Enjoy that free refill at McDonalds, it may be your last


Is fast food moving away from in-store dining?

If you’re one of those who thrive on free soda refills at restaurants, you might want to start weaning yourself away from McDonald’s. The baron of burgers is planning a phase-out of its self-serve soda machines. 

You’ve got a while – the company says it’ll take nine or so years – but the wind down has already begun at several Illinois-based franchises.

According to The State-Journal Register, which first reported the shift, owners have already taken steps towards eliminating soda fountains by having crew members deliver meals and drinks directly to customers' tables.

Brad Davis, who owns a McDonald’s franchise in Springfield, Ill., said his store stopped giving customers empty cups earlier this year as a test case initiated by the company.

“It was an adjustment for customers and staff,” Davis said. “But we didn’t get too many complaints on it.”

Drinks are a big profit center for restaurants, translating to a markup of as much as 1,150%, and for owners to give that kind of profit up, there’s got to be something else going on.

'Drink theft'

Owners say that something else is hygiene, eating habits, and more people using the drive-thru over in-store dining – all pivot points with roots to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s also a rise in “drink theft,” believe it or not. 

“Theft has been a persistent issue in many fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, where customers have been known to exploit the self-serve soda fountains by filling up multiple cups or even bringing their own containers without paying for the beverages,” Kecia Gayle, a reporter for Hollywood Unlocked, said. “This not only results in financial losses for the company but also creates an unfair environment for honest customers.”

The Register said that customers who are getting to-go orders are still being given an empty cup, presumably because they’ll fill it up once and go on about their merry day.

A peek into McD's future?

In a statement, the company had this to say: “The change is intended to create a consistent experience for both customers and crew across all ordering points, whether that’s McDelivery, the app, kiosk, drive-thru or in-restaurant.”

NRN's Alicia Kelso says that move may be -- like Chick-fil-A's recent moves -- a foreshadowing of things to come.

"As the shift to digital continues to accelerate, McDonald’s – like many of its peers – has started experimenting with new formats with smaller dining rooms, or no dining rooms at all," she wrote.

"We’re on the ground floor of this format trend, which will likely continue to accelerate alongside the growth of digitally-driven and off-premises channels, including the drive-thru."

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