Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Refills and Straws

When you order a soft drink in an American restaurant, two things are assumed. One: you will get a drinking straw, wrapped and sealed in a paper tube. You are not required to lift a drinking glass to your lips in the United States. There is always a straw. And two, there will be free refills.

It's kind of disconcerting, sometimes, to be halfway through a glass of lemonade and then discover it has been taken away and replaced by a fresh one. Was there something wrong with the one I was drinking? Not all restaurants are quite that proactive. Most wait until you've actually finished the drink before replacing it, and some actually require you to ask for the refills. If a restaurant isn't going to provide free refills, it's usually for some specialty drink, like mango lemonade, and they write it on the menu. Usually the free refills are provided for pop, lemonade, iced tea and the like.

Some Canadian places offer free refills, but that will be written on the menu, probably highlighted. And those are probably American chains. I always wonder how many Americans visiting Canada ask for several refills of their Coca-Cola over the course of a meal and then are stunned to discover that they have been charged the full price of the drink each time. Of course they probably wouldn't drink them all, because they'd be still waiting for their straw.

So when statistics tell me that Americans drink 600 12-oz servings of soft drinks a year, I have to wonder how many of those they actually drank. I often get myself in trouble if I order a soft drink because they were a rare treat when I was kid, so I drink it all up, end up drinking two or three glasses, and then find I've filled up on sugar water and can't eat my main course.


Anonymous said...

Straws aren't (just) about laziness; they're a convenient way to avoid having to use one's mouth as a liquid-from-ice strainer. I suppose you'll retort that only Americans are silly enough to dilute their drinks with frozen water. :-)

The pricing model here seems to include a thin profit margin on food and an astronomical markup on drinks, both soft and hard. The cost of bag-in-box drinks is negligible compared to their exorbitant menu prices (US $1.50 - $2.50), so offering free refills is (I guess) a cheap way to increase customer satisfaction.

Not all of us are drinking sugar water, either. Everywhere you go, there will be Diet {Coke | Pepsi} and possibly other sugar-free drinks. (Whether the artificial sweeteners will give us all cancer is another matter...)

Aviatrix said...

It wasn't intended as an accusation of laziness or greed, just an observation. I'm the one who can't control her sugar water intake when it keeps being placed in front of her. :-)

Anonymous said...

One of the nearby restaurants hubby and I frequent changed hands about a year or so back. One of the changes new ownership made is that soft drinks are now sold per can, and refills are no longer free. This has forced me to learn how to make one drink last a whole meal -- which gets interesting, especially when spicy food and condiments are involved.

Water, though, is still free, and the thinking part of my brain tells me it's better for me anyway. Given what's in a lot of those other drinks, and given how much of them I tended to drink, maybe I shouldn't mourn the loss of the free refills too much.

I'm trying to wean myself off the sugar water (or, more precisely, the artificially-flavored sort), and am trying to see it more as an occasional treat than a staple of my diet. It's not been easy, but I sure don't miss the afternoon headaches and grumpiness. (It's also meant I don't dump as much money into the nearest vending machine, too.)

Anonymous said...

I'm always amused when they give you a straw, with a bit of the paper left on.. so you can tell they're not just recycling them? I prefer to risk the faceful of ice to drinking from a straw, usually. Straws make me feel like a fly sipping the sugar water.

Anonymous said...

I was very surprised with free refills in US restaurants.
I've only stayed for about one month in the USA but I understood how easy it is to get fat.

I missed my french restaurants! :-)

I prefer quality over quantity.
And nothing compares to a quality meal accompanied by a glass of wine for pleasure, and fresh water.

dpierce said...

@Anonymous: "so you can tell they're not just recycling them?"

I'm *pretty* sure that's done for hygiene. You can open a straw and stick it in a glass for a customer w/o actually touching the straw. For many, straws are seen hygiene issues altogether -- some people are phobic of drinking from glasses they haven't washed themselves.

Of course, ultimately, it's a bunch of waste plastic. Food concessions at zoos and sealife parks got rid of straws years ago because animals end up choking on them.

A Japanese friend once told me that straws were considered "very American": They are associated with drinking milkshakes, ice-filled drinks, and while riding in cars and in spacecraft.

Callsign Echo said...


I'm a blogging aviatrix too, and I really meant to comment on one of your posts about flying, but got totally sidetracked by this one.

It's so true: We may scrimp on everything else but by God, the Soda Will Flow.

This is probably why American restaurants will charge you .50 cents for a side of ranch dressing, or $1.50 for a slice of cheese: to make up for all that lost revenue in Coke and Diet Pepsi.

It's been a while since I've read it, but I think the right to Free Refills is in our Constitution somewhere.

Anonymous said...

American restaurants "proactive"?

"Obtrusive" = the word which more accurately describes restaurant service in the USA.

Eating out in the USA is often quite an interrupted and irritating experience for those of us accustomed to unobtrusive service.

Anonymous said...

In a restaurant in Virginia (an all-you-can-eat chinese, if I remember right), I had my almost-finished Coke topped up with iced tea. I wasn't happy :-)