All ice, no coffee: The inflation fight raging in your to-go cup

War, COVID-19, traffic in the city, too much (or not enough) fuss about her poor majesty, the great, late Queen: Of all the things to grumble about these days, customers in line at Starbucks and sitting on patios and , of course, online under cloak of anonymity, appear to be getting all worked up over ice.

Yes, that’s right, ice — specifically, how much of it restaurants and coffee shops should or should not be serving in their drinks and cocktails, and whether or not it’s a racket they’re running to earn more by giving less.

“Fill my f-ing cup. Soda is cheap,” a user named thekosmicfool wrote in a recent Reddit thread titled “Ice in beverages is terrible and bad most drinks.”

“I hate buying drinks where the ratio of ice to drink is like 90/10,” Mastercomposer 1 wrote earlier this week.

“It’s obviously a scam to sell you less beverage,” said another.

Call it ice rage.

To be sure, griping about ice is nothing new. “It’s a recurring angst that crops up whenever there is an economic downturn,” said Laurence Booth, professor of finance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. As inflation sounds and prices go crazy, it’s only natural, Booth said, for consumers to want to make sure they’re not being shortchanged.

When the cost of special “off menu” margaritas in Little Italy rang in earlier this summer at more than $22 a pop, customers started thinking about bang for their buck and took to the internet to vent about what one commenter called “predatory pricing.”

Their concerns aren’t entirely unwarranted. Businesses, Booth said, have been known to try to “squeeze a little more money out of consumers when times get difficult.” We’ve all heard about “shrinkflation,” and Booth said that’s not new either. During recessions food companies do shrink the size of chocolate bars, put less cereal in boxes and add more air to bags of potato chips.

It follows that diners might wonder if restaurants are applying that same kind of shrinkage to their drink. And when faced with higher costs — plus the 10 to 25 percent suggested tip options that pop up on almost every debit machine at checkout these days — consumers might just push back by requesting low or no ice.

Some businesses are responding in their own way. Another recent Reddit thread started with a photograph of a sign at a US coffee shop listing surcharges for less ice or no ice. Then there is the subtler approach. A server at one café in Toronto’s east end, a quaint boîte that also serves food, advises customers who request less ice that they’ll get less drink along with it.

It’s easy to see why a restaurant industry struggling to recover from COVID might be looking for ways of saving a buck or two, suggested Cyrus Cooper, professor and program co-ordinator at Centennial College School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts. Eateries are still closing on Mondays and even Tuesdays. Some menus are shorter and chefs are using more local ingredients that aren’t as expensive to come by because they don’t need to travel as far.

Cramming glasses with ice — in order to use less milk or soda syrup or alcohol — is indeed another way for restaurants to save 25 or 50 cents per drink, Cooper said, and that can add up. But he doubts businesses are actually doing that. “It’s just a bad strategy,” he said. “In 2022, having the share of someone’s wallet is paramount and you don’t want to give a guest any excuse to go to the competition.”

In the past, when the ice rage issue came up, the industry tried to smooth tensions in a variety of ways, Cooper said, with servers asking diners if — and how much — ice they desired and casual restaurants giving customers the soda can along with their cup of ice. Many lower-end chains offer free refills as a sign of goodwill and to make customers feel they’re getting good value. Fast-food chains have machines calibrated to dispense just the right amount of ice.

To that end, what customers really need to know about ice, Cooper said, is that it’s not about the amount per se, but about finding the right mix of frozen water to the other ingredients. “Believe it or not,” he said, “it’s all about balance.”

At higher-end restaurants, when it comes to alcoholic drinks, he said, bartenders are taught to fill the glass full of ice because that is what keeps drinks at the right temperature and from diluting too quickly. Put too few ice cubes in a cocktail or mixed drink, Cooper said, and it will actually turn watery.

While there’s no alcohol in Starbucks drinks, the drinks they do serve are protected from a similar fate by being “built to a standard recipe,” communications manager Leanna Rizzi wrote to the Star in an email. That means there is always a set amount of ice for every size of beverage. The chain’s baristas actually use standardized ice scoops that vary “per beverage size,” she writes, adding that customers are welcome to choose the level of ice in their drinks — be it “no ice,” “light ice,” or “extra ice .” And if, for whatever reason, they remain unsatisfied with their drink, Rizzi wrote, the barista will gladly remake it.

Mitch, a server at the Haifa Room, a trendy new restaurant at the corner of Ossington and Dundas streets in downtown Toronto, is no stranger to the ice do-over. Or the ice rage. Throughout her five years in the industry, she said, she’s certainly been on the receiving end of the frozen-water vitriol and said it is n’t pleasant. But she’s never gotten an earful over a drink with too much ice, she said. “They usually complain about not having enough.”

Michele Henry is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star, writing health and education stories. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry


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