Back in February, restaurant owners got a plea from the district board that sets water restrictions: Serve water only if diners ask for it.
But that directive doesn't do much for many of the industry's higher water users: fast-food restaurants.
Though their buildings are typically smaller than their sit-down counterparts, fast-food restaurants in many cases can use a surprising amount of water. Why? They often employ a "triple-sink" method of washing dishes, pressure-wash their drive-through areas and use water to thaw frozen foods.
"We try to balance between what we think are the appropriate standards for health and safety and good water conservation," said Checkers spokesman Jim Nellis.
In Pasco County, fast-food chains ranked high among those restaurants with the largest monthly water use between February 2008 and February 2009, according to county utility records.
The two fast-food restaurants with the most striking water use over that period — a Checkers on State Road 54 in New Port Richey that used a total of 2.3 million gallons and a Checkers on State Road 52 near Hudson that used 789,000 gallons — turned out to have water main breaks that are now fixed, Nellis said.
Other fast-food chains and their typical monthly water use during that time included:
•?Chick-fil-A on Little Road in Trinity: 50,000 gallons.
•?Wendy's on U.S. 19 in Hudson: 48,000 gallons.
•?Hardee's on State Road 54 in Zephyrhills: 35,000 gallons.
•?Sonic on Collier Parkway in Land O'Lakes: 33,000 gallons.
Larger sit-down restaurants with the highest monthly water use included Cracker Barrel on Oakley Boulevard in Wesley Chapel (197,000 gallons per month), Outback Steakhouse also on Oakley Boulevard in Wesley Chapel (138,000 gallons) and CiCi's Pizza on Little Road in New Port Richey (60,000 gallons).
A 2005 water audit by the city of Tampa found that fast-food restaurants averaged about 3,000 gallons per day, or more than 1 million gallons a year, said Brent White, a former city employee who worked on that audit and is now a water conservation analyst for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
White said there are lots of reasons that fast-food restaurants need that much water.
Most are freestanding, which means they have their own irrigation meters. Water-guzzling ice machines can use as much as 300 gallons of water for every 100 pounds of ice. Drive-through areas need to be cleaned. Prerinse spray valves can use as much as 8 gallons of water per minute. If they are in a hurry, workers may use water to defrost frozen food.
Fast-food chains also use what is called triple-sink washing. That means using three 50-gallon sinks — one for washing, one for rinsing, one for disinfecting. Because of health codes, all that water has to be changed every couple of hours.
By contrast, White said, most sit-down restaurants use commercial dishwashers that use much less water than the triple-sink method.
How much water goes to what varies greatly, even within one chain. According to the Tampa audit, for instance, one Taco Bell was using about 40 percent of its water on irrigation, 34 percent on the kitchen and 13 percent for sanitation. Another Taco Bell used only 15 percent of its water for irrigation, 45 percent on the kitchen and 28 percent on such things as floor cleaning and ice makers.
David Johnson, Hardee's regional operations director, said the Pasco location's water consumption sounded "pretty good." He said he's having Hardee's locations throughout Florida cut back as much as possible because of the drought.
At a St. Petersburg location, the landscaping is now heavy on rocks and hardy plants. He canceled the power washers who used to hose down the place every quarter. And workers are more judicious about washing down the drive-through areas.
"We've been in this drought for a few years now," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.