McDonald’s Pulls the Plug on Beverage Self-Service: The Future of QSR?


McDonald’s caused a seismic hiccup this week when it unveiled it’s doing away with self-service beverages. Although the goal is to eliminate all dining room dispensers by 2032, several outlets have already pulled the soda plug from customers.

4 Factors Influencing the Decision to Stop Self Beverage Service

Here’s a taste of why McDonald’s found making the decision easy:

  1. Duplication: For every self-service beverage station at its QSRs, there’s also one behind the counter for “to go” orders. In this era of cost-cutting, paying for an extra station doesn’t make sense.
  2. Hygiene – Even as we navigate towards post-COVID normalcy, the fear of unsanitary practices often makes customers nervous. McDonald’s proprietary service known as the Crew Pour System automatically fills beverage cups with low human contact. Further, servicing and cleaning of the beverage bar requires extra time and labor.
  3. Customer Shift – McDonald’s itself notes that less than 10% of its customers now dine in at their establishment translating into smaller footprints, better drive-thru systems, and more efficient to go options.
  4. Free Refills – Self-service stations morphed quickly into the rarely discussed free refills perk. QSR’s today recognize it’s more profitable to upsize you with a large Diet Coke, for example, and send you on your way versus having you order a small with endless refills.

With the McDonald’s app, kiosk, and delivery services making up 40% of sales which reached $6.5 billion in Q2 of 2023, it’s clear that doing away with self-service is appetizing.

Customers, however, found the end of free refills gave them an upset stomach and took to social media to spout their feelings. Many users believed it was a staffing issue citing the difficulty in hiring and retaining workers during the pandemic. Others, of course, saw it as another sign of inflation – paying more to receive less.

The Future is Take Out

The reality is that trends that started during the pandemic are now permanent fixtures of fast-food life. 85% of orders placed in 2022 for fast food were taken to go. Starbucks, whose founder coined the term “the third place”, now plans to open 400 stores with delivery or pick up only.

Taco Bell and its Yum parent believe they can take a big bite out of McDonald’s market share by running 13,000 locations over the next few years. Management also discussed creating a 4-lane Taco Bell and a KFC without public restrooms or seats.

In short, QSRs will morph into sophisticated AI-run kiosks and apps that deliver fast food faster without a customer entering the store.

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