McDonald’s Shakes Up Soda Service

Why the Franchise is Removing Self-Serve Drinking Stations

November 15, 2023

Why the Franchise is Removing Self-Serve Drinking Stations

Automation and self-service have long been seen as the future of the quick-serve restaurant industry. So, the September 2023 announcement by McDonald’s that the chain would remove all dining room drink machines by 2032 came as a shock to some observers. It would seem to be a step backward for innovation, but the franchise believes it has the data to back the decision.

Many internet commentators assumed the move to be cost-based. After all, Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machines are pricey to place in restaurants, and many consumers help themselves to “free refills” at self-serve machines, regardless of the location’s policy. However, the savings would likely be minimal once increased labor is considered.

Instead, McDonald’s has publicly stated its reasons for the change are consistency, efficiency, and space. The franchise notes that consumer habits have significantly changed since the beginning of the pandemic, and fewer people than ever are filling their own beverages. Digital orders make up 40% of the franchise’s orders, and drive-thru is increasingly popular. The brand also wants to move even further toward a digital model.

In this environment, the cost of operating and cleaning dining room machines is higher per customer. If employees are already filling most drinks, strategists believe consolidating makes financial and logistical sense. The franchise pointed toward “a consistent experience for both customers and crew across all ordering points” as a benefit of the change.

Meanwhile, dining rooms may be going the way of the dodo. Fewer customers dine in at quick-serve restaurants, so the overall restaurant footprint of locations is shrinking. McDonald’s is eyeing a new concept called CosMc’s with smaller dining areas. Duplicate drink machines take up precious real estate.

Online diners have bemoaned the inconvenience and death of “hybrid drinks” containing several flavors in one cup. But whether there will be a substantial backlash remains to be seen. Test locations in Springfield, Illinois, told The State Journal-Register the change required some adjustment, but staff received few complaints.

McDonald’s has a track record as a trendsetter in the quick-serve space. So, will other franchises follow in their footsteps? Decision-makers will likely keep an eye on this experiment before deciding on any big moves.

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