McD’s moves out the old folks

Feb 21, 2014

Starbucks proudly lets many of its visitors spend hours inside its locations, whether they buy coffee or not, as part of the mission to establish its locations as that "third place" after home and work. McDonald’s also sees loiterers, although they’re a different breed.

Despite free WiFi, McDonald’s doesn’t attract the laptop crowd. Rather, due to a combination of its cost-consciousness ($1.00 coffee) and perhaps more subdued atmosphere, McDonald’s has become what The New York Times describes as a "sort of everyman’s Starbucks."

Behavior perhaps more prevalent in urban locations, McDonald’s may attract the elderly needing a place to go, teens looking for an after-school hangout, or even homeless people looking to escape the cold. While signs on many walls state patrons face a limit of 20 minutes to park at a table, it’s rarely enforced.

The issue, not surprisingly, came up recently when the rule was enforced and gained more attention because the incident involved the elderly.

The case involved a dispute between a group of older Korean immigrants and a McDonald’s in Queens, NY. The customers long heard complaints around their knack of buying only coffee and fries, then hogging booths for hours at a time. Some stayed from 5:00 a.m. until after dark, according to reports.

Calls by the restaurant to the police or 911 to forcibly remove the elders sparked outrage among the immigrant community. With local politicians involved, a compromise was reached whereby extended seating privileges at the location were allowed except for "high traffic" hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

"The restaurant has welcomed these guests for a long time, [but the lengthy stays by the elderly Koreans] has led to uncomfortable interactions with the McDonald’s workers," Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, told the Times.

A follow-up article in the Times found that McDonald’s has no national policy about discouraging longtime sitting.

"The individual franchisees do what they feel is best for their community businesses," Ms. McComb said. "In the case of Flushing, that franchisee welcomed those guests for years, and it was only when other customers felt they were no longer welcome that he attempted to adjust the visit time with the customers."

How should local McDonald’s owners deal with elderly loiterers? In general, when does socializing at a fast food restaurant becoming loitering?

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21 Comments on "McD’s moves out the old folks"

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Dick Seesel

This is a tough one. I have never seen the 20-minute rule enforced even though it is commonly posted in McDonald’s restaurants. And I have often seen groups of seniors congregating over breakfast or lunch, for extended periods of time. For many of these seniors, this may be their most important social interaction of the day.

But lingering from morning to night, making it difficult for others to use the restaurant seating, crosses the line from social interaction to bad manners. The initial reaction of the franchise owner in Queens ended with predictably bad PR, but he was within his rights to be concerned about the effect on his other customers and his sales volume.

As I said, I don’t have an easy answer for this one. Hopefully individual franchisees can work toward solutions with neighborhood groups where this is an issue.

Bob Phibbs

As a former coffee franchisor, I’m solidly with the McDonald’s individual franchisees. If it were me, I would remove all chairs and make them bar stools much like Chipotle does in high traffic areas. The need to socialize is high, but this is abuse of a retail establishment by a few which directly impairs its ability to meet the needs of the community as a whole.

David Livingston
3 years 3 days ago

Raise the price of coffee and stop the free refills. Thats what keeps the old folks out of Starbucks. Any place with cheap unlimited coffee and free WiFi will attract loiterers.

McDonald’s has experimented with uncomfortable seats to encourage people not to sit too long. The soft seats and couches need to go or people will loiter. Anything more than an hour is taking advantage of the restaurant. For me, just having annoying teenagers and children hanging around is enough to get me moving along.

Nikki Baird
Wow, this is a view of McD’s that I don’t have. I mean, I have frequented locations that were in high-traffic downtown areas, where you have to get a key to use the bathroom and I’m sure the staff is highly challenged to balance service against people seeking shelter. But I’ve also been in McD’s that are waystops on highways, where half the people stopping there are just using the bathrooms. And at my local McD’s, the patrons ARE the laptop crowd – moms who let their children run free on the play structures while they sit and chat or check email. I don’t think these are issues brought on by WiFi – they have always been there, long before Starbucks encouraged “loitering.” Like any retailer, McDonald’s is going to have to customize the experience based on local conditions. If a restaurant is becoming a default community center, then that sounds like an opportunity to step up engagement with local government and nonprofits to see if better solutions can be found. But engagement needs to be the order of the day, not confrontation. The problem isn’t McDonalds or its policies. The problem is a community one, where people don’t have… Read more »
Kevin Graff

This is one of those issues where you really can’t win, but the “loss” on one side out weighs the loss on the other. Squeezing out paying customers is a bigger loss than upsetting a few folks that just don’t get why a restaurant isn’t a park bench.

