Watching their wallets and waistlines, Americans are ordering more free tap water when they eat out.
In the past two years, orders of water have gone up 3.2 percent while purchases of sodas, coffee and other beverages have declined 3.6 percent, according to research company NPD Group. That's more than 5 billion servings of tap water in 2011 compared to the 44.6 billion servings of drinks other than water.
Portions - and prices - of drinks such as sodas have gone up through the years and "consumers believe the cost of beverages in restaurants have gotten too expensive," said Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for NPD.
Rita Flannery, of Fort Lauderdale, says she orders water on days that she's already had too much caffeine.
"I drink a lot of Diet Coke," Flannery said.
Restaurant operators have noticed the trend.
Fort Lauderdale eateries, like Yolo and Tarpon Bend, have seen a "dramatic increase" in the number of water orders, said owner Tim Petrillo.
"People opt not to have soda not only because of the economy, but because of their health," Petrillo said.
After finishing his lunch Monday at Energy Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale, which fills its menu with low-calorie fare, Gary Brown said he orders soda or tea only occasionally when dining at a restaurant.
"I usually just order water knowing that it's free," Brown said.
Some restaurants are fighting the water trend by spicing up their beverage offerings. McDonald's has added smoothies and specialty coffees. Wendy's last year added all-natural lemonade.
And there is even a high-tech twist: Coca-ColaFreestyle, a touch-screen machine that offers more than 120 different types of Coke brand soft drinks. The advanced soda machines are found in some casual restaurants.
The machines are able to track which types of drinks are the best sellers and at what peak times. Prices for sodas haven't increased with the new machines and refills are free at most restaurants that use them.
Miami Subs CEO Richard Chwatt said the new machine is worth the "slightly higher" price over the traditional soda fountain machines.
Some restaurateurs said South Florida has always been ahead of the curve on tap water.
"People in South Florida are pretty health conscious and health savvy," said Kevin Blair, owner of the Pinon Grill in Boca Raton, Fla. "So we already see a lot of teas and waters in the regular course of business."
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