McDonald’s Ditches Free Refills, Further Upsetting Customers

By: Amanda Kusumowidagdo | Published: Jun 22, 2024

McDonald’s may be on its way to losing even more customers. This time, the fast food giant risks alienating customers by saying goodbye to free drinks refills in their restaurants.

The company’s strategies to focus on affordability seem to be a lot more “miss” than “hit.” Can McDonald’s afford to lose more customers after it already lost some from hiking up burger prices? 

No More Beverage Stations

It’s coming true: McDonald’s is no longer making self-serve beverage stations available in its restaurants nationwide. Some locations may even charge you for refills.

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A hand holding a plastic cup filled with ice in front of a drink station

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This plan was announced last year. The removal of drink stations from the stores may happen slowly, but sure enough, by 2032, they will all be eliminated from all stores.

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McDonald’s Have Increased Prices

McDonald’s customers will have noticed that the prices for menu items have increased recently. According to McDonald’s own reporting, the cost of a portion of medium fries has increased 44% compared to 2019.

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A lagre, illuminated McDonald's menu board, showing listings of menu items with prices and images of McDonald's food.

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McDonald’s, like many other restaurant chains, has had to increase its prices in response to the increased costs of ingredients and employee wages.

They’ve Lost Customers Because of It

Whatever issues McDonald’s may be facing with their business costs, it was the customers who shouldered the burden through the price increases. It proved too much for many.

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McDonald’s golden arches sign at dusk

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McDonald’s reported reduced foot traffic in restaurants and a loss in revenue from low-income customers in particular, for who eating at home is the more affordable option.

A Focus on Affordability

In an effort to prevent a mass exodus of customers following these price hikes, McDonald’s are looking at a strategy of affordability.

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McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said in the company’s first-quarter earnings call that McDonald’s will be “laser focused on affordability”. This strive towards affordability will involve a number of strategies.

Affordability Strategies

McDonald’s wants to try and do whatever it feasibly can to regain customers who abandoned the brand due to the price increases.

The restaurant chain vowed to lower prices and explore other ways to win back customers amid backlash to price increases that saw a Connecticut McDonald’s charging $18 for a Big Mac Combo Meal.

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$5 Meal

As part of this affordability strategy, McDonald’s has spoken about introducing $5 meals to their menu. Customers would be able to get four items, either a McDouble or McChicken sandwich, small fries, small soft drink and four McNuggets, for just $5.

A McDonald's fast food meal laid out on a tray, featuring a large portion of fries, a wrapped burger, ketchup, and a soda cup with a Coca-Cola logo, on a light-colored table

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As more details have emerged, the move has backfired and only led to more public backlash. The deal will only last for one month from June 25 and not every restaurant will offer it.

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Charging You for Refills

Several franchise holders have already begun doing away with the self-serve drinks since last year. Depending on the location, some franchises may even charge you for drink refills.

Three plastic cups with straws filled with different colored liquid in red, clear and blue

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But whether the restaurant will charge for refills is ultimately up to the individual franchisees, McDonald’s told USA Today via email.

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A Consistent Experience

You may wonder why McDonald’s chose to eliminate these self-serve beverage stations. The company was motivated to foster a consistent experience across all methods of ordering.

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McDonald’s wanted all its ordering methods — delivery, mobile, kiosk, drive-thru and dine-in — to be uniform both for the customers and the workers. That is, no matter how you order your meal, you’ll get it the exact same way.

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From Food Safety to Theft Prevention

First reported by the State Journal-Register, several franchise operators in Illinois shared reasons for why they were going with this new method. “It’s an evolution toward convenience and (the result of) the growth of digital service,” said Mikel Petro, a McDonald’s franchise owner in Illinois.

Two people toasting each other with orange- and green-colored drinks in plastic cups

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Other franchise owners also cited food safety and theft prevention as reasons why eliminating the self-serve drinks service would be a valid idea. Besides, there were also fewer dine-in customers.

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A More Relaxed Dine-in Experience

All this was ultimately designed to enhance the dine-in experience with the few customers that still came to the restaurants. The State-Journal elaborated, “The crew pour system — which actually will use automated beverage systems to mechanically fill drink orders — minimizes human contact.”

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Meanwhile, crew power will also eliminate theft and emphasize “the brand’s new focus on creating a more relaxed dine-in experience complete with servers delivering meals to table.”

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Transition Has Begun

The transition to the crew-pour method has already started in some locations. Petro, who operates 15 McDonald’s in central Illinois with his family, said one of his locations in Lincoln has already begun. 

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The staff in that particular McDonald’s is tasked with pouring the initial drink orders, as well as delivering them to each table for dine-in customers along with the meals.

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Other Reasons for Ditching the Free Refill?

The official line from McDonald’s is that eliminating free refills is all about fostering the most consistent and clean dining experience possible for customers from all access points.

Three cheerful McDonald's employees are standing behind the counter, with a bright menu display in the background. They are wearing the uniform of blue t-shirts with the McDonald's logo, gray aprons trimmed with orange, visors, and nametags

Source: McDonald’s/X

Not everyone believes this is the true motivation behind the move. Mike Haracz, a former corporate chef for the company, laid out a different theory on TikTok.

