McDonald’s is getting rid of free drink refills — and more fast-food chains may follow

Empty cups and empty hearts.

McDonald’s customers are bidding a bitter farewell to free drink refills, one of the latest casualties from the brand already facing an identity crisis over extreme prices.

A recent customer in Pittsburgh told that their local location began charging patrons for drink re-ups, something once a given for free throughout fast-food franchises.

McDonald’s is nixing its self-serve soda machines and, in many cases, free refills. Gado via Getty Images

“What is the world coming to?” a shocked man recently wrote on X.

Last year, it was reported that Mickey D’s was gradually phasing out its self-serve soda fountains for dine-in customers by the year 2032.

However, a company rep told Business Insider at the time that charging for refills would be left “at the discretion of individual restaurant owner/operators.”

But the direction in fast food, beyond just McDonald’s, seems to be telling customers to suck it up and order another drink.

“McDonald’s tends to be a leader in the industry. And very often, when they make big changes, other restaurants follow suit. McDonald’s is very smart about their costs,” said Darren Tristano, CEO of consulting firm FoodserviceResults.

Customers are noticing no more free refills at McDonald’s locations. AP

Panera Bread customers and even those at the grocery store Wegmans have also observed a vanishing of self-serve soda machines, according to Marketplace.

Cornell University food and beverage management professor Alex Susskind told the outlet that food courts across western New York and Pennsylvania are following the same trend and putting machines back behind counters.

While it may have felt like the greatest thing since sliced buns when McDonald’s installed the self-serve fountains in 2004, Susskind believes they’re more of a hassle than they are worth these days.

“The amount of cleaning and upkeep that’s required for these guest-facing dispensers is pretty significant,” he said.

Many are sad to see the end of McDonald’s self-serve drink machines. Getty Images

“The ice has to be replaced, you have to clean up the mess, you have to pick up the straw fragments.”

TikTok-famous ex-McDonald’s corporate chef Mike Haracz also recently addressed the controversy, saying that drink theft was likely part of the brand’s rationale among other factors.

He added that it’s also more desirable in the chain’s eyes for folks to use the drive-thru for quicker turn-over times.

“Most of McDonald’s business is through the drive-thru. And it does cost McDonald’s more money to deal with people who come into the restaurant than it does drive-thru,” Haracz said in a clip viewed more than 180,000 times.

“They’d much rather you have drive-thru, you get some food, you get your drink, and you get out of there versus you hanging around and having to deal with people in the restaurant.”

Dine-in volume has plummeted, too, added David Henkes of the consulting firm Technomic.

But he thinks that some staunch, quite literal penny-pinching may play a factor in the logic to take away refills.

“It’s essentially pennies per drink for the cost of the syrup,” Henkes told Marketplace. “It’s a good business, and that’s why a lot of times, you see companies doing any size for $1.”

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