Stopping soda thieves

soda fountain refill


We have a self-serve drink station. Customers on a daily basis will ask for a water cup and then proceed to fill their "water cup” with a beverage they are supposed to pay for.  When confronted, it sometimes has led to a nasty situation. Any suggestions on how to handle the situation? Should we not confront the customer and consider it as part of the cost of doing business?

– Bill Eldred, Manager, Bilikin, Inc, Denver, Colorado


Like last week’s column on racist guests, we spend so much time managing guests who can’t behave properly. What a distraction from the many real challenges of running a restaurant.

Most operators with self-serve drink stations share this problem of water cups becoming soda cups, guests availing themselves of free refills not offered by the restaurant, or even guests filling their own containers like travel mugs without paying. In most cases, operators find that the labor savings these drink stations offer and the relatively small percentage of misbehaving guests, justifies maintaining the self-serve station rather than moving to a counter-service model.

There are a few potential solutions to this problem.

  1. Use a small, clear cup for water and not a standard soda cup.
  2. Consider having a staff member fill the water cup behind the counter, eliminating the need for a tap-water drinking guest to visit the soda fountain altogether.
  3. Make sure you have bottled water available for sale and train your staff to offer it when people ask for water.

Even if a small percentage opt for it, you have revenue where otherwise you only had a missed sale (tap water instead of soda). Unless you have a very transient market, like a highway rest stop, I would recommend against a “soda police” mentality, attributing your thieving guests (and that’s what they are, though they probably don’t see it that way) to the cost of doing business. Focusing on a good system and a welcoming environment may allow you to make up for that loss with better sales overall.

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