McDonald’s is changing its unlimited refill beverage machines: A shift in American dining culture

Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen
4 min readSep 30, 2023
Photo by Lance Lozano on Unsplash

By 2032, McDonald’s will phase out its unlimited refill beverage machines.

McDonald’s drink machines, with their sugary drinks flowing like rivers of sweet calories, will disappear from the American culture of abundance. The same will likely be true for other restaurants.

Creating a shopping experience

Restaurants that offer free refills create an atmosphere of abundance and generosity. Beverage machines that allow refilling freely without paying extra have officially existed since 1988. My initial thought was that it hadn’t been that long ago, but then I noticed the date. If you were born in the 2000s, it probably seems natural and obvious to you. If you were born before that, you may be just as amazed as I am by the consumer experience of abundance and plenty. However, Wikipedia mentions a book from the 1890s that described the surprise of Europeans finding out in America that restaurants offered free drinks.

In social and cultural terms, free refills are synonymous with “more is better.” This means that having more (nice things, clothes and shoes, food, money, cars, etc.) will improve our lives. As if experiencing abundance means being happier, healthier, and more successful. Emphasizing one of the leading capitalist virtues driving American culture: accumulating, enjoying, and striving for more. Consider, for instance, how American food culture differs from European cuisine and its small, precise portions.

Refilling drinks for free has played a significant role in restaurant marketing. For many American consumers, the shopping experience and the feeling that our money is substantial and valuable (getting value for our money) are essential to their buying decisions. Providing complimentary beverages creates the impression that there is a significant value for customers. Quite simply, it appears that we receive more than we paid for — seemingly, of course, since the cost is reflected in the price we pay. Dining remains a pleasant experience.

Why is McDonald’s changing its strategy?

A McDonald’s announcement was released in August 2023 highlighting a significant decline in dine-in customers and an increase in digital delivery options (such as Uber) and drive-thrus, which account for 40% of McDonald’s total sales in the United States. Since the pandemic, the number of dine-in customers has decreased, and most customers prefer to eat at home. Consequently, beverage machines are less necessary and serve as relics of a less hygienic era.

Beverage machines are also a relic of an older world that was much less aware of the dangers of sugary beverages. As a result, consumers were encouraged to consume unlimited amounts of sugar in their beverages. When sugary drinks are limited and not freely available, we will inevitably consume fewer servings. Furthermore, removing these machines aligns with the past decade’s health trend, recognizing sugary beverages as a health risk.

In addition, removing the machines represents a cost saving for McDonald’s and an opportunity to sell more expensive drinks at the cash registers (upselling).

How do you create an experience of abundance in a healthy world?

The American myth is closely associated with the perception that an abundance of food and products — everything is big, impressive, satisfying, and probably more than we actually need — will make us happier. Abundance is perceived as a value that directly influences our joy, self-worth, and success: “More is better.”

A healthy world does not adhere to the adage “eat as much as you can” but emphasizes the importance of balancing health and eating habits, constantly exploring our psychological and physical needs. Food consumption in such a world is not necessarily equated with abundance but with quality. Consider smaller, more precise packaging, products, and consumables, providing us with different satisfaction than unlimited consumption. Consider, for example, the Marie Kondo, the Danish Hygge, and the Scandinavian Lagom as philosophies and trends that embrace moderation in everything from food to well-being.

A change in American consumer culture?

What will happen to the perception of abundance in a world where sugary drinks are no longer freely available? How will this change affect American consumer culture, leading to further changes and a decrease in unhealthy eating habits? Could this result in a more significant gap between consumer communities that can afford healthy options and those who consume less for economic reasons?

There is no doubt that food is integral to American culture, and the United States is known for its large and impressive portions. It will be interesting to see how changing the culture of sugary beverages in restaurants affects Americans’ perception of abundance. Additionally, whether brilliant innovators will be able to provide alternative products that meet the needs of consumers. Whatever the case, it is worth following the cultural changes surrounding food in the United States and customer experience. As McDonald’s and other restaurants adapt to the evolving landscape of consumer preferences and health-consciousness, the future of American dining experiences continues to be shaped by a delicate balance between abundance and well-being.

--

--

Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen

Helping companies and executives tell their stories and focus their messages. Framing is everything