Fast-food joints just got cheaper—or rather, stingier. They’re charging for items that used to be free. A quarter for four pumps of extra sauce. Eleven cents for a packet of ketchup. “It’s not just condiments,” says John Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “They now put one napkin in the bag instead of a bunch.”
There’s growing evidence that during this economic downturn even the most recession-proof businesses—quick-service chains such as McDonald’s that thrive on people’s desire for inexpensive food from familiar brands—are tightening their belts. Stanton first heard about it when he complained to a passenger next to him on a plane about airlines charging for snacks. “He said, ‘That’s nothing. Now you have to buy the extra sauce at restaurants!’ ” he recalls. Franchisees have to buy ketchup packets, but have traditionally doled them out for free. Not anymore.
At first, Stanton explains, consumers are outraged. But then, they “kind of get used to it and change [their] behaviour,” he says. Airlines, for instance, now stock fewer bottles of water per flight because many passengers won’t fork over cash. Given society’s gluttonous consumption in recent history, Stanton suggests this is a positive correction. “There’s not a whole lot of good that’s come out of this economic crisis, but it’s forced us to give a second glance to what we’re spending our money on,” he says. “We won’t say yes to a Coke and then only drink half. We’ll wait till we’re really thirsty.” For businesses, he continues, the new charges are more about cutting down on waste than a tacky cash grab.
Some customers still aren’t satisfied. One argued on a consumer complaints website that her “hold the tomatoes and mayo” warranted a few cents off her meal. Stanton says be patient. As more restaurants adopt fees, eventually “some business is going to have a big sign out that says ‘No charges for condiments,’ ” he predicts. “It’s a cycle.” In the meantime, your fries are getting cold.