Eric Bost. Tommy Flynn, the beverage director at Paper Daisy in Manhattan, also feels that giving customers a choice between still and sparkling water is “just good hospitality.” (There’s a limit to that generosity: Flynn will give a refill or two for free to patrons sitting at the bar, but he’ll start charging if it seems like someone’s taking advantage of the system.)
When he opened Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, Toby Cecchini decided that soda water would be the first thing given out to people when they sat down at the bar. There was a weird period of time where, due to a glitch in its new point-of-sale system, customers sitting at table-service booths were being charged $1 or $2 for soda water while those sitting on barstools were getting it for free. A server picked up on the issue and Cecchini had it fixed. But, he says, continuing to charge a few bucks for seltzer wouldn’t necessarily have been unjust: The soda system cost about $6,500 to install, and maintaining and supplying the bar’s CO2 canisters “is costly as well.” Ultimately, though, he believes that free soda water pays for itself in good will.
“[Customers are] charmed, often, that it is offered gratis, which is what I was looking for, that extra touch of hospitality, but you’ve got to factor your intentions against your costs and decide where to land,” Cecchini writes in an email.
For some bars, charging $2 to $4 for seltzer water is a way to account for bar-goers who aren’t drinking alcohol but are nonetheless enjoying the atmosphere and taking up valuable space that could be occupied by someone who’d run up a much larger tab and, quite possibly, add a heftier tip. That’s an increasingly relevant point as some millennials, seeking a way of life that feels healthier for their bodies and minds, have dialed down the frequency and amount that they drink. Of course, serving more inventive non-alcoholic beverages is another way to get non-drinkers to spend.
As it turns out, some people are perfectly happy to pay for their seltzers. The friends that I polled offered up a steady stream of horror stories about marked-up seltzer, but when I asked if there was a price that they would be okay with, their answers settled around $2 maximum, plus a tip for the bartender.
Considering this, I suddenly felt like a tool for feeling disappointed and vaguely pissy whenever I get charged $2 for a soda water, which is — as often as not — the only thing I order all night. As my friends pointed out, you always want your seltzer to cost nothing, but if you do have to cough up a few bucks, so be it. Nobody’s entitled to free fizzy water, cheap and abundant is it is.
Eliza Brooke is a freelance writer. Her favorite kind of seltzer is a two-liter of Polar on a hot summer day. Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.