The only thing that would get my grandfather to move was something free or aggravating music. So, maybe they stop the free refill thing or start playing more Celine Dion music (just kidding … All Canadians poke a bit of fun at Celine).

Tony Orlando

Loitering is growing as the population of retirees, and the chronically unemployed think it’s their right to sit in a McDonald’s as long as they want to. We have one in our town where retired workers meet every day for about 4 hours, spending almost nothing, and taking up half the restaurant. When they leave, they take ketchup packets, sweeteners, and napkins, as if it was their personal pantry. They had to put the stuff near the counter to prevent them from robbing the place.

I know the owner, and he is quite nice, but is getting frustrated with the people who lounge around for hours complaining about everything, including the price of coffee. Our society today thinks we owe them whatever isn’t bolted down, and this McDonald’s still allows this, as he does not want to confront them for fear of reprisals.

It is a tough call with social media ready to pounce on any business that tries to assert what is right in dealing with this. I am sure other franchises and diners have the same problem. Maybe they can have a cover charge for hanging out, I’m sure that will go over well!

Ian Percy

Right on! Let’s kick out those elderly loiterers!!! Who cares if meeting there with a few old friends talking quietly among themselves is the highlight of their social life. Who cares that for many of them spending $1 on coffee is like us spending $100. I say bring in the office-less loiterers with laptops who spread out over four seating areas nursing one cup of coffee for two and three hours using free WiFi all while talking on their phone for all to hear.

As we all know, Starbucks offers the cheapest WiFi equipped office space on the planet. For $3-$5 you can stay there most of the day! Somehow that’s a good business model…and having the elderly in a McDonalds’ isn’t? What am I missing here?

Ryan Mathews

First of all, there are homeless people who use my neighborhood Starbucks as a crash pad, so Mickey D isn’t alone here.

The issue better not be how does anyone deal with elderly loiterers, but rather how do they deal with loiterers period. If they have a posted policy, it should be enforced uniformly and regardless of who it is being applied to.

As to the last question, loitering is in the eye of the leaseholder. Go to any coffee or doughnut shop and you’ll find your fair share of regulars who treat the place like their own personal rec rooms.

Again, if you run a store or restaurant you get to set the rules — as long as you don’t discriminate (as in against the elderly, or members of an ethnic group like say — oh, older Koreans — along the way).

Adrian Weidmann

This is one of those issues that the right answer always ends up being politically incorrect. The challenge is acting upon that line of demarcation between socializing/loitering and running a business.

The compromise for the high traffic periods is a sensible compromise. When your place of business becomes a “clubhouse,” it becomes a distraction for both the employees and patrons alike. It would have been nice if McD’s corporate would have an overarching policy to support their franchisees as this is, or will become, an ever increasing issue. It doesn’t help when McD’s – a burger joint! – creates a living room environment by putting in a fireplace, couches and a 46″ flat screen playing CNN or FOX News. Perhaps their retail design is sending the wrong message?!

Cathy Hotka

Loitering is loitering. Starbucks stores have this problem too, and their managers are empowered to address it. There’s a limit to hospitality.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 3 days ago

Nothing discourages loitering more than personal discomfort among the elderly. If a loitering problem continually exists, eliminate a portion of cushioned booths and sitting areas and allow folks to enjoy the low cost and high quality senior coffees — vertically. I think David has a valid point, even in this age of entitlement.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

If you advertise free WiFi and would like to attract the laptop crowd, does an emphasis on not loitering make sense? A play area for kids does not signal no loitering. Encouraging loitering by some groups and enforcing the rule for other groups is not a good policy.

