Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The ethics of refills

While we’re talking about Panera... something came up in conversation recently, and I’d like to pass it by my ethics board readers.

When one buys iced tea (and other drinks) at Panera, one gets free, self-served refills. The question is how far free refills should go. I think we’ll all agree that if I buy a sandwich and an iced tea, and refill my tea halfway through eating my sandwich, that’s fine. And I think we’ll all agree that if I bring my own cup into the store, go back and fill it with tea without paying, and leave, that’s not OK.

But how long can I hang out and keep refilling without crossing an ethical line? Is it ever OK to leave and come back, and still get a refill?

If you have a general rule, or any thoughts on the matter, please post a comment. To give some, ah, food for thought (perhaps some cream of broccoli soup in a bread bowl), here are some scenarios, each pushing things a bit further. Where does one draw the line — realizing that buying another cup of tea only costs about a buck and a half, so we’re not talking about a huge issue here — between ethical and unethical behaviour?

In each case, I order an iced tea and...

  1. I drink it in the store, then get a refill and immediately leave.
  2. I use the Internet for half an hour, getting two refills while I sit there.
  3. I use the Internet for three hours, getting many refills while I sit there.
  4. I use the Internet all day, getting countless refills. The store never gets very busy, so I’m not preventing anyone from finding a seat.
  5. I go to a store next door for five minutes to pick something up. I come back and get a refill.
  6. I go for a one-hour walk, coming back to the store. When I return, I order a sandwich and refill my tea.
  7. I go for a one-hour walk, coming back to the store. When I return, I refill my tea and use the Internet.
  8. I go for a one-hour walk. As I walk past the store again, I drop in, refill my tea, and keep going.
  9. I go for a one-hour walk. I walk past another Panera, drop in, refill my tea, and keep going.
  10. I go home. I come back later that day to pick up a loaf of bread, and, having brought yesterday’s cup, I refill it.
  11. I go home. I come back the next day for a sandwich, and, having brought yesterday’s cup, I refill it.

I have my own thoughts, of course, but I’d like to hear yours. My friend had a fine suggestion for resolving it: go to the person taking the orders, with your Panera cup, and ask... then let them decide. But let’s assume that you have to make the choice yourself; how do you choose?


Brent said...

Sounds like we need DRM for ice tea and an Ice Tea Industry Association to sue drinkers for abusing their tea privileges.

Call me Paul said...

I suspect most establishments have a clearly defined policy regarding refills. At least, if they don't, they're stupid. That said, those policies do not seem to be advertised. I could find no mention of a free refill policy on the Panera website. I'm sure there is also a fair amount of discretion on the part of the local franchise owner as to how much latitude they will allow their customers.

My own personal ethics would dictate that I would allow myself unlimited free refills as long as I was eating the meal I originally purchased. Loitering for hours in a store and consuming multiple free refills I would consider an abuse of the policy. I would consider the free refill policy to be a per visit thing, and would not leave the store then return and expect a free drink - no matter how short a time I was gone. And, because most of these businesses are independently owned franchises, I would consider getting a free refill at different location from the original purchase to be outright theft.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

I don't think I'd judge this by a fixed amount of time, but more by my intent. As long as I'm really just lingering after a meal, free refills seem reasonable. But by the time I'm clearly working at the coffeeshop, I'd start to feel guilty. I think honest introspection will do the job.

However -- to throw another wrinkle into the discussion -- I wouldn't necessarily soothe my guilt by paying for more coffee. I might buy something else instead. If I bought something every -- I dunno, every hour or so -- I wouldn't feel bad if I was continuing to get free refills on my drink at the same time.

To be honest, I'd also behave differently depending on the vendor. A small local shop would get my best treatment, but I really wouldn't lose a moment's sleep at the prospect of "cheating" a Starbucks. Panera is in between -- they're a big chain, but one that I respect and admire. Bear in mind also that what these folks charge for one cup of coffee is enough for the raw ingredients of more coffee than you could drink in a week. That's why they offer free refills.

Finally, in the spirit of revolutionary workers' solidarity, or at least sympathy with the service workers I have known, I might choose not to buy anything more, but to simply add more and more to the tip jar. Power to the (underpaid) people! :-)

Barry Leiba said...

Bearing in mind, Nathaniel, that diners have offered free refills forever, on much less expensive coffee.

I like the idea of periodically feeding the tip jar....

The Ridger, FCD said...

Without a doubt, once you leave the store you can't go back, at least in my opinion. I'm not really happy with spending all afternoon and getting many refills, but it's not my lifestyle so I don't have a feel for it - but it's true that it probably won't actually cost the store money - just the profit margin. (On the other hand, that profit margin is what keeps them in business, isn't it?) And certainly you shouldn't take up a table when people want it.

Anonymous said...

If I am at the restaurant, consuming a meal, I believe it is acceptable to re-fill once. For me, to do so twice makes me uncomfortable. Besides, I am not one to consume an abundance of beverage, whether at home or in a restaurant.

HRH said...

If a food establishment, have a refill policy on their beverages across the board, or selected beverages such as ice tea, then, they have already figured, that such policy is helping their bottom line and not impeding it, therefore, getting one refill or many, shouldn’t be considered un-ethical. Although, coming back to the establishment at a later point, with an old cup, for refill, is certainly un-ethical, but that is implied.

I used to be a waiter, during my college days, and once had similar discussion with my manager on free refill for coffee, his response was that the profit margin is enormous and as customer lingers in the store, that might lead to other purchases. I am sure; the businesses study these models, extensively before they give away FREE things. It all goes back to “There is no such a thing, as FREE lunch” :-)

WM Irwin said...

Regarding Panera, I love their French onion soup, Greek salad, and hazelnut-flavored coffee. And their free refill policy.

Regarding the ethics of refills, I only do one refill per visit. When it's time for me to leave, I just top off my cup and take it with me. No point in being tacky about it.

scouter573 said...

I'm pretty much into the one-refill category. Rather arbitrary, I admit.

On a tangent, if the customer gets free refills, why do they offer multiple sizes? If not at Panera, then other places do... Why would anyone ever order other than a "small"?

Barry Leiba said...

For take-away orders, one might want different sizes.