New York is known for its food niche stores: The Hummus Place. The Doughnut Plant. The Dumpling Man. Even a spot dedicated solely to rice pudding.
But this week, a store in the East Village went a step further: It sells New York City tap water.
Not just any tap water, insist the owners of Molecule. They say the water streams through a $25,000 filtering machine that uses ultraviolet rays, ozone treatments and reverse osmosis in a seven-stage processing treatment to create what they call pure H20.
Despite the start-up costs, it is the ideal business model, they say, since they never have to worry about spoiled products or storage costs. And then there is the taste: “I mean it’s subtle, but if you have a sensitive palate you can totally tell” the difference, said co-owner Adam Ruhf.
Water quality has long been a point of pride for New Yorkers, touted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as one of the city’s signature distinctions.
The owners of Molecule—Alexander Venet, a local art dealer and restaurant owner, and Mr. Ruhf, a former world champion boomerang player, musician and self-described social-justice activist—vehemently disagree.
“Terrible,” said Mr. Ruhf, who moved to New York from California about a year ago. “I don’t want chemicals in my water. I don’t even want chlorine in my water. Chlorine is like bleach. Do you want to drink bleach? No one wants to drink bleach. So that’s my opinion on New York tap water.”
“Public health experts agree that New York City tap water is among the safest, highest quality in the world, a standard we confirm through more than 500,000 tests each year,” said Christopher Gilbride, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
Some scientists and environmentalists suggest there is a need for some water treatment: A 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that federal regulations allowed potentially dangerous amounts of fluoride into drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency has since lowered its recommended levels. John Doull, a professor emeritus of toxicology at the University of Kansas Medical Center who chaired the NAS report, says lower levels may also pose concern, but “we don’t have enough evidence to satisfy a regulatory requirement.”
Nneka Leiba, a senior research analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, said the nonprofit organization recommends filtering all drinking water.
But she questioned whether New Yorkers should pay a premium for filtered water—in this case, $2.50 plus tax for a 16-ounce glass bottle (only $1 for up to 50 ounces if you bring your own container).
“Their water quality is not that bad to begin with,” she said, adding that a $15 in-home filtration system would probably suffice.
When it comes to water, the answers are murky. The East Village store wades into a controversy that has brewed among water aficionados for decades. Some deride the stripped-down H20 as “dead water” because its natural minerals have been eliminated along with the chemicals.
To counteract critics, Molecule is planning a weekly naming ceremony to imbue its water with personality and Sunday blessings involving religious figures from all faiths, including Tibetan monks and pagan worshipers.
“Either you buy into it or you don’t,” said Mr. Ruhf, who came up with the idea for Molecule after sampling a similar store in California.
The tiny shop looks more like a laboratory than a love-in. Brightly lighted and spare, Molecule is dominated by the giant filtration machine, a vast tank connected to tubes, pipes and monitoring dials. Along the back wall hangs a line of long, thin burettes filled with colored liquids. Sales are rung up on an iPad.
Mr. Ruhf has combined the store with his second dream: creating an “all natural sports-drink line, like Gatorade for yogis.” Or in language perhaps more familiar to New Yorkers, a cocktail bar for water enthusiasts. Patrons can order a shot of vitamins A, B, C, D and E or a mixture of roots, herbs, fruits and mushrooms blended in blasts called “energy,” “immunity” and “skin, hair and nails” to add to their water.
Coming soon, he said: mixtures for anti-inflammatory, detox, digestion, vision and virility.
“Nothing tastes bad,” he said. Though not everyone raves, “I haven’t had anyone express revulsion yet.”
To “sex it up a little bit,” the store is also offering electrolyte and pH infusions, Mr. Ruhf said. For those longing for a heartier snack, it sells organic energy bars.
Mr. Ruhf says his water is unusually “fluffy” with a “smooth” finish. (A reporter found it lighter and more velvety than city tap water.) Still, some are skeptical.
“There’s not as much of a quality difference between different waters,” said Brandon Lederhouse, who was visiting a friend in the neighborhood. “It’s not like people are going to be saying, ‘Oh, this water tastes so much better than the Poland Spring I got on the corner.’ ”
His friend disagreed. “I think you’ll have people who will start becoming water connoisseurs,” said his friend, Caitlin Garcia.
That is just what Messrs. Ruhf and Venet are hoping.
On Tuesday afternoon they were awaiting the delivery of an adult tricycle they plan to use to deliver BPA-free plastic jugs—and water refills—to homes and businesses.
Still, they may have convincing to do: Even some of their single-item brethren were taken aback. “Water?” said Aaron Gallentine, who works two blocks away at the Dumpling Man, when informed of the idea. “I’m a little bit in shock.”
“I have one to thing to say: Good luck to them,” he continued, though he slowly warmed to the idea. “It’s so completely random, and the East Village is so completely random. I think this may be the only place this could possibly work.”
—Tania Karas contributed to this article.