Maybe McDonald’s could use a different approach. Instead of enforcing a loitering URL, staff could periodically ask the loiterers what else they would like to purchase? Maybe McDonald’s needs to decide who they want in their stores – plastic, easy to clean seats make great sense for little kids and encouraging people to move on; the laptop crowd prefers the coffee shop atmosphere with lower lighting and more comfortable seating. However, they do not necessarily buy more product while they are loitering. So which target market does McDonald’s really want?

Steve Montgomery

As many have noted – no easy answer. I have operated retail locations in area of FL where the average age is certainly skewed to senior citizen. True we had groups of individuals who came in and sat longer than I might have over a cup of coffee, but they never stayed so long we were even tempted to ask them to leave. However, we did not offer free refills so maybe their wallets dictated the length of their stay.

Ed Rosenbaum

This is a difficult situation and one that is a no win for the store owner. They are damned if they step up and enforce the issue, and damned if they don’t. Panera Bread has an unenforced ban on working at a table during high business hours. So do others. But the key word is “unenforced.” 
The culprits know what they are doing and are taking advantage of the fact they can do it because sympathy is on their side. Good luck!

Rick Myers
Rick Myers
3 years 3 days ago

I would take my laptop to McDonald’s, but finding an electrical outlet is difficult. Besides their WiFi isn’t all that good. I don’t see why it is a problem for me to sit in a restaurant as long as the table isn’t needed. If I saw a sign with a 20 minute rule that would upset me and I wouldn’t go back. Sometimes moms especially go to McDonald’s with their little ones and let the kids play and moms socialize. What’s wrong with repeat business?

Christopher P. Ramey

Starbucks’ problem isn’t as negative because they’ve targeted and created policies for a more affluent clientele. I find it annoying that I can’t always find a seat at varying Starbucks. But at least they aren’t threatening.

Frankly, I find retired individuals at McDonalds to be endearing, and a positive part of the environment. They’re certainly not threatening. But then I’ve never seen them overrun the restaurant either.

A solution for WiFi is easy. Take a cue from Pandora and run a commercial(s) every few minutes.

Key is that focus means alienation.

If McDonald’s wants to remain America’s restaurant then they better make room for all of America; warts and all.

Larry Negrich

The ambiance and comfort of immovable metal swivel chairs, fluorescent lighting, and industrial tile. The question is, “Who wouldn’t loiter?” at a place like that.

Sounds like they have reached a reasonable solution with this band of roving elderly people looking for a place to socialize. It is reasonable to restrict seating during the rush hours — the rest of the day having patrons in these seating areas has a number of benefits for the business and community.

Kate Blake
Kate Blake
3 years 3 days ago

The backlash would be horrible in the community. When I use the drive-thru and see the elderly enjoying the ambiance of McDonald’s, it makes me happy. It’s nice to see that they have the time to socialize and interact while those of us in the rat race have to scamper off!

Craig Sundstrom

The answer to the 2nd question is easy: when someone else wants to sit there. The phrasing of the first question is curious: the article freely admits all kinds of groups loiter, yet the question restricts itself to the elderly (perhaps only their “eviction” generates bad PR?). Anyway, back on point, though the choice is between bad and worse, there’s no doubt which is which: a business can survive bad PR, it can’t survive being unable to serve its legitimate customers.

Gene Michaud
Gene Michaud
3 years 2 days ago

McDonald’s has created this problem, not the seniors they have encouraged to come in and socialize. As the discussion question indicates, McDonald’s is a “FAST” food restaurant and by its very nature was created to provide reasonably low price food quickly and get on to the next customer. The first McDonald’s, for years, didn’t even have tables and chairs.

McDonald’s management needs to do away with WiFi and get back to developing a good, up to date program on how to present and sell their product and stop blaming seniors, teens and the homeless for their lack of good management.

Verlin Youd

Sounds like a problem begging for a simple economic solution to address the majority of the problem. Maybe free refills are available for those who then leave the location and don’t return the rest of the day and are $1 for anyone not leaving. There will always be a minority that continue to create a problem and that is where you will need specific strategies and tactics, location by location.


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