Sunday, March 15, 2009


The other day Marty Haynes, a reader from Plancentia, Calif., was enjoying a hamburger with his wife, Julie, at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in Yorba Linda.

"Due to the current economic situation," Haynes writes, "I succumbed to my wife's insistence that it was OK to share a small fountain drink from the self-serve fountain."

What made Haynes uncomfortable was that the restaurant offers free refills on drinks, meaning that, when he and his wife finished their small-sized beverage, they could refill the cup and continue sharing.

"There is no sign saying `One per customer, please' or `Only one refill, please' or anything like that," he writes. "I think it is assumed that each consumer should purchase their own drink."

Later that day, Haynes mentioned his concern to his son and to his daughter-in-law. They told him that they frequently shared a drink in similar situations and saw nothing wrong with it.

But Haynes sees a slippery slope here, since he doubts that anyone would agree that it would be OK for, say, a family of eight to share one small soda with many free refills.

"So what do you think?" he asks. "Is it OK for a couple to share a small drink and take advantage of the free-refills policy?"

My initial impulse was to consult the person with whom I would be most likely to find myself in a similar situation.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with it," my wife said, "as long as you buy the drink and are willing to drink it out of the same cup."

She reminded me that she rarely finishes her beverage when we go to a shop with a self-service fountain. Since she typically gives the drink to me to finish, we often buy only one drink instead of two.

"How is this any different?" she asks.

But nonetheless something about the practice still felt a bit hinky to me. Surely the restaurant didn't intend its policy to allow for multiple drinkers from the same refillable cup, I thought. The right or wrong of the situation had to be based, in part at least, on the intent of the offer.

Instead of trying to guess, I checked the Carl's Jr. Web site. No guidance there, though there were some coupons for a free drink if I wanted to buy the new Crisp Burrito. I didn't, so instead I called the company's toll-free customer-service hot line. There a customer-service representative looked up the refill policy for me.

"You have to purchase a drink to get a refill," she told me.

She kept looking through the guidelines.

"There is nothing in our policy about limiting how many people can drink from that same refillable cup," she said.

"So it would be OK for me to buy a drink, share it with my wife and then refill it?" I asked.

"Unless a local franchisee sets its own rules not allowing that," she said, "there is no written company policy against that."

From a strictly ethical point of view this practice passes muster only if you ask first. Rather than trying to guess the intentions of others, the right thing is simply to ask them. As for the restaurants, if they want to place limits on their refill policies, the right thing for them to do is to let customers know as clearly as possible.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...


Mores derive from the established practices of society and not its written laws. Simply that an establishment has not forbidden a practice does not make that practice per se ethical. We need to consider the common understanding and established practices of society in making that determination.

The "free refills" offer you cite is commonly understood and often labeled as an "all you can drink" offer. The operative word in the common understanding is "you" not your spouse or anyone else.

You can normally share a drink you have purchased because your sharing of that specific, limited-quantity drink does not deprive someone else of something that is rightfully theirs. This is not the case with the "free refills" offer. No matter how little your spouse "shares", you will have received more than you can drink and the restaurant will have less remaining. This extra drink was stolen from the restaurant just as surely as if you had filled your own glass without paying, your spouse's rationalizations notwithstanding.

When you purchase a "free refills" drink, what you actually purchase is a cup and a license (privilege) from the restaurant to fill your cup with their drink. This privilege can be revoked for abuse. Sharing your drink with someone else abuses the common understanding of your agreement, so the restaurant is within its rights to stop you from further refills.

Some are quick to rationalize or excuse this moral lapse due to the limited nature of the theft. If the example were sharing an all-you-can-eat buffet or an all-you-can-ride daypass at an amusement park, more people would admit the moral failing. However, determinations of morality should not turn on the gravity of the breach but upon the essential rightness of the underlying act. If the latter is wrong, then so is the former.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

"Due to current economic situations" or not, a couple of other things to consider is saving paper from landfills and at least making a purchase. My husband & I order one drink, but in the largest cup and usually do not get a refill. Therefore the restaurant has a sale which it would not if we ordered water because we are saving money or one of us can't drink that much.
If a person wants to order the small or medium drink he can then grab a refill before he leaves the restaurant and share with the other person once they are outside. There is no rule against that nor could it be enforced.
We travel quite a bit by car and to have 2 drink cups and 2 water cups, maybe three times a day, given to us for only a few minutes is a lot of the problem with our landfills.
Enjoy your column a lot in the Columbus Dispatch.
Sincerely, Jo Ann Lowrance

Anonymous said...

Solution to the number of drink cups in our land fills--I always take my own cup. I too take a lot of car trips (26 per year). I am often graciously charged nothing for coffee refills because I bring my own cup. whenever I can avoid it, I never get a disposable cup--not because I'm cheap, but because I like my own cup and I appreciate not seeing the highways littered with disposable cups and lids.