McDonald’s to Phase Out Self-Serve Soda Machines by 2032 as Drive-Thru Dominates US Business;

Within the decade, McDonald’s customers will no longer be able to fill and refill their own drinks at its restaurants.

The Chicago-based fast-food chain, McDonald’s, will do away with self-serve soda machines across the US by 2032. Several locations in Illinois have already moved their machines behind the counter, where the staff serves the beverages, according to The State Journal-Register.

The change is driven by a shift in consumer behavior in the post-pandemic world. Fewer people are dining in at McDonald’s outlets. Most customers prefer to use the drive-thru and pick up their orders. To accommodate this trend, McDonald’s is shrinking its dining rooms and reducing drive-thru times to make room for more customers and orders.

Other chains, such as Chipotle and Domino’s, are also witnessing similar shifts in their business and are adapting by enhancing their drive-thru experience or partnering with food delivery apps. For example, Chipotle is pursuing more locations for its Carside pick-up points, while Domino’s has signed a deal with Uber Eats to boost its delivery services.

One significant data point is that drive-thru sales account for 70% of McDonald’s US business as of November 2022.

Here is a non-exhaustive timeline of McDonald’s drive-thru evolution:

  • January 1975: McDonald’s opens its first drive-thru restaurant with the old-school menu board, a speaker, and a sliding window in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The motivation behind this move was to serve soldiers located at Fort Huachuca Army Base, who were not allowed to enter the restaurant but could stay in their vehicles while wearing fatigues when off base.
  • May 2018: McDonald’s acquires a “decision engine” called Dynamic Yield for $300 million. Developed by the Israeli startup, Dynamic Yield’s technology can adjust a digital drive-thru menu based on factors like time of day, weather, drive-thru times, regional menu item popularity, and more. McDonald’s claims to have rolled out this product recommendation engine in 12,000 kiosks within the first six months.
  • September 2019: McDonald’s acquires enterprise voice assistant service Apprente, intending to replace some human workers with this robot server for “faster, simpler, and more accurate order taking.”
  • October 2019: Some locations in the US test recognition technology to scan license plates and recognize previous customers. This enables McDonald’s to predict their orders and make AI-based recommendations.
  • December 2022: In Fort Worth, Texas, McDonald’s starts testing a separate “Order Ahead” drive-thru lane. Customers who place their orders in advance through an app can skip the traditional lane and receive their orders via a food and beverage conveyor.

It is worth noting that McDonald’s dining rooms are also shrinking. In July, the company introduced a new small-format location called “CosMc’s,” which primarily consists of a kitchen with a minimal dining area. Although specific details are limited, CosMc’s seems to follow the “ghost kitchen” model, focusing on takeaway and delivery services.

McDonald’s plans to start testing CosMc’s in limited regions next year. This move is made possible by the growth of digital ordering and delivery, eliminating the need for large dining rooms. Chris Kempczinski, the CEO of McDonald’s, mentioned in a July earnings call that these smaller locations present opportunities by allowing McDonald’s to explore real estate sites that were previously off-limits.

According to research firm Euromonitor, the “ghost kitchen” concept, which refers to cooking facilities with no dine-in or customer-facing areas, is projected to become a $1 trillion market by 2030.

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