McDonald’s Is Making a Major Change That May Leave Diners Thirsty
The fast-food giant announced it's ditching its self-serve drink stations. Here's when it's happening, plus more must-know info about the change.
If your idea of the best fast-food beverage combines McDonald’s Coke with a little bit of McDonald’s Sprite, we have some bad news for you: Mixing your own soda concoctions will soon be a thing of the past at your favorite fast-food joint. The self-serve beverage station is entering the realm of things you won’t find at McDonald’s anymore.
Nope, this isn’t another McDonald’s rumor. It’s a cold, hard fact, first reported by the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. The fast-food giant recently confirmed the news, stating that all McDonald’s U.S. restaurants will be phasing out their self-service beverage stations. “This 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,” the company told USA Today in a recent statement.
So what exactly does this mean for customers, and when will the machines officially be gone? Read on for everything you need to know.
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When is the change happening?
In an aim to create a more seamless dining experience, McDonald’s has committed to ditching its self-service beverage stations nationwide. As the company reasons, workers are already pouring drinks for customers in the drive-thru line; they may as well pour drinks for dine-in guest too.
You still have a few more years to grab your own drinks at McDonald’s. But by 2032, all the fast-food chain’s U.S. locations will be free of these self-serve machines, and many restaurants have already ditched them. Several franchise owners confirmed the transition to a staff-poured system in interviews with the State Journal-Register.
What can you expect once the change takes effect?
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Reactions to this latest McDonald’s change have been mixed, with some happy customers zeroing in on the fact that self-serve beverage stations are typically a mess. Relying on a staff station that may be cleaned more often could be more hygienic, they say.
Not everyone is a fan, though. The move may create a more consistent experience, but it also upsets two major reasons customers love to dine in at the burger chain. The prospect of losing these perks has irked longtime McDonald’s fans.
Free refills aren’t going away—McDonald’s says refills will be allowed for customers who ask—but as customers point out, refilling drinks will be more disruptive with this change. You’ll have to wait in line for a refill, slowing you down and causing delays for the fast-food employees working hard to serve meals within that speedy five-minute average the chain is known for.
“The claim that this will make things more convenient is so much corporate PR speak,” writes Reddit user ProjectNo4090. “Me having to wait in line for a refill, and people in line to order food having to wait for me to get a refill, is NOT more convenient than me walking up to a soda dispenser and getting the refill myself.”
Without the stations, customers may not be able to enjoy the experience of mixing and matching drink combos. Although McDonald’s says this allows “too much variation in the overall beverage experience,” customers are already saying they’ll miss this particular perk. “My favorite drink is Coke with a shot of orange Fanta,” writes Reddit user TheQuarantinian. “Guess that’ll be a thing of the past.”
Whether soda combos will be an option with the behind-the-counter setup remains to be seen.
“What is Coke going to do with all those fancy dispensers that allow customers to choose from a bunch of flavors and mix as they please?” asks Reddit user ProjectNo4090. “Are the restaurant employees going to keep using those and indulge every customer’s whims, or are those going to end up in landfills because restaurants are getting rid of self-serve?”
What other changes is McDonald’s making to its drinks?
You have inflation to thank for this latest piece of news: McDonald’s is ditching $1 drinks.
The cold-drinks deal began as a summertime special in 2008 and has been promoted as a year-round feature since 2017. But now, according to the Wall Street Journal, multiple McDonald’s restaurants around the country have stopped promoting $1 drinks, have raised drink prices and are advertising the value menu instead. The OK to get rid of the $1 drinks promotion came down from McDonald’s corporate in January.
Is dining in at fast-food joints a thing of the past?
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Though McDonald’s cites consistency as the driving force behind the drink-station change, diner use may also factor into the decision. The phasing out of self-service beverage stations is a sign of our post-COVID-19 times: Fewer people are sitting down for a meal at McDonald’s, which means fewer people need to fill their own drinks.
This runs parallel with consumer trends in the fast-food industry as a whole. Between February 2020 and 2022, delivery orders increased by 116%, drive-thru grew by 20% and ordering online increased by 117%.
With fewer people dining in at fast-food restaurants, companies are taking advantage of artificial intelligence to create a speedier, more consistent experience, with a focus on the much-used drive-thru. And major chains are already on board. McDonald’s is testing out AI-powered ordering at the drive-thru, as are Wendy’s, Panera Bread, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Popeyes and more.
So is the removal of self-service beverage stations simply the first step in phasing out dine-in fast-food joints? That remains to be seen, though some customers are sounding the alarm. A drive-thru-only restaurant isn’t accessible for people who don’t have cars, they say.
“Fast-food restaurants with the ability to eat in will be gone in 10 years,” writes Reddit user Justakidfromflint. “It’s unbelievably unfair to those who don’t have vehicles. During COVID, I wasn’t able to get food at a lot of places—no lobby open, even for walk-in; no walking to the window.”
While metropolitan areas will likely have locations with dine-in seating (given that many residents of big cities don’t have cars), many fast-food establishments in rural areas are forgoing the usual dine-in experience. McDonald’s is already testing this model with its CosMc’s restaurant, which follows an express model and offers only drive-thru and carry-out services.
- USA Today: “McDonald’s plans to transition away from self-serve beverage stations in US by 2032”
- Reddit: “Good-bye self-serve fountain drink stations, crew pour soft drinks returning to McDonald’s”
- The Wall Street Journal: “McDonald’s Dollar Drinks Deal Fades in the Face of Inflation”
- NPD: “Restaurant Carry-Out Is Losing Out to Delivery and Drive-Thru as More Convenient Ordering Options”
- Axios: “Drive-thru mania pushes chains to rethink restaurants”