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Pure Profit from Refills

According to Haracz, the biggest business expense on a drink sold by McDonald’s is the cup, not the liquid inside it. “The cup costs more than the drink. Let me say that one more time. The cup costs more than the drink”, he says.

Colorful soda drinks in glasses

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This would mean that if a restaurant started charging for refills of the same cup they’ve already sold, they would start making a significant profit on the cheapest part of the drink.

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The Move is About Greed

Naturally, the notion has sparked outrage among McDonald’s customers online. Many aren’t shy about making their feelings known.

A person sitting on the floor holding fanned out $100 notes.

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One user commented on Haracz’s clip ““If they thought they could get away with it they’d charge us extra for napkins, straws, lids, paper bag, wax paper wrapped around sandwich, fry container, salt, ketchup, ice, to sit down…”

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McDonald’s Leading the Way

The move to do away with free refills, something that was once common to every McDonald’s patron, is indicative of the direction of the fast-food market as a whole.

The iconic McDonald's sign with the golden arches illuminated against a twilight sky showing hues of blue and purple

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McDonald’s tends to be an industry leader when it comes to fast-food best practice. In the words of Darren Tristano, CEO of the consulting firm FoodserviceResults, “when they make big changes, other restaurants follow suit”.

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Others Are Following Suit

According to Marketplace, other restaurants and brands are already following McDonald’s in eliminating self-serve drink machines.

The exterior of a Panera Bread location with a bold red and cream-colored sign above the entrance, under a clear blue sky. People can be seen entering and exiting, with a welcoming banner that reads "Welcome back. Welcome home."

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Customers of Wegmans and Panera Bread will have noticed that self-serve machines are notable by their absence from certain locations. According to Alex Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University, some restaurants at mall courts across Ney York and Pennsylvania are also putting their drinks machines behind the counter.

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The Move Makes Sense

According to Susskind, the move makes sense, just as introducing self-serve machines did in the first place did for McDonald’s in 2004.

A McDonald's employee, wearing a headset, a black sweater, and a red tie, is handing over a McDelivery bag through a drive-thru window to a customer in a car

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Customer eating habits have changed since 2004, with fewer dine-in customers at restaurants, according to David Henkes of food service research and consulting firm Technomic. This makes the self-serve machine less of a benefit.

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Self-Serve is Just Less Practical

Susskind notes that these machines require a lot of cleaning and upkeep, with the need to change the ice and keep them clean, and clean up waste around them like straw fragments.

Inside a McDonald's restaurant, employees wearing uniforms and face masks are working behind the service counter

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If less people are dining in-store and therefore less people are using these self-serve machines, it no longer makes sense for brands to invest the time and effort in maintaining them.

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Self-Serve Still Available… For Now

The emphasis here is for dine-in customers. Takeout customers visiting the Petro-operated Lincoln location would still receive an empty cup to fill at the self-serve drink station.

A person performing self-serve drinks refill at a beverage station

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For now, customers can still get their own refills. However, that will change gradually throughout this year when the store’s front counter is remodeled to move the station behind the counter. This would permanently remove the self-serve drink stations.

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Not Everyone Racing to the Finish

Still, not all franchise owners are racing to the finish line with the endgame of eliminating drinks stations. Other franchise owners are divided between those who’ve started the transition and those who are still planning to implement the change in the following year.

A person handing a drink to another person over the counter

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Franchise owner Kim Derringer said her restaurants would only go crew-pour-only in late 2024. She’s also not worried about free refills disappearing completely. “Free refills are a big draw for people. I don’t see anything taking that away,” she said to Today.

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Angry Reactions Abound

Most of the reactions about the decision to not have self-serve drinks stations are filled with anger. An X user called the decision “absurd,” posting “McDonald’s made over $25 billion in profits this year, but they’re charging for soda refills. Absurd.”

McDonald’s French fries and small burger on white background

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Another X user ranted, “Beef patties now smaller than bun, cost is equal to nicer restaurant, would get more food elsewhere for that cost, refills for even more money you wouldn’t spend elsewhere. McDonald’s has lost it’s mind.”

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Some Locations Have No Stations

But some other people reported that their local McDonald’s restaurants don’t even have self-serve drink stations or have not made them available for several years.

A man sitting at a counter checking his phone inside a McDonald’s restaurant

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“My local McDonald’s stopped free refills years ago,” said an X user on the platform. Others reacted indifferently saying, “A lot of places already do this. This isn’t new.” A particular complaint is the lack of manpower for serving their drinks: “One of our local McDonald’s doesn’t have a drink machine in the restaurant. You have to ask for refills at the counter, which is usually unattended.”

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Some Customers Concerned About Hygiene

But there are also those who don’t mind the policy change due to hygiene concerns. Some comments reported by Today from Facebook mentioned how the drink stations were often unclean and messy, so they would prefer having someone serving them the drinks.

A group of workers wearing McDonald’s uniforms posing in front of their restaurant

Source: Mcdonald’s USA/McDonald’s Official Website

These complaints, however, highlighted the same problem that seemed to be going around in McDonald’s everywhere: there’s not enough staff to maintain the service. “They don’t have enough staff to monitor them and make sure they’re getting cleaned,” said a Facebook user. If McDonald’s is serious about having their staff pour initial drinks and catering to dine-in customers’ experience, clearly staffing issues cannot be underestimated.

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